Tusk to Tail: Still high on the zombiebacks
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If you’re not very familiar with Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman, it is not due to lack of access. Behind the scenes video clips of the Head Hog, as well as various quotes and soundbites are made available across multiple social media platforms almost daily.
In the latest, Coach Muss enters the locker room to find his wild band of Razorbacks celebrating their 86-69 victory over Tennessee Wednesday night in Fayetteville.
The Hogs are on a two-game winning streak, with both victories avenging recent painful losses. The Vols administered a “Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking” to the Razorbacks in Knoxville just two weeks earlier. Following a brutal string of five straight losses while Sophomore guard Isaiah Joe mended from knee surgery, Arkansas desperately needs both wins, plus about four more, to keep their hopes for making the NCAA Tournament alive.
“The coffin,” Muss began to say, before pausing to lie on the floor to illustrate his point. He proceeded to rise from an imaginary grave. “We’re back up!”
Muss’s goofy zombie analogy tracks with what the national experts and basketball media are saying. Once written off for dead, Arkansas can play themselves back into the Big Dance. One reason behind the Razorbacks’ resurgence is the return of Joe.
“Arkansas is now 17-5 with Isaiah Joe in the lineup and 1-5 when he is not,“ tweeted Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports. “Razorbacks are an NCAA caliber team when fully healthy. Eric Musselman is on track to coach in his fourth straight NCAA Tournament.”
If Joe’s return is the key to postseason success, it wasn’t obvious from the outset in his first game back. Against Missouri last Saturday. Joe’s first score came by making two free throws with 9:15 left in the first half. The star guard finished as the game’s leading scorer with 21 points. Somewhat hidden in the box score is how Joe’s return allowed others to get open and produce. Four other Razorbacks scored in double figures that day, including Desi Sills (17), Jimmy Whitt Jr., (14), Mason Jones (12) and Adrio Bailey (11).
Coming off the bench for the wins against Missouri and Tennessee, Sills was an unlikely hero against the Tigers. The Sophomore guard had struggled with long range accuracy this season, but clearly benefitted from the extra spacing created by Joe’s presence. As Missouri defenders followed Joe to the perimeter, Sills was left wide open. He scored 14 second-half points, making three clutch 3-pointers in the final minutes. The first two were made when the Hogs’ lead had been cut to two. The last put Arkansas up by eight with just over 90 seconds left in the game.
If Sills was an unlikely hero against Missouri, nothing could have prepared us for Ethan Henderson’s performance against the Vols. In a season known for the Razorbacks’ shortcoming with big men, the Sophomore forward had been a forgotten man for most of the year. This was just the second start and tenth game Henderson has played in all year. He fouled out of the Florida game in just ten and a half minutes.
Against Tennessee, Henderson’s intensity on defense was a key factor in the Hogs jumping out to an early lead and never relinquishing it. He snagged a career-high nine rebounds and tied his career-high with three blocked shots. Musselman and his teammates praised Henderson for his continued dedication to getting better.
Sills played another solid game, chipping in 13 points off the bench. Joe contributed 22 points, and made all 12 free throw attempts. Mason Jones did just about everything else. The Junior guard scored 11 of Arkansas’ first 16 points. His 37 points allowed Jones to retake the SEC scoring lead, and gave him over 1,000 points in his Razorback career.
While on the subject of unlikely heroes, Tusk to Tail would be remiss without mentioning freshman Diamond Hog infielder Robert Moore. Moore enrolled early at Arkansas, and it is hard to believe this kid should still be playing high school ball. He was a one-man wrecking crew against Gonzaga, getting a hit in all four games of the series. He had multi-hit games in each of the last three. Moore led Arkansas in hits (8), RBI (9), walks (4) and stolen bases (2) for the series.
It’s been a victorious week on The Hill. The Hoops Hogs got two wins, but still need some more. Baseball added a four-game sweep to open the season 7-0 for the first time since 2016. Some unlikely heroes contributed to their team’s success.
I am reminded of a quote tweeted by Musselman after Wednesday’s win. He said, “True leaders don’t want people to follow them, they want people to believe in them.”
Muss and baseball skipper Dave Van Horn are two excellent leaders. They have created an excellent product in and on their respective fields, and continue to improve. TTT believes in them both. This weekend we will be following them, too. The basketball team is traveling to Athens, Ga., while baseball goes to Houston to take on Oklahoma, Texas, and Baylor. Small groups of our intrepid tailgaters will attend both events. Hopefully we can bring home some more wins.
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.