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Long wait's over: Hogs return after unexpected exit

by Bob Holt | November 25, 2020 at 2:51 a.m.
Arkansas guard Desi Sills (3) reacts following a 86-73 win against Vanderbilt, Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Check out http://nwamedia.photoshelter.com/ for todayÕs photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas basketball team was preparing to play its second-round game against South Carolina in Nashville, Tenn., last spring when the shocking announcement came down that the remainder of the SEC Tournament had been canceled.

Within a day, all of college and pro sports were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Arkansas had started what it hoped would be a long postseason run with an 86-73 victory over Vanderbilt in the Razorbacks' SEC Tournament opener March 11. Instead, the Razorbacks season was over with a 20-12 record and thoughts of what might have been.

Now 259 days later, Arkansas is ready to open the 2020-21 season against Mississippi Valley State at 6:30 tonight in Walton Arena.

"We have a chip on our shoulder," said Razorbacks junior guard Desi Sills, who scored 20 points against Vanderbilt in last season's finale. "We haven't played in eight months, so the main goal is to get out there and give it our all versus Mississippi Valley State."

Arkansas freshman guard Khalen Robinson smiled when asked whether the team is ready to open the season.

"We've been ready for a month now," Robinson said. "I really can't wait to play. All the work that we've been putting in the last couple of months and finally being able to take that and put it against another team, it's going to be exciting."

Robinson is one of 10 scholarship newcomers on the Razorbacks' roster, including three senior graduate transfers: guard Jalen Tate, and forwards Vance Jackson and Justin Smith.

"We've got so many new faces," Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said. "We've got to figure out who we are. That's a really, really important factor for us right now."

Three SEC teams -- Tennessee, Florida and Ole Miss -- already have shut down practice or canceled games because of covid-19 issues. Duke, Baylor, Arizona, Syracuse, Creighton, Texas A&M and Wichita State have done the same.

The Ivy League canceled the entire season.

"The bottom line is there are games not happening, so we just want to play," Musselman said. "Let's get to the game. Let's play. Let's get a jump ball. That's all I'm really concerned with right now."

Tate was the MVP of the Horizon League Tournament last season when he played for Northern Kentucky. The Norse earned an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, but then the event was canceled for the first time in its 81-year history.

"With the season ending the way it did last year for everybody -- even the high school guys didn't really get to finish their season out with their state tournaments as well -- it's definitely great to get back out there," Tate said. "You don't want to speak too soon. It's like, is it really going to happen?

"Is it going to happen the way corona's been happening? You're seeing all these teams getting games canceled. Hopefully we can get out there and play as many games as we can."

Mississippi Valley State was 3-27 last season. Going into this season, the team is ranked last nationally by Kenpom.com -- a college basketball analytics website -- at No. 357.

"It's a faceless opponent," Tate said of the Razorbacks not overlooking any team. "We're going to come out here and treat them like they're the No. 1 team in the country.

"We're going to play as hard as we can. Just try to stick to the scouting report the coaching staff has put together for us."

Mississippi Valley State is coached by Lindsey Hunter, a first-round NBA Draft pick by Detroit in 1993 -- No. 10 overall -- after he averaged 26.4 points as a senior at Jackson State.

Hunter, in his second season at Mississippi Valley State, played 17 seasons in the NBA and had career averages of 8.5 points and 2.7 assists.

"Our paths have crossed a few times," Musselman said of his days as an NBA head coach and assistant who faced Hunter. "He had a great reputation as a player.

"You know he could score the ball, could find open teammates, was a great competitor. And any time you last more than 10 years in any pro league, you've got to be a great locker room guy."

Mississippi Valley State 5-11 sophomore guard Caleb Hunter -- Lindsey Hunter's son -- averaged 15.7 points last season when he was the Southwestern Athletic Conference Newcomer of the Year.

"Hunter had a great freshman year, so he's obviously been a focal point of our preparation, and then they have a lot of junior-college transfers," Musselman said. "And they play really, really fast. They try to get the ball up and score in the first 12 seconds. So transition defense is going to have to be a must."

Musselman said the Razorbacks have had intense practices throughout the preseason. He wasn't planning to tell the players who is starting tonight until after Tuesday's practice.

"The competition is definitely fierce when it comes to practice," Tate said. "Guys are wanting to prove themselves. When it comes to those [starting] spots, you've really got to bring it every single day, because everybody wants to play a lot."

With the losses of four starters from last season -- notably Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe, who combined to average 38.9 points -- the Razorbacks have been picked to finish between sixth and eighth in the SEC in several preseason polls. Kenpom.com ranks then 54th nationally.

Jones, who averaged an SEC-leading 22.0 points as a junior and signed a free agent deal with Houston, entered the draft in April and never wavered in his desire to turn pro.

Joe, who hit 307 three-point baskets in two seasons at Arkansas, entered the draft, then withdrew, resulting in the Razorbacks being in some preseason top 25 polls.

When Joe put his name back in on the last day allowed in late August -- he was a second-round pick by the Philadelphia 76ers -- the Razorbacks fell out of those polls.

"I mean, losing Isaiah, it hurt," Sills said. "But at the end of the day, we've got guys who will step up. We're all looking forward to getting back in the top 25 conversation. That's the main goal."

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ARKANSAS MEN VS MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE

WHEN 6:30 p.m. today

WHERE Walton Arena

RADIO Razorback Sports Network

TV None

INTERNET SEC Network-Plus

COACHES Arkansas Eric Musselman (20-12 in second season at Arkansas). Mississippi Valley State Lindsey Hunter (3-27 in second season at MSVU)

SERIES Arkansas leads 5-0

NOTEWORTHY The Razorbacks have won 45 consecutive home openers, including 27 in Walton Arena, and 46 of their past 49 season openers. … Including walk-ons, Arkansas has an NCAA-high of 12 newcomers with four graduate transfers, three redshirt transfers and five freshmen. … Graduate transfer Vance Jackson (New Mexico) is 10 points shy of 1,000 career points. … Arkansas has hit at least one three-pointer in 1,043 consecutive games to rank third behind UNLV (1,102) and Duke (1,090).

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