It wasn’t pretty, but the Hogs are 10-1.
The Hogs’ defense made the trip to Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock, but the offense was inconsistent all night against a pesky Valparaiso team. The Crusaders are no pushovers: at 7-6, they’re probably one of the better teams in the Missouri Valley Conference. At 140th in adjusted scoring margin, only Tulsa, Western Kentucky, and Northern Kentucky are better among opponents Arkansas has already played.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the night for me was that a school called the Valparaiso Crusaders is not, in fact, Catholic. They’re Lutheran. Does anyone else find this bizarre? Lutheranism didn’t come about until 200 years after the Crusades were over, and was very heavily (and negatively) influenced by them.
Either way, the Crusaders in North Little Rock met the same fate as the ones in Outremer, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Arkansas jumped to an 18-5 lead behind strong shooting and an impressive crowd (officially 15,600, but it looked and sounded louder). But Valpo’s defensive gameplan routinely disrupted the Hogs after that. Valpo’s defense is built similarly to Arkansas’: sticky man defense designed to chase shooters off the perimeter and force turnovers. They’re one of the nation’s elite turnover-forcing teams, but their weakness is that teams can shoot high percentages against them: they entered the game 262nd in three-point defense and 313th in two-point defense. But NLR’s famously-unkind rims kept either team from shooting well.
Valpo seemed more interesting in harassing Mason Jones as opposed to Isaiah Joe. Though this left Joe with more opportunities (21 points on 5 of 14 from beyond the arc), it proved to be a good strategy. The Crusaders denied dribble penetration from Arkansas’ guards and fought through high ball screens. The Hogs dribbled the ball way too much, and the Crusaders were able to force 19 turnovers. The aggressive approach had it drawbacks: the Crusaders committed a ton of blocking and reach-in fouls, keeping them in foul trouble throughout. For the first 35 minutes, it looked that the trade-off would work, as the Hogs started 10 of 20 from the free-throw line. But the Hogs hit 10 of 11 at the stripe to close the game, and a tired and foul-plagued Valpo defense was unable to stick to Jones during the final few minutes.
After the Hogs built an 18-5 lead, a combination of bizarre officiating and uncharacteristically-bad defense for the Hogs helped Valpo close the first half with a flurry to take a 34-32 lead into the locker room. Valpo ended the half on a 29-14 run over the final 12 minutes, and Eric Musselman earned his second technical foul of the season for arguing with a no-call that saw Adrio Bailey slammed into scorer’s table. The Hogs got a draw over the first eight minutes of the second half, but things looked dicey when Jones picked up his fourth foul with about 12 minutes left. Valpo then went on a small run and it looked like the Hogs might be headed for their second loss.
In a rare move, Joe took over ball-handling duties at that point. Down 59-51 with under eight minutes left, Joe hit a huge 3 to pull the Hogs within five. It was part of a 7-0 run to get the game within one point. Down 65-62 with just under two minutes to go, Jones took over. A 3-pointer tied the game, then a 3 with under a minute gave the Hogs their first lead since late in the first half. Up 68-65, Bailey had the play of the game, a monster block at the rim that gave the ball back to the Hogs. From there, four free throws sealed a 72-68 win.
Jones finished with 20 points and 9 boards, scoring 8 points in the final two minutes. He played the last 10 minutes with four fouls. The Hogs missed Desi Sills (4 points), who left the game late in the first half with an injury. Jimmy Whitt (10 points) had an up-and-down game, as Valpo mostly took away his trademark mid-range jumper. Part of Arkansas’ plan to attack Valpo was to get the ball to Bailey and Reggie Chaney on the high post and let them drive. Although it worked to draw fouls, the pair were just 2 of 8 on free throws on fouls drawn on that play. They weren’t able to actually get any of their field goals to go in. Bailey hit two other 3’s and finished with 10 points and 4 blocks.
What it all means
The Hogs will have a happy Christmas with a 10-1 record, but there’s still a lot to work on. Nineteen turnovers weren’t great. Going 11 of 25 inside the arc against the 313th-ranked two-point defense is really bad. And where the offense will come from when opponents harass Mason Jones is a major question going forward.
Up next is a road game against Indiana. The Hoosiers are 22nd in adjusted scoring margin, meaning that the Hogs will be serious underdogs. It’s hardly a must-win game at this point, but it would be a nice win if the Hogs want a shot to make the NCAA Tournament.