After two consecutive overtime losses, the Razorbacks traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee to take on the Volunteers. The Hogs would once again be without the services of deadeye shooter, Isaiah Joe. Throughout the day before tip-off, rumors of a Mason Jones suspension hung in the air after a sideline altercation with head coach, Eric Musselman. It was announced within 30 minutes of the start of the game that Jones would in fact play, but he would come off the bench. Musselman referred to this as a strategic move to get more scoring off the bench, but it’s a hard pill to swallow when you move the SEC leading scorer and player of the year candidate to the bench to “shake things up.” Regardless, Jones spent less than 3:00 on the bench to open the game before checking in. He then proceeded to go 1-10 on FGs and score only 9 points.
Whether or not the change in the gameplan had anything to do with this poor performance is left open for interpretation. The team as a whole did themselves no favors as they lost almost every single stat category. They were outrebounded, out-assisted, out-shot, and out played. The Hogs committed more turnovers than the Vol’s, and were nearly tripled in the assists category, losing 6-17. The game was ugly from start to finish for the Razorbacks. After Jimmy Whitt hit a free throw to make the game score 6-8 with 14:53 showing on the clock, the Hogs would not score again until the score was 6-16 and only 9:00 remained in the first half. Those kind of scoring droughts have happened far too often for this Razorback team.
What’s Wrong with the Razorbacks?
The loss to Tennessee marks the largest margin of defeat for the Razorbacks all season. More importantly, it handed the Hogs their sixth loss in their last eight games. After starting the season 14-2, what has changed so drastically to cause the Hogs so much struggle as of late? The fan-base has been quick to jump to the conclusion that the starters are playing too many minutes and getting tired. While this is a valid argument, I don’t think it’s the only, or the biggest, cause of the Razorback’s struggles.
It doesn’t take an expert to see that losing a potential NBA prospect to injury makes your team worse. However, it does take a little digging to see exactly how much Joe’s impact has been missed.
First and foremost, his scoring abilities could have easily made the difference in several losses suffered during his absence. He has been more streaky than usual this season, but that has not stopped him from racking up 16 points per game when healthy. That’s a lot of points in a league where 65 points can be enough to win games.
More importantly than his own scoring however, is his lack of presence on the opponent’s game plan. Without Joe on the court to spread the defense, the jobs of Mason Jones and Jimmy Whitt became exponentially harder. Jones responded well early, becoming the first Hog to go for three consecutive games scoring 30 or more. Whitt on the other hand, fizzled out fast. Through three games without Joe, Whitt has averaged only 11 points, including a zero point outing against Auburn. Jones, thankful, has been able to pick up the slack in most games. Recently though, teams have been able to game plan specifically for him. They play physical defense, help hard on drives, and try to prevent him from getting to the FT line. With no other consistent shooters on the court and an offense that stalls early and often, there’s not much more Mason can do.
This aspect of Joe’s game was not talked about enough. While he is not known for being a lock down defender, Joe is still a 6’5 athlete capable of getting in passing lanes, contesting shots, and taking charges. He’s second on the team averaging 1.4 steals per game, and while I don’t have the official numbers, I know he has to be amongst the best at taking charges. He always puts himself in good position. Perhaps more importantly than any of those things is the combination of size and quickness Joe’s absence brings. Without Joe, Sills (6’1) and Harris (6’2) are seeing more action. While both are quick and pesky defenders, it’s hard for them to account for the missing 6’5 frame Joe brings to the table. While Reggie Chaney has been phenomenal as of late, his lack of quickness and defensive IQ leaves room for improvement.
Razorbacks Caught in Perfect Storm
I’m not saying the Joe’s absence is the one and only reason for the Hogs recent success, but I do believe it indirectly accounts for most of the team’s struggles. Fatigue may also be a huge factor, but yet again, Isaiah Joe’s able body takes some pressure and minutes away from the other starters. The combination of Joe’s injury, the lack of depth, tough stretch of games, and high minutes being played has the Razorbacks’ season spiraling down.
What’s it going to take for them to get back on track? I wish there was a solid answer. The best I can come up with however, is patience. Isaiah Joe may come back before the SEC tournament starts. Will he be back to his old self immediately? Probably not, but another able body and shooter can’t hurt. The depth issue isn’t going anywhere for the rest of this season, so that issue will require the most patience. As for the strength of schedule ahead, no SEC games are given, but the road is looking a little brighter than it’s been.
The Hogs are favored to win all of their remaining games other than their trip to Gator country where they will face Florida. I find it very unlikely that Musselman and this team will go seven more games without a win. Sit back. Breathe. And realize that the Hogs have already surpassed expectations. Understand that anything from here on out is a bonus. Appreciate the amount of fight this undersized and outmanned team plays with. And most importantly, support through thick and thin. Woo pig forever.
Razorbacks Road Ahead
Mississippi State – 15-9 (6-5)
@ Florida – 14-9 (6-4)
Missouri – 11-13 (3-8)
Tennessee – 14-10 (6-5)
@ Georgia – 12-11 (2-8)
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