By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Until they are truly tested, the Arkansas Razorbacks will likely remain an enigma in the world of college basketball.
The Hogs (6-0) have bullied six opponents with a combined record of 8-29 by an average winning-margin of 33.8 points. The close call out of the initial group of non-conference games was against in-state Central Arkansas on Saturday when the Bears held a 10-point lead in the first half and trailed by only six points, 64-58, midway through the second half before the Hogs found an extra gear to pull away easily, 100-75.
Add to the equation that Arkansas has 9 newcomers among the 11 on scholarship who are available to play, and it seems apparent the on-court character and identity of the team remain relatively unknown until the Hogs face opposition that truly challenges their talent and resolve.
The first obvious test is just ahead in the SEC opener at Auburn on Dec. 30, which will double as the Razorbacks’ first road game. But perhaps a couple of remaining non-conference matchups in the next week will provide legitimate challenges as a lead-up to the start of Arkansas’ league play.
At face value Oral Roberts and Abilene Christian are just a couple more mid-major programs on the menu in a bland Arkansas non-conference slate, but with a combined record of 10-4 both have already put scares into a couple of high-major opponents in close games that were lost in the closing minutes.
First up is ORU (3-4) as the Golden Eagles invade Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Sunday in a game that is planned for a 1 p.m. CT tip and will be televised by SEC Network.
Scouting the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles
ORU of the Summit League has a couple of 5-point road losses that could have easily flipped to significant road wins — 83-78 at Oklahoma State and 80-75 at Wichita State — along with road losses at Missouri (91-64) in the season-opener and at Oklahoma (79-65) in the Golden Eagles’ most-recent outing.
ORU is led by 6-1 sophomore guard Max Abmas, who’s averaging 21.2 points, 4.8 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.7 steals in 30.0 minutes per game while shooting 50.5% from the field, including 23-of-48 from 3 for 47.9%, and 90% from the free throw line. He hung 36 points on Oklahoma State and had 28 against Wichita State, 20 against OU, and 18 against Missouri. Junior 6-8 forward Kevin Obanor is averaging 17.3 points and 8.8 rebounds in 27.5 minutes per game while shooting 47.2% from the field, including 11-of-28 from 3 for 39.3%, and 82.7% free throws.
Former Arkansas walk-on, Forrest City native, and Arkansas Tech transfer RJ Glasper (6-0 senior guard) has started 6 of 7 games and is averaging 8.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in 23.4 minutes per game while shooting 39.6% from the field, including 10-of-26 from 3 for 38.5%, and 100% free throws. Sophomore 6-6 guard Kareem Thompson has started 6 of 7 games and is averaging 8.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.7 assists, and junior 6-7 forward Francis Lacis has started 6 of 7 games and averages 4.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.0 block in 21.0 minutes per game. Sophomore 6-8 forward DJ Weaver — he was once recruited by Arkansas’ previous coaching staff — has 1 start in 7 games and is averaging 7.6 points and 3.0 rebounds in 17.3 minutes per game while shooting 42.9% from the field, including 33.3% from 3. The Golden Eagles have depth with 9 players averaging at least 11.2 minutes per game.
As a team, ORU is scoring 83.9 points per game, which suggests a track meet could break out on Sunday in Fayetteville given the Hogs’ 91.3 points per contest. The Golden Eagles also average 42.1 rebounds, 15.6 assists, 6.4 steals, 3.3 blocks, and 13.0 turnovers per game. ORU is shooting 43.5% from the field, including 37.1% from 3, and an impressive 81.2% from the free throw line.
Hog trends and stats
* Amidst the Hoop Hogs’ uncertainties, one dynamic has emerged and that is a top 6 rotation in the early going consisting of guards Moses Moody, Desi Sills, Jalen Tate, and JD Notae along with frontliners Connor Vanover and Justin Smith. That group averages between 20.7 and 28.3 minutes per game, while the foursome of Vance Jackson, Jr., KK Robinson, Jaylin Williams, and Davonte “Devo” Davis has plugged into the 7-through-10 portion of the rotation with Jackson seeing the most court time out of that group at 15.7 minutes per game.
* Arkansas will have been off 8 days (due to finals exams) by the time it plays ORU, the longest lay-off between games for the Hogs this season. Will there be rust and lethargy or will there be renewed vigor among the Razorbacks’ ranks?
* ORU represents Arkansas’ 7th of 8 consecutive non-conference home games at BWA before opening up SEC play on the road at Auburn on Dec. 30.
* Arkansas (6-0) has the best record in the SEC entering the weekend, and the Hogs’ average winning-margin of 33.8 points per game leads the nation among teams that have played at least 5 games.
