By Kevin McPherson
The Arkansas Razorbacks failed to defuse any remaining NCAA Tournament vulnerability concerns while once again finding a losing formula on the road in an embarrassing 75-57 defeat against No. 12 Tennessee on Tuesday in Knoxville, Tenn.
Arkansas (19-11, 8-9 SEC, NET No. 14) has lost back-to-back games as part of a larger 4-losses-in-6-games stretch while failing to record their fourth consecutive 20-win season under fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman. The Razorbacks finished the season 2-8 in true road games as part of an overall-but-unfinished 6-9 mark in games played away from their home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Arkansas fell behind 7-0 out of the gates and never pulled even or led as Tennessee enjoyed double-digit leads in both halves, including a late 24-point advantage. The Vols dominated points-in-the-paint (42-18), second-chance-points (13-4), assists (18-8), turnovers (16-10), points-off-turnovers (19-11), and bench points (29-16) while also winning rebounds (35-32), fastbreak points (7-4), and steals (11-7).
Tennessee’s No. 1-rated defense held Arkansas to 18-of-49 field goal shooting (36.7%), including 8-of-22 from 3 (36.4%). The Razorbacks made 13-of-22 free throws (59.1%). The Vols had their way in the paint on their way to shooting 27-of-54 from the field (50%), including 4-of-16 from 3 (25%), and 17-of-25 from the foul line (68%).
Junior guard Devo Davis and freshman guard Anthony Black each scored 13 points for the Razorbacks with Davis adding team highs in rebounds (6), steals (3), and assists (2) to go with a block. Freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., finished with 12 points and junior guard Ricky Council IV had 11 points. Black had 6 turnovers and Council had 3 while Smith and Davis each had 2 giveaways.
Arkansas’ frontline quintet of the Mitchell twins (Makhi and Makhel), freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh, Jalen Graham, and Kamani Johnson combined for 3 points (0-of-6 field goals and 3-of-6 free throws), 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers.
“They’re so long and they’re so physical,” Musselman said of the Vols. “On both sides of the ball. It’s not just the physicality of Tennessee on the defensive end. The screen setting .. . Then when (sophomore 5-9 guard Zakai) Zeigler got hurt, they became longer, bigger, taller, and more physical probably. But yeah … They completely out-physicalled us, there’s no doubt about it. The loose ball game, the rebounding game, the screen setting was much more forceful than ours. I would say it’s the best defensive team we’ve played. “
The Hogs have authored a solid Quad-1 and Quad-2 combined resume — 3-8 record in Q1 games plus a 4-2 mark in Q2 games — but with one Q3 loss (against LSU in the SEC opener in December) Arkansas may need to avoid a second bad loss (Q3 or Q4) in next week’s SEC Tournament to lock up an NCAAT automatic bid when those are announced on Selection Sunday (March 12). Arkansas is currently averaging an 8-seed projection for the fast-approaching NCAAT with one more league game remaining that offers a final regular-season Q1 win opportunity — home against NET No. 20 and 23rd-ranked Kentucky on March 4.
As for the SEC pecking order and seeding for the league’s postseason tournament next week, the Hogs are currently 9th in the league standings and have been eliminated from a top 4 seed possibility in next week’s SECT (the top 4 seeds in the league receive double-byes to the SECT quarterfinals).
The Razorbacks finished February with a 4-4 record in ’22-23 after the program had lost only one game in its 14 February tilts spanning the ’20-21 and ’21-22 campaigns.
Arkansas dropped to 22-25 all-time against Tennessee as the Hogs have lost 3 of the last 5 meetings. The SEC schedulers have seen to it that Arkansas has been on the road for 5 of the last 7 games in the series immediately following the Hogs’ dominant 6-0 regular-season run in the matchup dating back to the ’14-15 campaign. The Vols have hosted 10 of the last 15 regular-season games in the series.
Tennessee (22-8, 11-6 SEC, NET No. 3) has won back-to-back games following a two-game losing skid that came after the Vols knocked off then-No. 1-ranked and then-league-unbeaten Alabama, 68-59, at home on Feb. 15. The Vols finish with a 14-2 home record in in ’22-23. They were led by senior 6-9 forward Olivier Nkamhoua’s 16 points and 7 rebounds. Senior 6-3 guard Santiago Vescovi had 14 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals. Senior 6-6 guard Josia-Jordan James had 11 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 steals off the bench. Zeigler played just more than 3 minutes at the beginning of the game before suffering an apparent knee injury as he was helped off the court and did not return.
As stated above, the loss against the Vols (NET No. 3) counts as a Quad-1 result. Based on the current NCAA NET rankings, Arkansas (NET No. 14) is now 3-8 in Q1 games that factor into its postseason resume (a win at Kentucky, a home win against Texas A&M, and a win over San Diego State in a neutral-site game, and losses to Alabama twice in home-and-away, Tennessee on the road, Texas A&M on the road, Baylor on the road, Missouri on the road, Auburn on the road, and Creighton at a neutral site). The Hogs are 4-2 in Q2 games (home wins over Florida, Missouri, and Bradley, a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home loss to Mississippi State, and a road loss to Vanderbilt), and they are 12-1 in Q3/4 games.
Musselman fell to 2-4 coaching against Tennessee as Head Hog and 92-39 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 44-31 record against SEC teams and a 6-2 mark spanning the last two NCAA Tournaments that culminated in back-to-back Elite Eight runs and back-to-back final national Top 10 rankings.
Next up for the Hoop Hogs is the aforementioned home game against No. 23 Kentucky on Saturday (1 p.m. CT, CBS).
“Well, we didn’t bounce back like we had hoped after playing Alabama,” Musselman said. “We’ll continue to do what we’ve done with all of our teams and go back and prepare. We’ve got to do a better job, obviously. But the only thing I know is to go back to work and continue to try to improve. We took a step backwards tonight, there’s no question, both as a team and individually, we took several steps backwards. And so we’ll get back and try to prepare for Kentucky.”
Musselman started the combination of Smith, Black, Davis, Walsh, and Makhi Mitchell for the fourth consecutive game.
Arkansas fell behind 7-0 and trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half before Tennessee settled on a 34-25 lead at the break.
The Vols dominated the glass (22-14), including the offensive glass (8-1) for a plus-12 advantage in second-chance-points (12-0). Tennessee owned points-in-the-paint (24-8), fastbreak scoring (5-0), turnovers (10-7), and points-off-turnovers (9-7).
Arkansas shot 9-of-24 from the field in the first 20 minutes (37.5%), including 4-of-10 from 3 (40%), and 3-of-4 at the free throw line (75%). The Vols made 13-of-30 field goals (43.3%), including 1-of-8 from 3 (12.5%), and 7-of-12 at the free throw line (58.3%).
Black led the Hogs with 9 first-half points to go with 5 turnovers.