Tusk to Tail: Of dogs and cats and deer and torture
“Sometimes you can tell right away when it isn’t your team’s day … and that’s the worst part, not just the epiphany but everything that follows – every botched play, every turnover, every instance where someone on your team quits, every ‘deer in the headlights’ look, every time an announcer says, ‘They can’t get anything going,’ every shot of the opponents celebrating, every time you look at the score and think to yourself, ‘Well, if we score here and force a turnover, maybe we’ll get some momentum,’ but you know it’s not going to happen, because you’re already 30 points down … you just want it to end, and it won’t end … but you can’t look away … it’s the sports fan’s equivalent to a three-hour torture session.”
– “The 13 Levels of Losing,” by Bill Simmons
That escalated quickly. This time last week, Tusk to Tail was celebrating moral victories. Now, I am quoting Simmons’ entry for “The Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking” from a story posted nearly 18 years ago ranking gut-wrenching losses.
It’s been that kind of week.
It seems like most of 2020 thus far has been spent feeling sick and tired of the weather, if not literally sick and tired. If there can be dog days of summer, I would argue that these are the cat days of winter. You may be ready to get up and move on to Spring, but they don’t care. They will just sit right here and do as they please.
The weekend started crappily enough when the Hogs traveled to Missouri to play the Tigers. Arkansas was already missing its best outside shooter, Sophomore guard Isaiah Joe, who was recuperating from knee surgery. Senior guard Jimmy Whitt Jr. was also a gametime decision with a bad back. At least that helped explain Whitt’s zero-point performance in the overtime loss to Auburn earlier in the week. Thankfully Whitt was able to go against Mizzou. Otherwise, the Razorbacks would effectively be playing three against five due to their lack of depth.
As long as one of ours was Junior guard Mason Jones, we reasoned, the Hogs might just be OK. Jones is the SEC’s leading scorer, also leading Arkansas in rebounds, assists, and steals. He is the first Razorback to ever score 30 or more in three straight games, and joined Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks and LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal as the only SEC players with multiple 40-point games over the last 30 seasons.
Missouri was the 305th ranked scoring team in the country.
Unfortunately, Muss pointed out, there is one shot in basketball that cannot be defended: the free throw. The Missouri game featured a whopping 57 personal fouls called against both teams. Arkansas was whistled 32 times, allowing the Tigers to score 34 points on 44 free throws. Four Razorback players fouled out, including Jones.
Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin is known for turning games into ugly, low scoring slugfests. According to HogStats.com, Arkansas had only scored 75 points or more against his teams once in 9 previous attempts, and that had been in overtime.
Jones and the Razorbacks just never could get in rhythm. In addition to all the fouls, the Hogs committed 14 turnovers, and only made 28 of 39 of their own free throws (71.8%). Jones was face guarded every time he touched the ball, and it was clear that he was frustrated. Jones missed all 6 of his 3-point attempts, making only 3-of-14 field goals overall. During a timeout, he was seen shouting at Coach Musselman.
The game had a few bright spots, including the 17-point, 11-rebound effort by Sophomore forward Reggie Chaney. For the first time in a game this season, five Razorbacks scored in double digits. But at the end of the day, the Hogs had lost a second consecutive game in overtime, 83-79.
It was noted after the game that Arkansas had been close in all seven losses at that point of the season. Three of the losses occurred in overtime, and every defeat was by single digits. The Razorbacks had been one of only nine Division I teams to avoid any double-digit losses.
That streak would not last much longer. There was little time for the Hogs to lick their wounds before going back on the road to Tennessee on Tuesday.
It had been rumored that Jones may be suspended for getting sideways with Muss on the Missouri sideline. Before the game, Coach confirmed that his star guard would be coming off the bench, but did not mention discipline as the reason. Muss explained that they needed a scoring punch to come in off the bench, and thought Jones could provide a spark. Whatever. Like Simmons says, you can immediately sense when your team is about to lay an egg. But like when passing a car accident, you just can’t look away. Turnovers, dozens of senseless fouls, and all the other usual suspects were on full display in Knoxville. The blueprint for beating Arkansas had been established.
As @coryw1993 tweeted, “Without Isaiah Joe, there’s no spacing and the lane stays clogged… Jimmy Whitt is almost non-existent. Mason is having to carry the team by himself offensively, and he’s clearly gassed. All teams have to do is key in on stopping Mason, and there goes our whole offense.”
@HawgHoops continued, “Whitt’s game is the paint. It’s clogged. Mason’s game is getting down hill in the paint. It’s clogged. [Sophomore guard Desi] Sills and [Junior guard Jalen] Harris don’t force the defense to guard them in the perimeter because they aren’t good enough shooters.”
The Vols administered a “full-fledged butt-kicking,” 82-61. The Razorbacks scored their lowest point total of the year, shooting a season-low 30.6 percent. The loss was the third in a row for Arkansas, and their sixth loss in the last eight games.
It would be easy to say the wheels have come off the Muss Bus, but I’m not ready to turn the page on these guys quite yet. They are still fighting hard every night. Musselman was dealt a short hand, then lost one of his aces to injury. Joe’s return is crucial for any chance of postseason success that the Hogs may have this year. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi still has the Hogs making the NCAA tournament, now in the 11-seed play-in game to determine the field of 64. Saturday’s home game against rising bubble team Mississippi State will go a long way toward determining if either can make the Big Dance.
Additionally, Razorback baseball season starts Friday with a 2 pm first pitch against Eastern Illinois. The series continues at the same time Saturday, as the basketball game is winding down. Expectations for Dave Van Horn’s seventh ranked squad are as high as ever. Anything less than a third consecutive trip to Omaha for the College World Series would be considered a disappointment. The lineup is loaded with the big bats of Casey Martin and Heston Kjerstad, as well as exciting young arms like Freshman right hander Blake Adams. Adams will get his first start Sunday against the Panthers.
TTT will be well represented at all of these games. We are anxious to flip the calendar from the cat days of winter to the Hog days of Spring.
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.