The Tennessee Volunteers have suddenly dropped four of their last five games, putting their NCAA Tournament hopes on life support. They had opportunities to pick up key wins, but dropped games in the final moments to Kansas and Kentucky, while also taking a bad loss to Texas A&M.
Arkansas sits in a similar boat, but their NCAA Tournament hope have taken on slightly less water. Still, the Razorbacks have dropped five of their last seven, tumbling to a 16-7 record after a fast start to the season.
Their worst moment may have come last weekend against Missouri, losing in overtime to the Tigers who are just 3-7 in conference play.
“Tennessee, they are really good, too,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said on last Saturday. “We are not going to win that game if we don’t go in with the right mindset and try to clean some things up in a very short time frame and get ourselves mentally right.”
Likely no Joe
Something that hasn’t helped them has been the loss of guard Isaiah Joe, who is battling a knee issue. Joe had been scoring 16 points per game, leading the team in three-point shooting before being ruled out indefinitely.
Joe is not expected to play tonight, either, but hasn’t officially been ruled out.
“Obviously they lost a key player that shoots the ball, and that you had to give a lot of attention to,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said on Monday. “But (Musselman) has done a great job. He really has. He still has them being aggressive, they’re a really terrific defensive team. They really get in that gap heavily and make plays in the gap and they really turn you over, and when they do, they’re terrific at getting out and getting those baskets and making you pay.”
No Joe leaves Mason Jones as the primary option, who has absolutely been lighting it up. Jones has scored 30 points in three of his last four games, trying to pull the Razorbacks out of their slump. The 6-5 guard can absolutely fill it up and will undoubtedly be the focus of the Tennessee defense.
Senior guard Jimmy Whitt Jr. is no slouch either, averaging 15 points on the road for Arkansas. He’s been inconsistent of late, however, scoring 7, 26, 0 and 15 in his last four games while playing full minutes. Getting some production from Whitt tonight would go a long way towards a win for the Hogs.
In the post, Arkansas is smaller than most in this league. They’re not all that different from Tennessee’s traditional starting five, which features a 6-6 Yves Pons in the post. 6-8 Reggie Chaney is playing the center spot for the Hogs, joined by 6-6 Adrio Bailey.
When we’ve seen Tennessee struggle, there’s been a constant — there’s been a lack of rebounding. That shouldn’t be the case tonight. Tennessee is a weak rebounding team, but Arkansas is abysmal, ranking 376th in the nation. For once, Tennessee might just have a clear advantage on the boards, which is something they must capitalize on.
Arkansas was out-rebounded 52-37 against Missouri a few nights ago.
Something that would help Tennessee’s cause on the boards tonight would be getting Josiah James back, who has been nursing a hip injury. The 6-6 guard was one of the leading rebounders on the team. He would also help out defensively on Mason Jones.
We’ll see if James can play later on today.
Something else to watch — will Uros Plavsic get another chance to start after playing just 11 minutes on Saturday against Kentucky? Barnes says he needs to be more physical, which he would certainly have a chance to do against these undersized Razorbacks. Plavsic has started every game that James has missed to this point.
Vegas likes the Volunteers
With Joe expected to sit and the game taking place in Knoxville, the oddsmakers favor Tennessee. The Vols are favored by 2.5 points as of Tuesday morning, a number that shouldn’t be all that surprising considering all of the factors surrounding this matchup.
Tennessee and Arkansas will tip-off at 7 p.m. ET in Knoxville on SEC Network.