‘Step backwards’ disappoints Musselman

Arkansas forward Makhel Mitchell (bottom) battles for a loose ball with Tennessee forward Jonas Aidoo during the second half of Tuesday’s SEC men’s basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn. The Razorbacks lost 75-57 and have dropped four of their past six games.
(AP/Wade Payne)
Arkansas forward Makhel Mitchell (bottom) battles for a loose ball with Tennessee forward Jonas Aidoo during the second half of Tuesday’s SEC men’s basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn. The Razorbacks lost 75-57 and have dropped four of their past six games. (AP/Wade Payne)

FAYETTEVILLE -- University of Arkansas men's basketball Coach Eric Musselman was full of praise for Tennessee's defense on the UA's pregame radio show before the Razorbacks played the No. 12 Volunteers on Tuesday night.

Musselman raved about the Vols' ability to play physical on defense and create steals.

"They're a great defensive team," Musselman said, "probably the best defensive team in the country."

Unfortunately for Musselman and the Razorbacks, his pregame comments were on target.

Tennessee made it tough for Arkansas to get anything going on offense and the Vols beat the Razorbacks 75-57 at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.

"Yeah, I would say it's the best defensive team we've played," Musselman said.

The Razorbacks (19-11, 8-9 SEC) came into the game shooting 48.2% to lead the SEC, but they were held to 36.7% (18 of 49) against the Vols.

Tennessee (22-8, 11-6) ranks second nationally in field goal defense (35.9%) behind No. 1 Houston (35.85) and third in scoring defense (56.7 points allowed per game) behind Houston (55.9) and North Texas (56.3).

"Certainly you have to credit Coach [Rick] Barnes and credit Tennessee," Musselman said of the defensive numbers.

Arkansas also had trouble holding onto the ball as it had 16 turnovers, including 11 steals by the Vols.

Several of the Razorbacks' turnovers came on bad passes -- self-inflicted wounds as Musselman calls unforced errors.

"I thought Tennessee was much more physical than us," Musselman said on Arkansas' postgame radio show. "We didn't play up to the standards that we set the last three years. Disappointing loss for sure."

The 18-point loss -- and the Vols led by as many as 24 points -- was the most-lopsided of the season for the Razorbacks.

Arkansas' previous most-lopsided loss had been by 15 points -- 84-69 at home to No. 2 Alabama on Jan. 11. That also is the Razorbacks' largest margin in a home loss in Musselman's four seasons.

Freshman guard Nick Smith, back from a knee management issue after missing 19 games, scored 24 points for the Razorbacks in their 86-83 loss at Alabama last Saturday.

It was the seventh loss for Arkansas by six or fewer points.

But the Razorbacks never had the lead at Tennessee (22-8, 11-6), where Arkansas hasn't won since 2017 and lost on its past five visits.

Freshman guard Anthony Black and junior guard Davonte Davis led Arkansas with 13 points each and Smith added 12 and junior guard Ricky Council 11. The four also combined for 13 turnovers.

"We took a step backwards [Tuesday night], there's no question," Musselman said. "Both as a team and individually, we took several steps backwards.

"And so we'll get back and try to prepare for Kentucky."

The Razorbacks play their regular-season finale against No. 23 Kentucky at 1 p.m. Saturday at Walton Arena. CBS will televise the game.

After taking a mandatory day off Wednesday following a Tuesday night game, the Razorbacks will resume practice today.

"We'll continue to do what we've done with all of our teams and go back and prepare," Musselman said. "We've got to do a better job, obviously.

"But the only thing I know is to go back to work and continue to try to improve."

When Tennessee took a 34-25 halftime lead, the Vols had an 8-1 advantage in offensive rebounds and outscored the Razorbacks 12-0 in second-chance points.

"Their loose ball game, the rebounding game, the screen setting was much more forceful than ours," Musselman said.

Zakai Zeigler, the Vols' 5-9 sophomore point guard, suffered a knee injury and played just 2:54 against the Razorbacks.

Tennessee announced Wednesday that Zeigler tore his left anterior cruciate ligament and will miss the rest of the season.

Josiah-Jordan James, a 6-6 senior in his second game back from an ankle injury, replaced Zeigler and played 29 minutes.

Tennessee starting 6-3 senior guard Santiago Vescovi became the Vols' primary ball-handler and played 38 minutes. Jahmai Mashack, a 6-4 sophomore, played 23 minutes.

James, Mashack and Vescovi combined for 31 points, 10 rebounds and 9 steals.

"When Zeigler got hurt, they became longer, bigger, taller, and more physical probably," Musselman said. "They completely out-physicaled us, there's no doubt about it."

Tennessee leads the nation in three-point defense at 25.1%, but the Razorbacks hit 8 of 22 three-pointers, including 3 of 7 by Davis and 2 of 4 by Council.

The surprisingly good three-point shooting wasn't nearly enough to overcome Tennessee having a 42-18 advantage on points in the paint.

Other ugly numbers for the Razorbacks were shooting 59.1% on free throws (13 of 22) and the Vols shooting 50% from the field (27 of 54).

"We didn't finish at the rim," Musselman said on Arkansas' postgame radio show. "We didn't attack the rim.

"We haven't been a very good cutting team all year. We'll continue to talk about it in practice until we play our last game. But we have a lot of guys that stand.

"That's our responsibility as a staff. ... We've got to continue to work and get guys to understand the importance of not standing so the defense can't load to the ball."

Musselman often starts to focus on the next opponent immediately after a game ends, but he said on the radio he couldn't do that Tuesday night.

"I'm not really thinking about Kentucky right now," he said. " Obviously I will on the plane [ride home], but right now I'm extremely disappointed with many different factors in the game against Tennessee."

Up next



WHEN 1 p.m. Saturday

WHERE Walton Arena, Fayetteville

RECORDS Kentucky 20-9, 11-5 SEC; Arkansas 19-11, 8-9


RADIO Razorback Sports Network

  photo  Arkansas men’s Coach Eric Musselman (above) said Tennessee was the more physical team in Tuesday’s game at Knoxville, Tenn. The Razorbacks never led in a 75-57 loss to the Volunteers. (AP/Wade Payne)

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