By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — The annual Big 12/SEC Challenge will write its final chapter this weekend, and the Arkansas Razorbacks not only have a chance to pick up their first-ever road win in the event (and first road win of the season), but they have a chance to add a trophy Quad-1 victory to their postseason resume when they take on the 17th-ranked Baylor Bears on Saturday in Waco, Texas.

Arkansas (14-6, 3-5 SEC, NCAA NET No. 26) is coming off back-to-back wins at home against league bottom-feeders LSU and Ole Miss as those victories elevated the Hogs out of last place in the league after a 1-5 start that included four road losses. The Baylor tilt will mark the Hogs’ fifth road game of the season and the next opportunity for the team to earn its first win in a true road game.

Baylor (15-5, 5-3 SEC, NCAA NET No. 15) boasts one of the best offenses in college basketball, and the Bears have won five consecutive games — the most-recent coming at home against No. 9 Kansas, 75-69, on Monday — after losing back-to-back games at home against TCU and Kansas State to begin January.

The Hogs and Bears will square off at 3 p.m. CT on Saturday (ESPN) in a rematch from two years ago in March 2021 when top-seeded Baylor defeated third-seeded Arkansas, 81-72, in the South Region finals in Indianapolis to punch its ticket to the Final Four. The Bears would go on to defeat Gonzaga in the NCAAT finale to win the ’20-21 national championship.

The Hogs are 4-4 all-time in the Big 12/SEC Challenge but have never won on the road in the event (home wins over Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, TCU, and West Virginia; and road losses against Iowa State, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State twice). Arkansas is 1-0 against the Big 12 this season counting a 10-point win over Oklahoma in Tulsa in early December.

Arkansas and Baylor were long-time league foes in the old Southwest Conference, and the Razorbacks are 96-48 all-time against the Bears, although Baylor has won the last two meetings between the schools with a 2-1 series edge since Arkansas joined the SEC in ’91-92.

In its most-recent triumphs over LSU and Ole Miss, Arkansas won each game by double-digit margins while turning around its fortunes in turnovers (a collective plus-9 in turnovers for a combined plus-27 in points-off-turnovers), three-point shooting (a collective 13-of-33 for 39.4% compared to the opposition’s combined 6-of-22 for 27.3%), and free-throws-made-and-attempted margins (a break-even collective 18-of-29 for 62.1% compared to the opposition’s combined 17-of-29 for 58.6) after suffering massive accumulative losses in those three critical categories during the team’s four-game losing streak.

Defensively, the Hogs went from having a national top 10 defense in adjusted efficiency to outside the top 20 during their losing streak — according to analytics — but back-to-back stout efforts against the Tigers and Rebels moved the Hogs up to No. 13 in Division 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Arkansas yielded a combined overall field-goal shooting effort of 37-of-106 for 34.9% against LSU and Ole Miss after having it biggest defensive lapses of the season in that four-game losing skid.

Taking on Baylor’s high-functioning, high-pressure offensive attack (more on that down the page) will be a heavy lift for the Hogs despite recent gains on the defensive side of the ball.

Part of what made the Arkansas-Baylor tilt such a sexy matchup with nationally relevant stakes when it was developed by ESPN in the offseason as part of the one-day, 20-team, 10-game event was based on both teams coming into the ’22-23 campaign with preseason national Top 10 rankings.

Baylor has upheld its end of the poll rankings expectations, but the crushing losses of Arkansas star freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr. (knee management, out indefinitely) and star sophomore forward Trevon Brazile (out for the remainder of the season since early December with a knee injury) left the Hogs’ lineup limited and vulnerable while being the biggest catalyst in that 5-losses-in-6-games skid to open league play that resulted in the team tumbling out of the poll rankings.

Several Hogs have stepped up their play in the team’s mini-resurgence headlined by junior guard and Jacksonville native Davonte “Devo” Davis, whose play has been all-league-worthy in Arkansas’ last five outings with 16.6 points (on 47.8% field goals, including 10-of-20 from 3 for 50%, and 9-of-11 free throws for 81.8%), 6.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.2 steals in 39.0 minutes per contest during that stretch of games.

