The No. 9 Arkansas Razorbacks face South Dakota State on Wednesday, and as the Jackrabbits enter Bud Walton Arena 1-1, Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman makes sure not to overlook his opponent.
“South Dakota State is not a well-coached team, it’s an excellently coached basketball team,” Musselman said. “They have a lot of skilled position players.”
Eric Henderson is the main man for the Jackrabbits and led the team to 30 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance last season. Despite losing Baylor Scheierman to the transfer portal during the off-season, South Dakota State was projected to finish second in the Summit League, behind only Oral Roberts. The team also had two first-team preseason All-Summit selections in Luke Appel and Zeke Mayo.
Appel, reigning Summit Sixth Man of the Year, has yet to play this season, but Mayo is currently averaging 13.0 points and 5.5 rebounds. However, Musselman prepares for Appel to be back against the Hogs Wednesday.
“And then we assume that Appel will come back or almost come back,” Musselman said. “No. 13, who will be one of their best returning players who haven’t played in their first two games. But he was expected to play in our game on Wednesday.”
The Jackrabbits have shown in their first two games that they have plenty of playmakers outside their two first-team squads, as noted by Musselman.
“34, (Alex) Arians, he’s a southpaw, he’s got great toughness,” Musselman said. “He can make open threes. He has a pull-up game from the bounce mid-range. Mayo, No. 2, a primary scorer. He can create his own shot. Has a large range. He has a deep, deep, deep reach. Easley, No. 30 in the small forward spot, can really shoot the ball.
While the numbers don’t show early this season, the South Dakota State team is full of shooters. In two games this season, Arians is 0-for-3 from outside, but shot 49.3% from last season, averaging just over two tries per game. Similarly, Easley is only 1-of-5 on 20% this season, but last year shot 50.0% from outside the arc with 2.7 tries per game. Mayo shot 41.5% with 3.9 tries from range last year, but has made just 4-of-13 this season for 30.8%.
Arkansas has allowed its opponents to shoot just a combined 23.7% from three shots so far this season. Regardless of South Dakota State’s percentages this season, the threat comes from the outside and will really test the Razorbacks’ three-point defense that was so strong to begin with.
Talented, tricky and an outside threat, this Jackrabbits team is also coming off a quality road win at Boise State. Before that, they lost on the road at Akron in overtime by one point.
“It’s a unique perspective, at least from my seat,” Musselman said, “because Akron and their staff and Coach (John) Groce, John and I talk, we’re friends.
“And then you add in Coach (Leon) Rice and Boise State, we have an incredible amount of respect for Boise State. And I know how hard it is to win in that building, because we had to try for four years.”
Musselman later noted that Arkansas was one of those teams that was upset at home last season (Hofstra in Little Rock), and anything can happen in college athletics.
“We were one of those teams last year,” Musselman said. “Look, the way athletics are in college in basketball, baseball, football, anyone can beat anyone. We see it daily. The transfer thing has changed this dramatically.
“I mean I look at the South Dakota State team and look at the pieces they have back, whether it’s number 13 Apple, whether it’s number 32, Dentlinger, whether it’s number 34, Arians, whether it’s 2 is Mayo. These guys played on a 30 win team. They know how to win. They know how to win along the way. We have six freshmen and eleven new players, so we have to play at a high level where you can win these kinds of games. It’s just not happening. And we scheduled South Dakota State because we believe they can win their conference.
The Hogs and Jackrabbits will tip off Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT at the Bud Walton Arena. The game will be streamed on the SEC Network Plus.