By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — There can only be one! That famous line from the 1980s sci-fi cult classic Highlander was applicable when Arkansas and Kentucky pushed their lengthy league winning streaks to the middle of the table on Tuesday in a Bubble battle in Lexington, Ky., and after emerging with a decisive 88-73 winning hand the Razorbacks find themselves in another tussle with winning streaks on the line when Mississippi State invades Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville for a weekend SEC tilt.

Arkansas (17-7, 6-5 SEC, NCAA NET No. 23) has won five consecutive league games, including back-to-back road wins over Kentucky and South Carolina for the team’s first road victories of the season. The Hogs are back at home where they’re 11-1 on the season, and they’re looking to add to their near spotless 15-1 record in February games going back to the 2020-21 season.

Mississippi State (16-8, 4-7 SEC, NCAA NET No. 48) has won four consecutive games — back-to-back home wins over LSU and Missouri in the Bulldogs’ last two outings that were preceded by a road win over South Carolina and an impressive 81-74 home triumph over then-No. 11 TCU in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The ‘Dogs are 1-4 on the road in SEC play.

The Hogs and Bulldogs will square off at 5 p.m. CT on Saturday (ESPNU) at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

In Tuesday’s matchup at Kentucky, Arkansas won its third consecutive game against the Wildcats including back-to-back road wins at Rupp, which was a program first.

In what was the team’s most complete end-to-end performance of the season, Arkansas’ backcourt trio of freshman Anthony Black and juniors Ricky Council IV and Davonte “Devo” Davis combined for 54 points, 16 assists, 10 rebounds, and 7 steals while shooting a collective 19-of-35 from the field (54.3%) and 13-of-17 at the free throw line (76.5%).

Senior big man Makhel Mitchell started once again and had 15 points (7-of-9 field goals and 1-of-1 free throw), 5 blocks, and 4 rebounds in 29 minutes. Freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh had 13 points (4-of-4 field goals, including 1-of-1 from 3, and 4-of-4 free throws), 1 rebound, and 1 block in 22 minutes off the bench.

Arkansas methodically stretched a 1-point halftime lead into a 16-point advantage down the stretch of the second half with steady doses of stingy defense (inside and out) and an attacking offense (both in halfcourt and transition). The Razorbacks gravitated to the paint and the rim to shoot lights-out offensively (18-of-25 field goals in the second half for 72.0% as part of an overall 32-of-51 effort from the field for 62.7%, which included 4-of-9 shooting from 3 for 44.4%, and 20-of-24 free throws for 83.3%). They were also successful defensively shutting down the reigning National and SEC Player of the Year in Kentucky’s 6-9 big man Oscar Tshiebwe, who averaged 15.9 points and 13.6 rebounds coming in but finished with only 7 points (on 6 shot attempts) and 7 rebounds on Tuesday.

The Hogs dominated the interior with a runaway 46-28 advantage in points-in-the-paint. They were minus-8 on the offensive glass (14-6) but once again stayed close in second-chance-points at only minus-2 (13-11). The Razorbacks gobbled up 10 steals and had 7 blocks in the game, feeding a plus-4 edge in turnovers (15-11), a plus-13 advantage in points-off-turnovers (23-10), and a plus-10 edge in fastbreak scoring (20-10).

The Razorbacks have scored 80-plus points in two of their last three games (includes an 81-70 home win over Texas A&M on Jan. 31), but they’ll be challenged to keep their positive offensive vibes going against MSU’s national top-5 rated defense that is yielding only 58.5 points per game. The Hogs have been stingy defensively as well, sporting a national top 15 defense that has so far held 10 opponents to fewer than 60 points.

Arkansas is 35-32 all-time against Mississippi State and has won 2 of the last 3 meetings between the two schools. The teams split two games last season with each winning on its home court.

After hosting MSU on Saturday, Arkansas goes back on the road for a rematch against Texas A&M (8 p.m. CT, Wednesday, ESPN2).

Muss musings

On the status of Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr. (right knee management): “Nick has practiced the last few days with us. Obviously he did not go on the road trip so he could continue to stay back here and work on his conditioning. We’re optimistic and hopeful that Nick will be able to play some time here in the near future.”

On the Kentucky Derby theme served up to the Hogs during their pre-game talk: “We did have a theme of the Kentucky Derby, for sure. It was taped. I don’t know if it will be out on social media or not. It will be out on social media at some point. I don’t know if it will be out in the next few days or in the summer. But it will be out at some point. But it was more just how hard it is for a horse to get into the Kentucky Derby and then how hard it is for a team to win on the road, to win in a place like Rupp. And then the significance of what a Kentucky Derby winner when he wins and then the significance of us winning a big game. So there was a little bit of parallel.”

