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Razorbacks basketball winning despite struggling

by Bob Holt | November 1, 2021 at 2:02 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Considering the Arkansas Razorbacks are ranked No. 16 in The Associated Press preseason poll, their struggles to win two exhibition games have been a surprise.

The University of Arkansas extended its winning streak in exhibitions to 34 games, but the Razorbacks showed they have plenty to work on in beating East Central (Okla.) University 77-74 and North Texas 68-60.

Arkansas was down 14 points with 11 minutes left against East Central, an NCAA Division II team, last Sunday before rallying, and the Tigers missed a last-second three-point shot that would have tied the game.

The Razorbacks had an 18-0 run in the first half against North Texas to take a 30-13 lead, but the Mean Green closed within 56-53 with 4:06 left before Arkansas held on to win on Saturday.

"If you're asking me if they have enough talent? Yes, it looks like to me," North Texas Coach Grant McCasland said when asked if he believes Arkansas is a top 25 team. "But they don't have the same identity that they did last year at this point.

"They still have a lot of pieces to figure out, but I don't think there's any doubt that they will figure it out."

Arkansas lost four of its top six scorers from last season's 25-7 team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, including Moses Moody, a first-team All-SEC pick and the No. 14 overall pick of the NBA Draft.

Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman and his staff have added seven newcomers to a group of five returnees.

Some players missing preseason practices because of injuries also has impacted the coaches sorting out roles. Arkansas didn't have its full roster available for either game.

Junior forward Kamani Johnson, a transfer from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, missed both games because of a wrist injury.

Jaylin Williams, a sophomore forward, didn't play against North Texas because of back spasms.

Senior forward Trey Wade, a transfer from Wichita State, played against North Texas after missing the East Central game as he continued recovering from a knee injury.

Musselman said he hopes to have all of the Razorbacks available for the season opener against Mercer on Nov. 9.

"It's a chance to get better," Arkansas senior guard JD Notae said of the exhibitions. "We've got film on two games.

"I feel like the first game, we kind of played a little slow. Second game we played faster. We got up and down a little more.

"I feel like it was a good test for us before our real game versus Mercer, so we're just going to keep getting better each and every day during these practices. We're just going to keep grinding."

Notae, the Razorbacks' leading returning scorer at 12.8 points per game, led Arkansas with 21 points on Saturday. He also had a team-high 16 points when the Razorbacks beat the Mean Green 69-54 last season in their second game.

"You could tell the difference [in Notae] from the first time we played him to now," McCasland said. "It looks like he's got a clear expectation of winning -- not just playing.

"When we played them last year, I thought he was just kind of out there scoring. I felt like he was really dialed in to winning this time around. Defensively, he beat our guys to some spots. I was really impressed with his improvement. They've done a fantastic job with him."

Sophomore guard KK Robinson, who played the first 11 games last year before undergoing season-ending foot surgery and has been limited in practice at times, had a team-high 4 assists with 1 turnover in 18 minutes off the bench against North Texas.

Robinson got some of the minutes that normally would have gone to Davonte Davis, who played 20 minutes before fouling out and finished with 7 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists.

"KK works every day," Musselman said. "I mean, he's a worker. ... I thought he played solid for us, tried to direct traffic for us as well."

When Arkansas beat North Texas last season, Davis and Williams didn't play. They were healthy, but Musselman didn't feel as freshmen they were ready to play yet.

By the end of the season, Davis and Williams both were starting in NCAA Tournament games.

"When you only practice against yourself, you can't really make the improvement you need to make," McCasland said. 'You need to play other people that play different defenses, that play different ways and where you can get different lineups out there and they can get experience and comfort playing together.

"You just can't do it unless you're playing games. I'd love to tell you different, but you just can't."

Print Headline: Arkansas winning despite struggling

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