Familiar face returns to PMAC for LSU’s SEC home opener

The SEC men’s basketball schedule makers decided to put Arkansas first-year coach Eric Musselman in a place he knows well for his first SEC road game leading the Razorbacks.

Musselman, a one-year LSU assistant under previous Tigers’ coach Johnny Jones, returns Wednesday night to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in an early season SEC battle of teams off to 1-0 starts in league play.

Game time is just after 8 p.m. Tom Hart and Jimmy Dykes will call the game on ESPNU.

The first stop for Musselman and his wife Danyelle in his Baton Rouge trip was a scheduled Tuesday night trip to Walk-Ons to munch on some grilled gator.“To go from the west coast to Louisiana, I gained weight right away because of the food,” said Musselman, who served as Jones’ associate head coach in 2014-2015 when the Tigers lost in their opening game of the NCAA tournament to North Carolina State. “It’s as good of food as anywhere I’ve been in my life. So, I had to watch the way I ate after the first couple of months there.”

Musselman, 55, one of two current SEC coaches with NBA head coaching experience, has Arkansas off to an 12-1 start. The Hogs’ four-game winning streak includes a 71-64 win at Indiana in late December.

Third-year LSU coach Will Wade, whose 9-4 Tigers have won two straight games, has mentioned several times in the last two weeks how much Arkansas impressed him.

“They’re the hardest playing team I’ve seen on tape all year,” Wade said. “They’re just fearless and they play extremely, extremely hard. They put you in some tough predicaments just with their spacing on offense and their shooting. I think they’re a team that will be in the hunt all year in the SEC, just because of how hard they play.”

Last year when LSU won the regular season SEC title and advanced to the Sweet 16, two of the Tigers’ toughest games were against the Razorbacks. LSU won 94-88 in overtime in Fayetteville followed by Arkansas returning the favor 90-89 in Baton Rouge.

Wade is expecting a ridiculous amount of pressure from an Arkansas six-man, guard-dominated playing rotation that doesn’t have a player taller than 6-6.

Four Razorbacks average 30 or minutes playing time and all averaging scoring in double figures led by Mason Jones’ 19.5 points per game and Isaiah Joe with 17.4.

The length in the Arkansas starting line is 6-6 senior Adrio Bailey, a Louisiana native who once helped Lakeview High to a Class AA state runner-up spot.

LSU will counter with a battle-tested backcourt and a front line that plays physical at times.

The Tigers, after some non-conference struggles, are coming off an SEC-opening 78-64 victory at Tennessee last Saturday. LSU fell behind early, but the steady play of sophomore point guard Javonte Smart kept the Tigers poised long enough to flip the game.

Smart had a season-high 21 points.

“He’s playing to his capabilities,” Wade said. “He made shots at a high level in the Tennessee game which obviously helped us. But the main thing is his turnovers are down, his assists are up. I think he has a better understanding of what we’re asking him to do, who we’re asking him to be. It’s a fine line when you’re a scoring point guard, which is what he is.”

Musselman has respect for LSU’s backcourt of Smart and senior Skylar Mays, but he has been extremely impressed with Tigers’ 6-9 true freshman forward Trendon Watford.

“You start with their experienced backcourt of Smart and Mays,” Musselman said. “Watford is an incredibly talented freshman that starts out at the small forward and will end up moving to the 4-spot. He’s a guy that can get a defensive rebound and bring the ball up the floor. He can score it, he can pass it and he can rebound.”

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Ron Higgins

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