On the emergence and matchup value of Arkansas senior center Makhel Mitchell (7.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 23.4 minutes, 66.7% field goals in the Hogs’ last 7 games): “He’s been really locked in on the scouting report. Pre-practice and post-practice here is really important. Last night was by far his best finishing game. When you look at his numbers from the field, he had a fabulous rim run with a high degree of difficulty pass to catch on the run. He was able to not only catch the ball but gather himself and finish. He hit a mid-range shot. His defense, his physicality, his defense rim-protection. It’s really important against some of these teams we’ve played of late. Obviously when you think about Texas A&M, you think about their offensive rebounding, you think about Coleman and Marble inside, so it made sense for Makhel to have a big role. Then you think about Kentucky’s frontline and how you’re going to defend and who’s going to be primarily assigned to Oscar Tshiebwe. Khel made perfect sense on that. And now certainly coming into Mississippi State, the post-up game, especially of No. 1, Tolu Smith, is of the highest importance to us, along with when (Will) McNair comes in, try to eliminate post-ups of both those two interior players and then we’ve got to defensive rebound with guys like D.J. Jeffries and Cam Matthews.”

How Nick Smith, Jr., fits at this stage of the season

With the recent disclosure of the return of Nick Smith, Jr., to practice signaling a return to game action in the near future, sources have told that Smith could play as soon as Saturday against Mississippi State.

Obviously there are question marks regarding how that affects playing time, rotations, and on-court chemistry for a Hoop Hogs squad that is on a roll while also raising questions about exactly when, and how much, Smith will contribute.

The 6-5 guard from Jacksonville previously played in only five games for Arkansas after missing the team’s first six games due to the same right knee management, and the first of those appearances was against Troy in late November as Smith played only six minutes in the first half. In the four games following the Troy contest when Smith played significant minutes in the rotation, he averaged 16.0 points, 2.3 assists, and 2.0 rebounds in 28.0 minutes per game while shooting 40.4% from the field, including 31.2% from 3, and 84.2% from the free throw line.

It’s reasonable to think after a nearly two-month layoff and 13 missed games that Smith could see a similar role and clock against MSU that he had against Troy, although it’s not a given (even if likely) that he’ll play Saturday. Whenever he does return to the court, it will be interesting to see how quickly his impact takes hold.

From this vantage point we’re expecting to see a ramp-up in role and minutes, though, similar to how things worked out before, which is to say barring another setback Smith should get back to the starting lineup and back to being a game-closer among the top-minute players sooner rather than later as the Hogs have seven remaining regular-season games before the SEC tournament.

Arkansas is improved as a three-point shooting team but not proven there or at the free throw line as well as other aspects on offense, and Smith is too good as a three-level scorer, facilitator, free-throw-attempts generator and efficient free throw shooter, and all-around matchup problem for him to play a reduced role for long.

Arkansas’ offense becomes less predictable with Smith on the floor because of his ability to shoot from distance and displace defenders when he drives using his full menu of shot creation and counter moves. He’s also the Hogs best chance defensively in tandem with Davis to equalize smaller, quicker guards on the perimeter.

This will obviously impact other Hogs’ playing time, but it may not be as significant as one might think. Black, Council, and Davis lead the SEC in minutes per game — each is over 35 minutes per contest — so an across-the-board reduction in backcourt minutes on small scales plus some small-ball lineups in small doses will peel some minutes away from frontliners.

Each game presents different personnel matchups, playing styles, and various other dynamics that will continue to impact rotations and minutes that Musselman doles out, but rest assured Smith at 100% healthy will factor heavily as both a starter and closer. Even though Musselman has had to adjust schemes at both ends of the floor while Smith was out, the reward is too great with Smith in the mix for Musselman not to tweak his master plan once again, and as much as necessary.

Scouting the Mississippi State Bulldogs

Like the Razorbacks, Mississippi State was once a national Top 15-ranked team in the Associated Press poll earlier this season. But also like Arkansas, the Bulldogs were slow out of the gates in SEC play, losing 6 of their first 7 league games.

First-year head coach Chris Jans — a defensive-minded leader and a big winner at New Mexico State where his last game as head coach was an NCAA Tournament Round of 32 loss against Musselman and the Razorbacks, 53-48, in March 2022 — has his MSU squad back on solid footing with the aforementioned four-game winning streak.

Mississippi State ranks No. 45 in Division 1 according to ratings (No. 4 in adjusted defensive efficiency, and No. 185 in adjusted offensive efficiency).

The Bulldogs consistently go with an 8-man rotation, similar to Arkansas’ player rotation.

