A lot has changed in the two weeks since Tennessee dominated Arkansas, 82-61, at Thompson Boling Arena.
Tennessee is reeling, blowing second half leads in two of its last three games, while barely holding on against Vanderbilt after letting a 12-point lead evaporate to two in the final 80 seconds of the game.
Arkansas — whose loss to the Vols two weeks ago was its third in a five-game losing skid — received a much needed boost Saturday night against Missouri, as Isaiah Joe returned to the lineup, scoring 21 points in a 10-point win at Missouri.
"It spreads the floor because he is going to shoot it deep,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said of Joe’s return to the lineup. “He's got great range, and they have given him the ultimate green light to get shots, and they work to get him shots. They will be a different team there then when they were here."
The Razorbacks started Eric Musselman’s first season in Fayetteville strong, building a 12-1 record and looking like a NCAA Tournament team before skidding to 17-10 with a tough back half of conference play.
The Razorbacks are hoping for a strong finish to the season to propel them back onto the bubble or at least into the NIT.
Arkansas uses its guard heavy lineup to spread the floor and shoot 3-pointers, while simultaneously attacking defenses with dribble drive penetration. The Razorbacks shoot the sixth most 3-pointers in the league while making the fourth most.
“You go back, they were arguably the hottest team in our league at the start of the year, and they hit some slides like everybody can,” Barnes said. “But, when guys go out, other guys get to develop. Then, they come back in, and they've got to mesh together, but we know they're going to shoot a lot of threes. We expect it, and we've got to be ready to defend the 3-point line."
Tennessee shut down Arkansas’ guard heavy offense that ranks sixth in the SEC in the two team’s first meeting. The Vols held Arkansas to 31% shooting from the floor and 3-point range, while taking Razorback’s star Mason Jones out of the game, holding him to one of 10 shooting.
That result will be tough for Tennessee to repeat.
The Vols won’t be able to key on Jones the way they did in Knoxville with Joe’s addition to the lineup, and the SEC’s second leading scorer is unlikely to struggle the way he did in the first meeting.
"We know we're going to have to defend them at all three levels,” Barnes said. “We're going to have to be locked in on our transition defense, on our personnel and we're going to have to rebound.”
Tennessee’s post players dominated Arkansas’ shorter front court in the first meeting. Playing with the flu, John Fulkerson scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds while Yves Pons scored 12 points.
Tennessee handled the basketball well in the first matchup, turning it over 11 times. However, the Vols have unraveled with turnovers in their last three games, combining for 59 turnovers.
Despite the strong ball handling in the first meeting, it won’t get any easier handling the ball Wednesday night. The Razorbacks force a SEC best 16.6 turnovers per game and will be playing in front of a rowdy Bud Walton Arena.
“If you don't take care of the ball, then we're going to have those same issues,” Barnes said. “I don't care what the situation is — whether you've got a lead or whether you're coming from behind. You have to expect the other team to make a push.”
“You expect to see momentum change here or there, and we have to take care of the ball in those situations and not just give the ball to the other team. You have to execute and not turn the ball over in those situations.”
Tipoff from Bud Walton Arena is set for 8:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcasted on SEC Network.