Close up shot of a basketball showing the seams

Close up shot of a basketball showing the black seams

Tusk to Tail: Notes on repairs needed for the Muss Bus

At the end of the first month of the Southeastern Conference basketball schedule, the “Check Engine” light has come on for the Muss Bus. Wednesday’s ugly home loss to South Carolina (12-8 overall, 4-3 SEC) was the third straight conference loss for Arkansas (15-5, 3-4) before a tough trip to Tuscaloosa Saturday. The steadily improving Crimson Tide (12-8, 4-3) are 8-1 at home.

People react differently when the “Check Engine” light comes on in their car. If you are like our friend Craig, known as the Godfather of Tailgating, there is little cause for concern. Keep on keeping on, and maybe the light will go off on its own. There is no reason to fix anything before March. This is fine.

Dale, on the other hand, believes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Our tailgating tactician has a laser beam focus on efficiency and effectiveness. The “Check Engine” light would already be viewed as a sign of failure, something unexpected that must be immediately corrected.

Based on his interviews and ceaseless social media campaigns, it seems like Coach Eric Musselman falls into the meticulous category along with Dale. The Head hog leaves no stone unturned when looking to improve his team. If this year’s model of the Muss Bus were hooked up to a mechanic’s diagnostic computer, what symptoms would accompany the recent three-game conference skid? What repairs are needed before the post season?

• Rebounding
If you have watched at least five minutes of Razorbacks basketball this season, you have probably heard the announcers talk about the Hogs’ disparity in rebounds. LSU dominated Arkansas on the boards 53-24, but there has been some improvement in the losses that followed. Kentucky had an 18-rebound advantage, 47-29, while Arkansas cut the gap to 10 at Mississippi State, 41-31. Against all odds, the Hogs and Gamecocks each had 36 rebounds in Fayetteville this week, with Arkansas having a 9-7 advantage in second chance points.

Recommended action: Continue monitoring, but no further adjustments required at this time. The Razorbacks are a compact model in a conference of full-size SUVs. The Hog’s tallest starter is 6’6” senior forward Adrio Bailey, so it stands to reason that the taller teams will snag more boards. Arkansas has done well to close the rebounding gap recently, though it hasn’t necessarily resulted in victory. That’s because the Hogs’ scoring tends to come from other areas. Which leads us to …

• Turnovers/points off turnovers
Arkansas has used tenacious defense to overcome its rebounding disadvantage. During the SEC losing streak, however, the turnover margin has been steadily trending downward. The Hogs lost the ball six fewer times than LSU (7-13), five less than Kentucky (11-16), and four below Mississippi State (9-4). The Bulldogs finished with a rare 10-9 advantage over the Hogs in points off turnovers. South Carolina and Arkansas had 16 turnovers apiece, creating a remarkable 17-5 advantage in fast break points for the Gamecocks.

Recommended action: Repair/replace immediately. It was a sloppy game with little offensive rhythm, due at least in part to overzealous officiating on both sides of the court. But the key to South Carolina’s victory was converting their opponent’s turnovers into fast break baskets. That’s right out of Muss’ playbook. If Arkansas continues to lose the turnover margin and allows more fast break scoring to the opposition, there will be more ugly losses like the one on Wednesday night.

• Shooting
The Kentucky loss may have established the blueprint for beating Arkansas. First, don’t ever allow sophomore guard Isaiah Joe to catch and shoot the ball from anywhere. Always keep a hand in his face. Likewise, take away guard Jimmy Whitt Jr.’s midrange game by keeping bigger bodies on him inside. The strategy may allow the occasional 34-point explosion by junior guard Mason Jones as it did against the Gamecocks, but that can be overcome by keeping the others in check.

Recommended action: Complete overhaul. A major factor during the Hog’s early success this season was surprising opponents with Joe’s willingness to shoot from just about anywhere beyond the perimeter. If the defense wouldn’t come out and challenge him, Joe would drain a three-pointer from about Pocahontas inside the midcourt outline of the state. Those opportunities have begun to dry up, and Joe’s field goal percentage has dropped accordingly.  Arkansas has only made 24% of their 3-point shots in the past two losses. If the long ball isn’t making it, the Razorbacks have to find another way to score.

• Free throws
One final trend that has been consistent over the course of the Hogs’ SEC losing streak is missing free throws. It seemed uncharacteristic when Arkansas only made 20 of 30 FTs against Kentucky. The Razorbacks got worse in the next two losses, shooting 54.5% at Mississippi State, and missing 14 of 40 against the Gamecocks.

Recommended action: Rest and recharge. This team isn’t good enough to give up free points. The SEC schedule is a grind, and the Hogs are starting to show signs of wear and tear. Joe missed the game against TCU and came off the bench to play South Carolina due to knee inflammation. Bailey and guard Desi Sills have both gone down hard with injuries, only to return later in the game. To win games and advance in the postseason, making free throws has to be a top priority.

Tusk to Tail is still riding high on the Muss Buss.  With just a few minor adjustments, we hope Coach can keep this year’s model rolling through March.

Editor’s note: Now in its eighth year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.

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