Senior 6-11 forward Tolu Smith is MSU’s only double-figure scorer by average as he notches 14.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 26.2 minutes per outing while shooting 58.4% from the field and 54.6% from the free throw line. Senior 6-7 forward DJ Jeffries is averaging 9.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.3 steals in 30.6 minutes per game while shooting 33.6% from the field, including 28.0% from 3, and 57.8% from the free throw line.

Junior 6-1 guard Shakeel Moore (9.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals, 41.0% field goals, 27.1% three-point field goals, 78.8% free throws), senior 6-2 guard and Oregon State transfer Dashawn Davis (7.9 points, 3.5 assists, 2.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 37.4% field goals, 39.0% three-point field goals, 73.8% free throws), and junior 6-7 wing Cam Matthews (6.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 46.9% field goals, 14.3% three-point field goals, 67.3% free throws) give the ‘Dogs a formidable backcourt especially at the defensive end of the floor.

The transfer trio of senior 6-8 forward Tyler Stevenson, senior 6-2 guard Eric Reed, Jr., and senior 6-11 forward Will McNair, Jr., should factor into the ‘Dogs plans against the Hogs. McNair had 6 points and 7 rebounds for New Mexico State in the Aggies’ aforementioned 5-point loss to Arkansas in the NCAAT second round on March 19, 2022, before coming to MSU with Jans in the offseason.

Defensively, MSU is physical with aggression to jump passing lanes and a dedication to a grinding, low-tempo style. The ‘Dogs are holding teams to only 20.8 made field goals per game (ranks 10th in Division 1) and 38.6% field goal shooting (ranks 7th in D1) while committing only 14.5 fouls per outing and yielding only 13.2 free throw attempts per game (ranks 9th in D1). MSU collects 9.5 steals per contest (ranks 8th in D1] while forcing 15.5 turnovers per outing.

Offensively, the ‘Dogs are less impressive and struggle scoring (65.5 points per game), overall shooting from the field (42.0%), shooting from 3 (27.9%), and free throw shooting (62.4%). MSU does pound the offensive glass (12.9 per game ranks 17th in D1) and is a respectable facilitating group (14.5 assists per game ranks 87th in D1).

Arkansas’ front-and-center challenges will be to once again not get crushed on the offensive glass while being vigilant on offense in terms of attacking the paint and the rim while limiting three-point shot attempts. Obviously, staying competitive in turnovers, free throws, points-in-the-paint, and transition scoring are always keys for a Hogs team that has struggled at times in those aspects of the game.

“The biggest thing with Mississippi State is you’ve got to be prepared for physicality,” Musselman said. “This is a team that loves to create steals. They average 10 steals a game. It’s a high-gamble team defensively. They jump in passing lanes. The pace of play, they try to control the pace of play. It’s a paint game. You’ve got to be able to defensively defend the paint, starting with Tolu Smith inside, who’s averaging 15 points a game on the year and 13 in conference play.

“Perimeter wise they have Dashawn Davis, No. 10, an Oregon State transfer who can make threes. A high-assist player. Then Shakeel Moore, an NC State transfer, lefty, who can shoot the ball and is playing really well of late. Then they have some really athletic wings with great size in Cam Matthews, No. 4 and Tyler Stevenson, No. 14, and D.J. Jeffries, No. 0. Then two big guys inside in Tolu Smith, No. 1, and McNair, who played at New Mexico State last year and we played against him in the NCAA Tournament, No. 13. So boxing out, keeping them off the offensive glass, getting a shot on goal, not allowing their steal game or their defensive anticipation to get out and create transition baskets for them. Those will be some of the keys to Saturday’s game.”

Hoop Hogs national and 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 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 in early December 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 has been out of both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll since Jan. 23, which at the time marked the first time this season that the Hogs were unranked.

As of Friday, Feb. 10, the Razorbacks ranked No. 23 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 2-5 record in Quad-1 games — a road win over Kentucky, a neutral-site win over San Diego State, a neutral-site loss against Creighton, a road loss against Auburn, a home loss against Alabama, a road loss against Baylor, and a road loss against Missouri; b) a 4-1 record in Q2 games — a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home win over Bradley, a home win over Missouri, a home win over Texas A&M, and a road loss against Vanderbilt; and c) 11-1 record in Q3 and Q4 games (road loss against LSU currently counts as a Q3 defeat). The Hoop Hogs are 3rd among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Alabama an No. 2 Tennessee. The upcoming home game against NET No. 48 Mississippi State on Saturday will count as a Q2 result.

Looking at three other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 16 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 21 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 19 according to ratings (includes No. 12 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 55 in adjusted offensive efficiency).

Arkansas was projected as a No. 8 seed on Thursday in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field — a huge leap from a projected 11-seed (fourth in the pecking order of four teams to receive the last four byes and not playing in the First Four play-in games as of Tuesday.