* Arkansas lost its first rebounding battle of the season against UCA — the Hogs were minus-2 on the glass against the Bears — but the SEC’s worst rebounding team last season remains atop the league in total rebounds per game at 46.0 (also ranks 7th nationally) and defensive rebounds per game at 32.8 (also ranks 6th nationally)[/b], and the Hogs are plus-69 on the glass — that’s plus-11.5 per game, which ranks 23rd nationally — through six games and they have won the rebounding battle by double-digit margins three times (including plus-20 in a couple of matchups).
* Arkansas also leads the SEC in: a) scoring at 91.3 points per game; b) assists, both in total at 107 and per-game average of 17.8; and c) blocked shots, both in total at 39 and per-game average of 6.5 (the average ranks 9th nationally). The Hogs also lead the league in total steals at 50, but they rank 6th in steals per game at 8.3. They are 3rd in the league in both overall field goal percentage (48.3%) and three-point shooting percentage (67-of-180 for 37.2%), and they’re 7th in free throw percentage (71.5%).
* Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in field-goal-percentage defense at 33.9%.
* Hogs’ freshman guard Moses Moody continues to be one of the top freshmen in the nation, and perhaps he’s the best player on this team. The 6-foot-6 Little Rock native has started all six games as a Hog, scoring in double figures in each. He leads Arkansas in scoring (16.0 points per game, ranks 8th in the SEC and 3rd among league freshmen), he’s second on the team in rebounds per game (5.7), he’s second on the team and is tied for the 5th-most steals in the SEC (9), and his 25-of-29 free throw shooting (86.2%) is good for league ranks of 5th most makes, 5th most takes, and 6th in percentage (minimum 10 attempts). He’s shooting 48.4% from the field (15th in the SEC), including 11-of-27 from 3 for 40.7%. Beyond the stats, Moody’s collective plus/minus of plus-162 when he’s on the floor is the best on the team, upholding what the eye test seems to reveal: The team plays its best when Moody is in the game.
* Arkansas sophomore center Connor Vanover‘s impact has been key at both ends of the floor, but especially on the defensive end. He averages 9.8 points per game (56.1% field goals, including 10-of-22 for 45.5% from 3, and 100% free throws), but it’s his 9.0 rebounds (4th in the SEC), & 3.3 blocks (leads the SEC and is 8th-best in the nation) in just 21.2 minutes per game that has made the biggest impact. It’s worth repeating that his ability to alter numerous shots, quickly gather and outlet defensive rebounds, and convert blocks into possessions when he’s on the floor has magnified his effectiveness. Looking at individual analytics, Vanover is No. 4 nationally in block percentage at 15.8%, he’s No. 5 nationally in defensive rating at 62.0, he’s No. 8 nationally in defensive box plus/minus at plus-7.4, and he’s No. 10 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage at 35.1%, all according to sports-reference.com.
* Razorbacks senior graduate-transfers Jalen Tate and Justin Smith (6-7) have been better than just steady and reliable. Both surpassed career 1,000-point scoring marks in the early going this season, with Tatedoing so in the win over UCA while he was having his best game as a Hog: 17 points, 11 assists, and ZERO turnovers. Tate is 5th on the team in scoring at 10.5 points per game, he leads the team and is 3rd in the SEC in assists at 4.7 dimes per game (against only 1.7 turnovers per outing), his 7-of-15 shooting from 3 tops the team in percentage at 46.7% (11th in the SEC), and he’s contributing 4.0 rebounds and 1.0 steals. His overall field goal shooting (25-of-45 for 55.6%) has been outstanding. Smith is 3rd on the team in scoring at 12.3 points per game, rebounding at 5.5, and steals at 1.3.
* Junior guards Desi Sills and JD Notae were stat-sheet stuffers against UCA. SEC coaches’ preseason All SEC second-team pick Sills of Jonesboro had 17 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, and 3 steals against the Bears. He has started every game and is averaging 11.7 points (4th on the team) in 25.0 minutes per outing, and he leads the Hogs and the SEC with a total of 12 steals. His 56.5% field goal shooting (26-of-46) is tops on the team, and that includes 8-of-19 from 3 for an impressive 42.1%. Notae went off for 17 second-half points as part of his game-high 22 points against UCA as he also reached 1,000 career points. He’s 2nd on the team averaging 13.3 points per game to go with 3.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists (2nd on the team) in 20.7 minutes off the bench.
Analytics, polls, NCAAT projections
Arkansas entered Friday ranked No. 19 in Sagarin / USA Today ratings, No. 29 in ESPN’s BPI (Basketball Power Index), and No. 36 in KenPom.com’s rankings. In ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s update on Tuesday (Dec. 15, 2020) to his projected 68-team NCAA tournament field, he slotted the Hogs as an 8-seed, a 3-spot jump from the previous week. This week (Monday, Dec. 14), the Hogs received 4 voter points in the Associated Press’ weekly Top 25 poll voted on by 65 media members that cover college basketball, effectively putting the Hogs in a tie for No. 38 nationally. The NCAA’s initial NET rankings for ’20-21 have yet to be released but are expected to debut on Jan. 4.