By Kevin McPherson
The 14th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks blasted out of the 2023-24 starting blocks on Monday with an impressive 93-59 win over Alcorn State in both teams’ season-opener at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Arkansas (1-0) was able to get into transition from the outset while heating up from distance midway through the first half en route to building several 20-plus-point leads in the first 20 minutes before staking a 24-point advantage at the break, and it was more of the same in final 20 minutes as the Hogs had their way at both ends of the floor while building as much as a 37-point lead as all 13 scholarship players saw the floor in both halves.
The Hogs’ two leading scorers in the October exhibition season — Khalif Battle and Tramon Mark — were comfortable as they were connecting from all three levels on Monday with Battle posting a game-high 21 points (5-of-9 field goals, including 3-of-6 from 3, and 8-of-9 free throws) to go with 3 rebounds and 2 assists and Mark contributing 16 points (6-of-8 field goals, including 4-of-6 from 3) to go with 3 assists, 1 rebound, and 1 steal.
“We’re running plays for him, really explosive scorer,” Musselmans said of Battle, who’s emerged from recent injury issues to show off his scoring prowess. “Great foul shooter. So, late games we need him to have the ball in his hands if we’re in the bonus. He was phenomenal tonight. And he can rise up, he has deep range. Shoots with great confidence. He’s a really good offensive player.
“I think in the last, like, 10 days KB has been so bought in. Today at shoot around he was as vocal as anybody defensively. Like, super, super vocal. I mean, I think he knows if you want to get on the floor here you’ve got to defend, and he’s doing that. You’ve also got to defend with intelligence and understand when the other team is in the bonus and how to space your guy out. I think he’s done a really good job of that. Some other guys have got to learn. We had two guys foul out. I mean, 2 guys, 10 fouls in 20 minutes combined. Like, you want to be aggressive but you’ve also got to understand how to temper that aggressive when in fact the opposing team is in the bonus.”
Battle has been effective in a sixth-man role so far through the exhibition season and the first regular-season game.
“I never cared about coming off the bench,” Battle said. “I only care about winning. The preparation comes from before the games even start, so coming off the bench doesn’t mean anything to me. Whatever Coach Muss needs, or the coaching staff and the team needs, that’s what I’m going to do to maximize our team’s potential. So if that’s coming off the bench, I’m going to do it. Starting … I don’t care if I’m the 12th man, I’m going to work like the 12th man regardless. So it doesn’t matter.”
Star sophomore forward Trevon Brazile — named earlier on Monday to the 50-player watch list for the postseason Naismith Trophy National Player of the Year award — started and had 13 points (4-of-5 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 4-of-4 free throws), 6 rebounds, and 1 steal before being ejected at the 10:48 mark of the second half for running onto the court from the bench after a Braves player was whistled for a flagrant-1 foul for throwing Battle to the floor on a drive.
“We were a little conservative on the front end (brining Brazile back to game action after a knee injury), and now he’s able to play the way that he’s capable of playing,” Musselman said. “He’s improved as a shooter. I thought athletically tonight, he rose above a lot of people. Yeah, I would say he’s 100% healthy and kind of fearless the way he’s jumping and rebounding in traffic.”
Senior guard El Ellis started and finished with 8 points (3-of-6 field goals, including 1-of-4 from 3, and 1-of-2 free throws), 4 assists, 1 steal, and 3 turnovers in 23 minutes. Senior forward / center Jalen Graham — he missed both of the Hogs’ exhibition games with back spasms – returned to his reserve role and had an outstanding 8-point (on 4-of-6 field goals and 0-of-2 free throws) and 8-rebound (led the team) showing in only 14 minutes. Star senior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis started and had 5 points, 5 rebounds, a game-high 5 assists, 1 steal, and ZERO turnovers in 24 minutes.
Senior 4/5-combo Chandler Lawson started at center and had 2 points (2-of-2 free throws), 2 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 turnover in 8 minutes. Senior center Makhi Mitchell played only 4 minutes off the bench and his only game statistic was committing a foul. Sophomore wing Joseph Pinion had 7 points (1-of-2 shooting from 3 and 4-of-4 free throws), 2 steals, 1 rebound, and 1 block in 13 minutes. Senior forward Denijay Harris (5 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists), freshman center Baye Fall (4 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals, and 5 fouls in 9 minutes), senior wing Jeremiah Davenport (3 points on 1-of-6 shooting from 3), and freshman guard Layden Blocker (1 assist, 1 steal, and 5 fouls in 10 minutes) all contributed production in the win.
“I thought (Graham) was great,” Musselman said. “He rebounded the ball with some physicality, kind of grab and go. He got a defensive rebound and pushed it with some good pace. I thought he played really good. I mean, we’re not going to play 13 guys in a half. That’s just not — and guys are playing their ways into rotations and guys are playing their ways out, that’s just kind of how it happens. But we’ll probably shorten the rotation. When that is, I don’t know. The game will dictate it. But we’ve got a lot of areas that we have to get better at for sure.
