FAYETTEVILLE — After the University of Arkansas beat Auburn 97-85 to open SEC play on Dec. 30, Eric Musselman said the road victory was by far the most important regular-season game in his two years as the Razorbacks’ coach.
What made it so significant, Musselman said, was that Arkansas’ next two games were against nationally-ranked teams — Missouri and Tennessee.
“For this early in the year, it’s about as must-win as you could be staring at the schedule,” Musselman said.
It’s still early with 15 SEC games remaining, but the Razorbacks’ matchup against Georgia today in Walton Arena has a must-win feel as well after Arkansas (9-2, 1-2 SEC) lost at home to Missouri 81-68 and at Tennessee 79-74.
With the Razorbacks’ next two games after today on the road at SEC-leading Alabama (8-3, 3-0) and LSU (7-2, 2-1), Arkansas can ill afford to lose at home to Georgia (7-2, 0-2).
“The mindset that we have as a team is that every game is a must-win,” Arkansas senior guard Jalen Tate said. “We don’t go into any game thinking that we can drop one, or we can take anyone light.
“We have to play with desperation every single night, no matter if we’re winning nine games in a row or if we’re losing two or three in a row.”
Musselman smiled when asked if today is a must-win game for his team.
“I’m not going to tell the team in pregame or the day before what are ‘must’ and what aren’t ‘must wins,’” he said. “But this is an important game for us because it’s a home game and we do have two really challenging games coming up.”
Musselman said Georgia, which lost at LSU 94-92 in overtime after leading by 10 points with 9:07 left in the second half, is a challenging team too.
“Georgia, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated teams,” Musselman said. “I think Coach [Tom] Crean has done an incredible job with this team.
“They have an identity. They play really fast. They do a great job offensive rebounding.”
Senior guard Justin Kier, a graduate transfer from George Mason, led the Bulldogs at LSU with 25 points and hit 6 of 11 3-pointers. He’s averaging 12.6 points.
Georgia sophomore point guard Sahvir Wheeler had 21 points and nine assists at LSU. He’s averaging 13.9 points and an SEC-leading 7.7 assists.
Toumari Camara, a 6-8 freshman, is averaging team-highs of 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds for the Bulldogs.
“I know that these guys like to push the pace,” Tate said. “They like to score in a hurry, man, and score a bunch of baskets.
“I know they’ve got some quick guards as well as some very athletic wings and bigs that can run the floor really well. So we’re going to have to get back and build our defense, get a wall built as well as just try to keep them in the half-court as much as we can.
“Try to put as many bodies in front of them and make them score on our set defense as much as we can.”
Tate said Wheeler and Kier will be a challenge to guard.
“[Wheeler] can handle the ball going both ways and I know he’s lightning fast,” Tate said. “Both of those guys can give guys some wind burns.
“You’ve got to be able to keep them under control when you’re guarding them one-on-one and you have to be able to get back on the ball when it comes to ball screens.
“Both of them can put the ball in the basket at an excellent rate. We have to make their looks tough early on, and try to carry that on through the rest of the game. Don’t give them too many second-chance opportunities.”
Crean said the Razorbacks also will look to score in a hurry.
“Arkansas plays as fast and fierce as anyone in the SEC,” Crean said. “They come at you with an attack-the-rim mentality and create a ton of threes because of it.
“This year, they are scoring more and more from their defense. How we get back and transition and control the pressure they put on the rim will be big. Everyone can make threes, so our awareness and shot challenges will be crucial. We have to keep them in front of us on the drives and keep them off the free-throw line.”
The Razorbacks will play their third game without senior forward Justin Smith, who is expected to miss three to six weeks after undergoing ankle surgery on Jan. 1.
Freshman guard Davonte Davis started in Smith’s place against Missouri and freshman forward Jaylin Williams started in Davis’ place at Tennessee.
Another lineup change could be coming today, Musselman said, but that doesn’t mean Williams won’t start again.
It’s possible Musselman could choose to bring junior guard Desi Sills — who is 1 of 11 from the field the last two games after scoring a career-high 23 points at Auburn — off the bench and start senior forward Vance Jackson or junior guard JD Notate.
“With regards to the starting lineup, I think any time you’ve lost a game you always try to reevaluate, reassess what your lineup looks like,” Musselman said. “We were in a groove for awhile having won those [first nine] games.
“That lineup had developed some chemistry and right now we might be a game-by-game different lineup based on matchups.”
Musselman said Friday he wasn’t sure of a starting lineup against Georgia or who might miss practice.
“I’m not going to speculate on what we’re doing and who’s going to start, because we didn’t have everybody at practice [Thursday],” Musselman said. “And I’m not going to get into who was or wasn’t [there].
“We’ll just kind of see who is available and we’ll do matchups and talk to the players about matchups, because I’m a big believer in asking the guys who they feel comfortable guarding once they’ve watched them on video.”
Musselman said he believes the Razorbacks continue to have good attitudes after losing the last two games.
“I thought — without Justin Smith — we had an opportunity to win the game against Tennessee,” Musselman said. “I didn’t feel like our team walked into Tennessee and felt anything other than we were going to try and win the game. I thought they competed like that.
“I don’t see that being any different. I don’t think we’re fragile or anything like that. I think any time you lose, you might lose a little bravado, or whatever. Every game takes on its own identity, its own theme.
“Georgia lost a tough game at LSU. They’re going to be ready to play.”