Starters Anthony Black, Ricky Council IV, Jordan Walsh, and Makhi Mitchell continue to produce and in some ways have elevated their contributions with reserves Joseph Pinion, Jalen Graham, and Makhel Mitchell (currently out with a foot injury) pitching in during spot duty.

It’s a group that has taken its lumps — including letting two second-half double-digit leads slip away in their last two roads losses against Vanderbilt and Missouri — before getting back on the winning track at home, and the next step is carving a path to their first road win of the season.

“I think for sure finishing the game the right way,” Arkansas assistant coach Gus Argenal said of the Razorbacks’ keys to winning on the road. “I think that’s been the common theme and is the common theme for (head coach Eric Musselman’s) teams that I’ve been a part of, and this is the fourth one. At the end of games, there’s 4-5 minutes left and it’s a one-possession game a majority of the time and then somebody breaks it open. Finishing the game the right way, so what does that mean? It means not having careless turnovers to end a game. Our last road game was Missouri. Getting a defensive rebound off a free throw then not turning it over, getting a shot on goal, getting the right shot and the right person the ball that’s playing the best that night. I think that’s part of our growth.

“We’re not where we want to be, so I do think that’s an exciting piece, that we haven’t really gotten that done yet at the level we need to. We’re doing it better at home right now, but, again, on the road it’s another level of focus, shot selection, game management, time management. And then defensively, digging your heels in and getting big, big defensive rebounds. And not letting the game affect your emotions. I think you’ve seen us at times get a little bit over-excited, a little bit overly down. You’ve got to stay confident with what our game plan is and then allowing Coach to put everybody in the right spot and letting the game play out and not beat yourself.”

If their first win on the road this season were to happen at Baylor on Saturday, it would count as the Hogs’ second Quad-1 win of the season and significantly bolster the team’s NCAAT postseason resume.

After the Baylor game, Arkansas returns to SEC play with a home matchup against Texas A&M on Tuesday followed by a road game against South Carolina on Saturday, Feb. 4.

Gus musings

On Devo Davis calling a second-half timeout on his own accord to stop an LSU run: “He probably takes the cake for that one. Devo has the utmost respect from the staff. There’s a trust with Coach (Musselman) and Devo that I think with the years that they’ve had together. With the career he’s had, he’s earned that trust at times. We’ve had a couple players I’ve been around, probably the Martin twins at Nevada, probably last year with JD (Notae) and J-Will (Jaylin Williams) would have gotten away with that. But not many. I think Devo has a great pulse on our team, and has a great connection with Coach Muss and the staff.”

On Devo Davis’ recent surge in his overall play: “He’s stepped up and taken on every perimeter challenge that we’ve given him throughout the year, and he continues to get better defensively as well. That’s one thing … Sometimes as the season goes on, players start to get a little bit run down and tired. But his energy has gone through the roof. Then I think on the offensive side, he’s taken real quality shots. He’s not forcing things. He’s taking what the defense is giving him, and he’s putting in a lot of work. His energy throughout the year is continuing to get better and better. And his work ethic, extra shooting on his own … I’ve walked in here multiple times and the lights are kind of dimmed and he’s in there zoned in, shooting with a graduate assistant or a manager or by himself on the shooting machine. It’s really a credit to him. And then taking the coaching, shot selection. Taking the right shot at the right time.”

