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FAYETTEVILLE — As he said goodbye to his top two scorers with remaining eligibility, Eric Musselman watched from afar as LSU returned three key players who tested the NBA Draft waters this offseason.
Although the Tigers lost Emmitt Williams, they returned Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart and Darius Days. Add in five-star freshman Cameron Thomas and they have one of the most formidable quartets in the SEC.
“Usually when we play a team, you look at a team and say they have one or two stars,” Musselman said. “This team has four stars, four guys that can single handedly takeover games. From a talent standpoint, I don’t know if there’s a more talented team in the league.”
That group has led LSU to an 8-2 record, including a 3-1 mark in conference play, so far – with a pair of four-point losses at St. Louis and Florida being the only blemishes.
It will be a matchup between the SEC’s top two scoring teams, as the Tigers’ 85.6 points per game are just behind Arkansas’ 88.2, with both marks ranking among the top 15 in Division I.
All four of the aforementioned players are averaging at least 13.5 points for LSU and it is shooting 49.1 percent from the floor, which ranks 29th nationally.
“Really, really talented offensive team,” Musselman said about the Tigers. “They just go out there and they play ball. Not a lot of overtly complicated sets.”
The biggest question facing the Tigers is the health of their star freshman, Thomas, who suffered an ankle injury early in their win at Ole Miss on Saturday.
LSU coach Will Wade said Tuesday that he will be a game-time decision Wednesday. Musselman said that despite the injury, the Razorbacks’ game prep would “1,000 percent include” Thomas and he expects to see him play.
It would be a significant blow to the Tigers, as he’s leading the SEC in scoring at 22.3 points per game and averaged 28.7 points in their first three conference games before getting hurt.
“He can shoot over people, he can pump fake and use his escape dribble, meaning pump fake and go to his left, go to his right, go to his step-back game,” Musselman said. “He does not need much air space to get a clean look at the rim. He can rise over people, and then when they run any down pins for him, he’s awesome at kind of banana-cut bending into his shot, and so you’ve got to carry a high hand before he catches the ball.”
Luckily for LSU, it has three other players more than capable of stepping into the go-to scorer role.
The Tigers’ second-leading scorer is Watford at 17.8 points per game. Musselman said he’s a natural 3-man, but has been playing the 4 and 5 for them this season. At 6-foot-9, he’s a point forward capable of beating you off the dribble.
Arkansas got a taste of his abilities last season when he went for 21 points in LSU’s dramatic 79-77 win in Baton Rouge. Watford had six of those points in the final 32 seconds of the game, including the game-winning shot.
Days is another starting forward for LSU. Averaging 13.5 points, he is a 40 percent three-point shooter, plus – despite being just 6-foot-7 – can also post up and attacks the glass hard as the team’s leading rebounder at 8.1 per game.
Although neither of those two are extremely tall, Musselman stopped short of saying they’re undersized because they make up for it with their athleticism. Determining the best matchups for his team will be a major key.
“Obviously some of our things are what are our matchups going to be? Who do we start? Because of the matchup problems,” Musselman said. “We might have to think outside the box a little bit in some of our matchups with how we might line up to start the game.”
At point guard, Smart is averaging 15.4 points and 4.1 assists. He is also one of the best three-point shooters in the SEC, making 44.2 percent (23 of 52) of his attempts so far this season. That ranks first among the 43 players in the conference who’ve taken at least 32 three-pointers.
Those are the four players Musselman said he’s concerned about possibly taking over the game, but added that the Tigers’ fifth starter – small forward Mwani Wilkinson – is an excellent offensive rebounder. In fact, he has nearly twice as many offensive boards (23) as he does defensive rebounds (12).
That would have been a major concern last year, but the Razorbacks are more equipped to handle it better than when they were out-rebounded by 29 in the aforementioned two-point loss in Baton Rouge.
After ranking dead last in the SEC and among the bottom 10 teams in the country with a minus-6.8 rebound margin last season, Arkansas is second in the conference and 19th nationally at plus-9.2 through 12 games.
Another key for the Razorbacks in Wednesday’s matchup will be taking care of the basketball, as LSU is tied for 10th nationally with 9.5 steals per game.
Tip off is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT and the game will be televised on ESPN2.
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