A pair of one-loss Southeastern Conference foes open the league season with a showdown on Wednesday night when No. 9 Arkansas battles LSU at Baton Rouge, La.
The Razorbacks (11-1) have won seven straight games and are playing their first true road game of the season. LSU (11-1) owns a six-game winning streak and is 8-0 at home.
Arkansas was predicted to bring a lofty record into SEC play after reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons.
LSU’s early season success wasn’t a guarantee with former Murray State coach Matt McMahon taking over after the end of the controversial Will Wade tenure.
But McMahon’s rebuilding process received a boost when two of his key Murray State players elected to follow him — big man KJ Williams and guard Justice Hill.
Williams, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year last season, leads the Tigers with averages of 19.3 points and 8.3 rebounds and with 20 steals and 11 blocked shots.
Hill was a first-team All-OVC selection last season but is still searching for his comfort level. He is averaging 8.7 points but shooting a shaky 33 percent from the field.
A third Murray State player, backup Trae Hannibal (4.5 points per game), also transferred to LSU.
Still, McMahon hasn’t found it easy — despite the solid record — to get things established.
“It’s been very challenging starting a program over from scratch and we certainly have a long way to go,” McMahon said. “But the most important thing that I’m pleased with has been the buy-in of the players, their commitment to work and get better and want to win.”
LSU’s lone loss came in the championship game of the Cayman Islands Classic on Nov. 23 when Kansas State pulled out a 61-59 win.
Adam Miller (13.5) is the only other player scoring in double digits for the Tigers, who last played on Wednesday when they recorded a 72-68 home win over East Tennessee State.
Arkansas also last saw action the same night when it routed visiting UNC Asheville 85-51.
Jalen Graham scored 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting and the Razorbacks racked up 15 steals.
Graham, a transfer from Arizona State, has played just 75 minutes despite shooting 66.7 percent from the field. He is averaging 6.0 points and 2.7 rebounds in nine games off the bench for coach Eric Musselman.
“If he feels that I’m not doing enough, then I’m not going to be mad,” Graham said of his limited playing time. “I’m here for the team, I’m here to just win games. That’s why I came here — to win — so I’m not really tripping.”
Ricky Council IV is averaging a team-best 18.3 points, while highly regarded NBA freshman prospect Nick Smith Jr. is once again sidelined with knee issues.
Smith, who is averaging 12.8 points in five appearances, missed the first six games of the season due to the knee. He later displayed his promise over a three-game span by averaging 19.7 points but struggled to five points on 1-of-8 shooting against Bradley on Dec. 17.
Smith didn’t play against UNC Asheville and Musselman said he is out “indefinitely.”
“Nick is a competitor and he looked forward to playing for the Razorbacks,” Musselman said. “He’s kind of been in and out of the lineup and we just want him to get healthy as quickly as possible and for him to be 100 percent.”
Arkansas’ lone loss this season came in the Maui Invitational semifinals against then-No. 10 Creighton when it fell 90-87.
The Razorbacks went 3-0 against LSU last season, including a 65-58 win in Baton Rouge on Jan. 15.
–Field Level Media