On players’ anticipation to compete in the Big 12/SEC Challenge: “I think they’re really excited. When you have the opportunity to play in this challenge with two of the best leagues in America, two of the best programs in our opinion, how could you not be excited? We have a lot of guys obviously that are from Texas, too. I think that adds to it. These two teams played a couple years back in a huge game in the NCAA Tournament. So there is a history. Our guys love the challenge. And again, I think it’s something that they’re really looking forward to. This is going to be an NCAA Tournament type game. So how could you not be…I know as a staff, we’re really excited about the challenge. And again, it’s another barometer to see where we’re at. Not like the SEC doesn’t give us a lot of those barometers, having played Auburn, Alabama and all of these teams that are, you know Missouri, that are ranked in the top 25. But this is a game that you don’t often get to play. We need to play well on the road. That’s an area that we have to improve. This is no better place to start than doing it at Baylor, which will be a crazy crowd and a great opportunity.”

Scouting the Baylor Bears

Baylor has been one of the best programs in college basketball for more than a decade under head coach Scott Drew, and spanning the past three seasons the Bears won the 2020-21 national championship followed by an epic battle (and loss) to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 in ’21-22, and now the Bears are currently sitting one game out of first place in a loaded Big 12 field.

The Bears are 10-2 in non-conference games with neutral-site wins over ranked UCLA and Gonzaga squads. Their two non-conference losses were away from home against a ranked Virginia team and Marquette.

Baylor ranks No. 15 in Division 1 according to ratings (No. 2 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and No. 90 in adjusted defensive efficiency).

Offensively, the Bears rank in the top 25 in Division 1 in these categories: No. 11 in free throws made per game (17.3), No. 20 in free throws attempted per game (23.3), No. 24 in three-point makes per game (9.4), No. 25 in three-point attempts per game (26.3), and No. 25 in offensive rebounds per game (12.7). The Bears are shooting 45.2% from the field, including 35.8% from 3. They’re shooting 74.2% from the free throw line to rank 69th in D1, and they average 15.7 assists per game to rank 33rd in D1 and 79.4 points per outing to rank 31st in D1. The team commits 12.8 turnovers per game.

Defensively, Baylor is not a strong rim-protecting team (only 2.9 blocks per game) but does collect 7.4 steals while forcing 14.6 opposition turnovers per outing. Teams are shooting 43.8% from the field against the Bears, including 32.9% from 3. Baylor has a tendency to foul, committing 17.8 per game as its opponents are attempting 18.5 free throws per game.

The Bears go 9-deep with all 9 players averaging between 15 and 32 minutes per game. The team boasts an elite starting backcourt with three versatile guards leading the charge.

Freshman star and projected 2023 NBA draft lottery pick Keyonte George (6-4) is averaging 16.9 points (38.4% field goal shooting, including 34.4% from 3, and 78.5% from the free throw line) to go with 4.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.0 steal in 29.4 minutes per game.

Senior 6-3 guard Adam Flagler averages 16.1 points (43.2% field goals, including 43.6% from 3 with 2.8 made triples per game, and 82.1% from the free throw line), 5.1 assists, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in 32.1 minutes per game. Junior 6-1 guard LJ Cryer averages 14.2 points (45.5% field goals, including 39.8% from 3, and 82.4% free throws), 2.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists in 31.2 minutes per game.

Junior 6-7 forward and West Virginia transfer Jalen Bridges is averaging 9.6 points (50.7% field goals, including 26.2% from 3, and 76.6% from the free throw line), 5.7 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, and 1.1 assists in 24.8 minutes per game. The 6-10 big man duo of senior Flo Thamba and freshman Josh Ojianwuna combine to average 11.0 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 1.0 block per game as each is converting 60% or better on field goals mostly taken around the basket.

Freshman guard Langston Love, senior guard Dale Bonner, and junior forward Caleb Lohner each factors into the Bears’ top rotation while bringing quality depth and production.

Arkansas’ struggles on the road have included a lopsided disadvantage in turnovers and points-off-turnovers, free throw disparities in large volume of makes and takes as well as efficiency, and second-half lapses on defense including in transition. Defending three-point shooting, and limiting fouls and/or easy scores in half-court will be a challenge given all of Baylor’s on-ball and off-ball screens and ghost screens meant to confuse and circumvent defenders’ assignment integrity while freeing up shooters and drivers and getting rim-runners downhill for layups. All of that activity feeds into Baylor’s adeptness at pulling down offensive rebounds and drawing fouls to get to the free throw line in bulk.