“(Devo) had five, five and five. So I thought across the board, he played really well. Made some great passes. The most important thing is Devo didn’t have a turnover. I thought our point guard play — we got to take better care of the ball, for sure. Maybe Devo slides over there and plays a little bit more point guard. We’ll go back and watch the film and discuss that.”
Graham was relieved to return to game action.
“I’m just glad to be back with my teammates,” Graham said. “Sitting out from the sidelines is always tough. Yeah, it felt good just running up and down and contributing to a win.”
After starting 1-of-6 shooting from 3, the Razorbacks made 11 of their final 24 attempts from distance to finish 12-of-30 beyond the arc (40.0%). Overall, Arkansas shot 28-of-54 from the field (51.9%) and the team made 25-of-37 at the foul line (67.6%). The Hogs had 20 assists on their 28 made field goals, and the team made 238 passes on the offensive end of the floor to easily surpass Head Hog Eric Musselman’s preference of his offense making at least 200 passes per game.
Defensively, Arkansas held ASU to under 40% shooting from the field (20-of-51 for 39.2%), and the Hogs minimized the Braves’s three-point shooting to a 3-of-9 effort for 33.3%). Alcorn State maed 16-of-26 free throws (61.5%).
Arkansas was only plus-1 in turnovers (16-15) but the Razorbacks enjoyed a lopsided 22-10 edge in points-off-turnovers. The Hogs dominated the glass (44-26), which including a 14-7 advantage on the offensive boards. Arkansas won points-in-the-paint (32-30), fastbreak scoring (18-13), bench scoring (49-17), steals (10-7), blocks (4-3), and assists (20-7).
Musselman improved to 5-0 in season-openers at Arkansas as he remained perfect (34-0) in regular-season non-conference games played at BWA. He’s now 96-42 overall as Head Hog, which includes a 51-9 record against non-conference opponents and a 45-33 mark against SEC foes (all three marks include postseason results).
“We talked before the game about how we knew we were going to have a great student section, which it was,” Musselman said. “And how do we get the students back for Friday, and the following Monday, and you’ve got to do it by taking care of business. Playing the right way, playing hard. I thought we did all those things for the most part.
“I told the team before the game, somebody’s getting beat tonight across the country. I told the team, I promise, somebody’s getting beat. VCU lost a home. Cal Bear are in a dogfight with St. Thomas tonight from Minnesota as I walk in here. St. Thomas was up three against a Pac-12 school. So you’ve got to great respect for who you play every night. Alcorn State, I would be shocked if they don’t have a heck of a year in the SWAC. I really would. They’re well-coached. They mix up their defenses, they’re scrappy and they play hard.”
Alcorn State (0-1) came into the game as the two-time defending Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season champions. Teh Braves were led by guards Jerem Gambrell (17 points) and Byron Joshua (12 points).
Although the result did not count, Arkansas was coming off a dramatic 81-77 overtime exhibition-game win over No. 3 Purdue on Oct. 28 that was played to a packed house at BWA.
Next up, Arkansas will host the second of four consecutive home games at BWA against Gardner-Webb at 7 p.m. CT, Friday, Nov. 10 (livestream via SEC Network Plus).
Musselman started the quintet of Brazile, Davis, Mark, Ellis, and Lawson, the same five that took the court first against the Boilermakers just more than a week ago.
After going up 8-4, the Razorbacks outscored the Braves 29-13 capped by Battle’s second made triple to run out to their first 20-point lead at 37-17. Mark hit his second and third three-pointers as part of a 9-5 Hogs spurt that put Arkansas ahead at halftime, 46-22.
Mark’s 13 points and Battle’s 12 led the first-half scoring attack, while Brazile had 9 points (on three dunks and a triple of his own) and a team-high 6 rebounds through the first 20 minutes.
Arkansas made 16-of-27 field goals in the opening half (59.3%), including 6-of-15 from 3 (40%), and 8-of-15 at the free throw line (53.3%). Defensiveley, the Hogs held ASU to 10-of-27 field goal shooting (37.0%), including only 1-of-4 from 3 (25%). The Braves were only 1-of-3 at the free throw line (33.3%) in the first half.
The Razorbacks were plus-8 on the glass (21-13) in the first half, including plus-3 on the offensive boards (7-4) for a 6-2 advantage in second-chance-points. Arkansas was only plus-1 in turnovers (8-7), but despite that narrow margin the Hogs were able to dominate points-off-turnovers (13-0). Arkansas won points-in-the-paint (20-16) in the first 20 minutes while also owning bench scoring (18-4) and fastbreak points (10-3).