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Mizzou, Arkansas tussle to capture SEC momentum

Missouri Illinois Basketball

Missouri's Kaleb Brown brings the ball down the court during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri isn’t the only Southeastern Conference basketball team going through growing pains after an offseason rebuild.

A year after reaching the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, Arkansas hasn’t exactly built on its breakthrough season. The Razorbacks (10-5, 0-3 SEC) have lost five of six including all three of their SEC games — against teams picked eighth, 12th and 13th in the conference’s preseason poll.

Six of Eric Musselman’s top 10 players in minutes played are newcomers, all Division I transfers. These Razorbacks barely resemble the team that took two of three from Mizzou last year and won 25 games overall. Widely considered an SEC contender when the season tipped off, Arkansas is still scrambling to develop an identity.

“I don’t know if they’re desperate, but I know they’re fighting to get a win,” said Mizzou’s Cuonzo Martin, whose Tigers (7-7, 1-1) face the Hogs at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Bud Walton Arena. “I do know that they’re a talented team and Muss is good at what he does. They can score the ball.”

Arkansas features the SEC’s leading scorer in senior guard JD Notae, last year’s SEC sixth man of the year, but the supporting cast is still under development. The Razorbacks had to replace All-SEC guard Moses Moody, the NBA’s No. 14 draft pick to Golden State, plus reliable forward Justin Smith and point guard Jalen Tate. Like Mizzou, replacing lost veterans with incoming veterans via the transfer portal hasn’t always been an easy transition. Also like the Tigers, Arkansas can’t shoot 3s or defend the 3-point arc, ranking 13th in the SEC in both 3-point shooting and 3-point defense, ahead of only Missouri in both categories.

“It’s different when you walk into a locker room and a player like a Tate or a Smith or a Moody can point out things to teammates,” Musselman told reporters this week. “We had a team (last year) that really understood spacing. … Even Isaiah Joe (in 2019-20), I thought he was really good at when you made an adjustment on the fly, picking that up and then going out and executing it.

“With this team, we’ve just got to continue to get better. Last year we went through a stretch where we didn’t play as well as we would like, and then we kind of turned it around. … One season doesn’t mirror another. Doesn’t mean it’s just going to turn around. You’ve got to try to figure it out and you’ve got to try to get better.”

For weeks Martin had insisted he saw growth from his team in practice despite lopsided losses to Kansas, Illinois and Kentucky, but finally Saturday the Tigers produced tangible results that signaled they might be emerging from the early-season fog. Led by Kobe Brown’s career-high 30 points and three other players in double figures, Mizzou had its most efficient offensive performance of the season in the 92-86 win over Alabama, which dropped from No. 15 to 24 in The AP Top 25.

With nine newcomers on the roster and only two holdovers from last year’s rotation — Brown and senior guard Javon Pickett — Martin said he could only learn so much about his new players when they practiced against each other from June to November. Now, he’s got a feel for this team.

“You don’t know what you have until adversity hits,” he said.

Mizzou’s latest bout of adversity came during its COVID pause, which left two players in protocols Saturday, guards Amari Davis and Anton Brookshire, both starters at times this year. Both could be back at Arkansas. On Tuesday, Martin said he expected to have at least 11 of 12 players available while one more waited on clearance.

Even if the roster is back to full strength, Martin plans to give extended minutes to freshman guard Kaleb Brown, Kobe’s younger brother, after his promising performance against Alabama. Wednesday’s game will be more of a family affair than usual for the Browns: Razorbacks guard Au’Diese Toney is their first cousin.

“In my opinion he’s … a very cerebral player but he also takes pride in playing defense,” Martin said of Kaleb Brown. “I just think with him, (he needs) continued growth and maturation at this level. He can play basketball, facilitate and make plays. I just think with injuries … in June and July that slowed him up quite a bit. And now you’re starting to see a better basketball player because he’s healthy.”

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