Limiting live-ball turnovers and being competitive on the glass will also be key for the Hogs, who should remain conservative and poised in their offensive three-point shooting while playing to their strength of attacking the paint and rim with hopes of creating their own free throw success to keep pace with the Bears. Building on the transition-scoring success that they had against LSU could be the biggest key for the Hogs to give themselves a chance to pull off an upset on the road.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” Argenal said. “We have great respect for their program, for their team, for their staff. The big thing obviously is they’re unbelievable on offense right now … They shoot the three as good as any team we’ll play. They get to free throw line as good as any team we’ll play. They offensive rebound as good as any team. Those are three areas that we’ve got to be dialed into. For us, offensively, the one thing we have to do is we have run. I think that we have to create points out of our transition scorers. We call them hidden points. Where can we score where that maybe it doesn’t pop up in the boxscore.

“Teams that have shot the three really well have hurt us a little bit this year. So we can’t allow them to get two or three off in a row. We have to make them play inside the arc as much as possible, which is really hard to do, because they run great action. You can’t fall asleep off the ball. Then they’re really good in the pick-and-roll. And as passing team, they’re quality. The ball scores for them. If you watched the Kansas game, they did a great job of iso-ing and shooting tough shots on good defenders. Our defense is going to have to be elite. And then offensively, they do foul a lot if you look at their statistics, so we have to get to the free throw line and we have to run in transition. We can’t let our offense just be on the half-court.”

Council latest Hoop Hog to earn national and/or SEC honors

Arkansas junior wing Ricky Council IV was one of 50 players named to the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Oscar Robertson Trophy mid-season watch list that was released on Thursday, Jan. 19. The honor is awarded in the postseason to recognize the national player of the year in college basketball.

Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., was named the USBWA National Freshman of the Week, the SEC Freshman of the Week, and Dick Vitale’s National Diaper Dandy after leading the then-No. 9 Hoop Hogs in combined scoring (21.5 points per game) to go with 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 steal in the team’s wins over UNC-Greensboro (Dec. 6) and Oklahoma (Dec. 10).

The previous week, Council was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 22.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.0 steals while shooting 71% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 100% at the free throw line to pace the Hoop Hogs in wins over Troy (Nov. 28) and San Jose State (Dec. 3).

The week before that, Arkansas freshman guard Anthony Black was named SEC Co-Freshman of the Week after averaging 22.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.7 steals while shooting 55% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 86% at the free throw line in the Hoop Hogs’ 2-1 run / 3rd-place finish in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii (Nov. 21-23). Black led all scorers in the event and was named to the all tournament team.

How Razorbacks stack up in polls, NCAA NET, analytics, and bracketology

Arkansas dropped out of both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll when those were released on Monday, Jan. 23, marking the first time this season that the Hogs were unranked.

As of Thursday, Jan. 26, the Razorbacks ranked No. 26 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 1-4 record in Quad-1 games — a neutral-site win over No. 25 San Diego State, a neutral-site loss against No. 20 Creighton, a road loss against No. 33 Auburn, a home loss against No. 3 Alabama, and a road loss against No. 49 Missouri; b) a 2-2 record in Q2 games — a neutral-site win over No. 65 Oklahoma, a home win over No. 49 Missouri, and road losses against No. 92 Vanderbilt and No. 133 LSU; and c) 11-0 record in Q3 and Q4 games. The Hoop Hogs are 4th among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Tennessee, No. 3 Alabama, and No. 26 Auburn. The upcoming road game against Missouri on Wednesday will count as a Q1 result.

Looking at three of the other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 21 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 25 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 22 according to ratings (includes No. 13 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 62 in adjusted offensive efficiency).

Arkansas was projected as a No. 8 seed in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.