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FAYETTEVILLE — Another lineup change is coming for Arkansas.
Although the Razorbacks pulled out the win against Auburn, they got off to a slow start again Wednesday and had to rally from a 19-point deficit. As a result, head coach Eric Musselman said he’d be shuffling his starting five following the game.
Speaking to the media Thursday afternoon, the second-year coach confirmed that he’d be using yet another lineup when Arkansas takes on Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday.
Musselman the same starting group for eight straight games before Justin Smith’s injury forced him to adjust. In the six games since, he’s used the same group in back-to-back games just once, as he’s continued trying to figure out the best combination.
It seems as though the comeback against the Tigers finally provided some answers. In fact, Musselman said as much when asked if he learned anything about his team in the win.
“Maybe I learned some guys that might not play as much,” Musselman said with a smile. “I like to be honest, so yeah, I think maybe I learned that.”
It may have been said light-heartedly, but Musselman appears to be serious about shortening the rotation.
When the Razorbacks erased their 12-point halftime deficit Wednesday, they primarily leaned on six players, with a seventh playing just 29 seconds. That could be an indication of how things go moving forward.
“I think we’re probably looking at seven and then we have a little bit of a line drawn, then we have a little bit of a line drawn after eight and we have a nine and 10,” Musselman said. “If things aren’t going good, I think we’ve proven over the first half (Wednesday) night and the Alabama game and LSU game that when I’m subbing a bunch of guys, I’m just trying to find something that works.
“If they’re playing pretty good, in sync defensively and offensively, and following the game plan, I am more inclined moving forward to have a smaller rotation.”
One player locked in that group is Smith, who has played in two games since his earlier-than-expected return from ankle surgery.
After playing just 18 minutes at Alabama, the graduate transfer from Indiana saw that increase to 27 minutes against Auburn. He looked much less rusty the second time out, but the additional playing time took a toll on his body.
Musselman said he wouldn’t do much at practice Thursday or Friday leading up to Saturday’s game.
“He’s the key sometimes when we do things defensively, whether it’s the backcourt trap or in the frontcourt,” Musselman said. “His ankle is swelled up and is sore right now. He played a little bit more minutes after kind of limited minutes at Bama, so the trainer felt like that was semi to be expected.”
Starting guards Jalen Tate and Moses Moody continue to have large roles for the Razorbacks, while veteran guard Desi Sills has shown he can start or come off the bench.
Perhaps the most surprising development in Wednesday’s win was the emergence of Jaylin Williams. The freshman has shown flashes earlier in the year, but had a breakout performance against Auburn and seems to be due for even more minutes.
“He played an entire 20 minutes, which doesn’t happen in a second half of a really, really close game for a freshman big – for any big, whether it’s a senior even, to play 20-straight minutes in a game that comes down to the wire,” Musselman said. “I did not want to take him off the floor (Wednesday) night.”
Fellow freshman Davonte Davis was the sixth player who got significant minutes in the second half of the win, with JD Notae seeing the floor only after Tate fouled out and when Davis struggled to in bound in the closing minutes.
Connor Vanover, Vance Jackson Jr. and Ethan Henderson did not play at all after halftime.
The Razorbacks’ first test with their new-look lineup – however it shakes out – and shortened rotation will be against a Vanderbilt team that is 4-6 overall and winless in four SEC games.
Sandwiched between blowout losses to Florida and Tennessee, the Commodores suffered back-to-back three-point losses to Kentucky and Mississippi State.
They are a high-volume three-point shooting team, with nearly half of their attempted shots coming from beyond the arc, and they have an All-SEC caliber player in Scotty Pippen Jr.
“They’re competitive, they’re in games, they’re well coached,” Musselman said. “We’ve got to guard the three-point line and then we’ve got to come up with something to try to contain Pippen, as well.”
The son of the NBA Hall of Famer of the same name, Pippen is the second-leading scorer in the conference and ranks 18th nationally at 21.2 points per game.
As a scoring point guard, Musselman said Pippen does some of the same things as Auburn’s Sharife Cooper. He’s a capable three-point shooter (35.1 percent), can beat defenders off the dribble and likes to attack the rim.
Arkansas’ biggest point of emphasis, though, is keeping him off the free throw line. Pippen is an 82.9 percent shooter from the charity stripe, where he averages seven attempts per game. That is tied for 12th nationally among players who’ve appeared in at least 10 games this season.
“He loves to pump fake,” Musselman said. “He is a pump-fake artist. He loves to get you in the air, lean into you. It’s important that we be disciplined with Pippen. It’s important that we go vertical.”
Tip off against the Commodores is scheduled for noon CT and the game will be televised on the SEC Network.