By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — February is finally here, which in the two previous years meant the start of the second half of SEC play with the Arkansas Razorbacks mounting near-perfect marches toward March Madness. Once again in 2022-23, the Hoop Hogs appear to be on track for another significant course correction having won three consecutive league games after a 1-5 start.

The Hogs were a collective 13-1 in Februarys (including 5-1 on the road) when stacking the ’20-21 and ’21-22 seasons side-by-side, and the program could be headed for more second-month success this season with one order of business looming large: Picking up a road win, any road win for their first in ’22-23. At 0-5 in true road games (including 0-4 in SEC road games), the team’s next chance is its first February game — at South Carolina on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Gamecocks have yet to win a league game on their homecourt and have not won in Columbia, S.C., since defeating non-conference foe Eastern Michigan, 74-64, on Dec. 30.

You know what that means: Somebody’s O has got to go!

Arkansas (15-7, 4-5 SEC, NCAA NET No. 28) is coming off back-to-back-to-back double-digit-margin league home wins over Texas A&M (81-70), LSU (60-40), and Ole Miss (69-57) that were sandwiched around a non-conference road loss against Baylor (67-64) in the final Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday. Despite being winless on the road, the Razorbacks are 4-6 in all games played away from their home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

South Carolina (8-14, 1-8 SEC, NCAA NET No. 283) has lost six consecutive games by an average margin of 19.5 points.

The Hogs and Gamecocks will square off at 2:30 p.m. CT on Saturday (SEC Network).

“I think with us, we’re continuing to try to get better,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said of his team’s improvement that still has not translated to winning on the road. “We’re continuing to evolve. We’re one play away from winning at LSU, we’re one play away from winning at Missouri, we’re one play away from winning at Baylor. So I wouldn’t say we’ve played bad basketball on the road. I would just say we’ve been unfortunate in three games not to catch a break, and obviously we need to try to create one more possession on the road than what we had in those three games. Auburn is as difficult a place to play as there is. Every place we’ve played so far has been a sellout as well.”

Junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis has been at the heart of the Hogs’ surge. As the team’s best on-ball defender, Davis has increased his offensive production and efficiency by averaging 16.4 points while shooting a collective 16-of-35 shooting from 3 (45.7%) spanning the Hogs’ last seven games.

Junior guard and the team’s leading scorer Ricky Council IV has also increased his production, leading (or co-leading) the team in scoring the last two games (22.0 per outing) while also contributing 3.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists. Freshman guard Anthony Black has scored in double-figures in five of the team’s last six games, and he’s vastly increased his per-game assists (5.2) and steals (2.2) in the same span. Freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh has upped his production and efficiency, averaging 9.0 points and 3.6 rebounds while shooting 54.8% field goals, including 5-of-9 from 3 for 55.6%, in Arkansas’ last five games.

Big men twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell have created the team’s best one-two interior punch in recent weeks, with the duo combining for a triple-double — 15 points, 18 rebounds, 10 blocks, and 2 steals — in the Hogs’ win over Texas A&M on Tuesday. Reserves Jalen Graham and Joseph Pinion have played key roles in spot duty in helping the team win three of its last four games.

Defensively, the Hogs have been stout in their last three outings while holding teams to low field-goal shooting percentages: LSU 25.9%, Baylor 33.9%, and Texas A&M 34.2%. The team went from having a national top 10 defense in adjusted efficiency to outside the top 20 during its losing streak — according to analytics — but the aforementioned gains have moved the Hogs up to No. 12 in Division 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Things have gotten better on the offensive end of late for the Razorbacks as well. Arkansas has shot 50% or better from the field in its last two games, with 16 assists in each, while three-point shooting efficiency and volume have both been surging for weeks (collective 37-of-100 for 37% in the last six games).

Excessive turnovers and fouling remain the two biggest weaknesses of the team.

“I think with this team we’ve lost one-possession games three times on the road,” Musselman said while re-inforcing his previous point that his team is not far from being on pace for success. “If you win one or two of those, our record is very similar to what it’s been in the past. But this is the most difficult schedule that we’ve had in conference play by far. Sometimes that’s just the luck of the draw. A&M had one loss coming into our game, we play them twice. Obviously, Tennessee is a top-five ranked team, and we still have them on the road. We still have Alabama on the road, so we have a really difficult schedule. We saw what Florida was able to do last night at home against Tennessee.

“This is a really, really challenging (schedule). Some of the teams that maybe you would hope to play twice, we’re not getting that opportunity this year. We’re playing a lot of teams right now that are really, really good basketball teams. And any time you play on the road is extremely difficult in this league.”

Arkansas is 22-15 all-time against South Carolina as the Hogs have won 7 of the last 10 meetings between the two schools, including a 101-73 victory in their last visit to South Carolina in March 2021. The Razorbacks have won 3 of their last 4 road games against the Gamecocks.

After playing at South Carolina on Saturday, Arkansas will be on the road again for a mid-week game againt Kentucky (8 p.m. CT, Tuesday, ESPN).

More Muss musings

On the status of freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr. (out indefinitely, right knee management), who has not played since mid-December: “No, there’s been no update.”

On the facilitating maturation of freshman guard Anthony Black (he has 8-, 7-, and 7-assist performances in 3 of the Hogs’ last 5 games): “I think he’s making right reads on everything right now. Some teams have tried to trap his pick-and-roll, which I think is great for us because now it’s a 4-on-5 situation because AB can see over the defense at his size. He’s an overly willing passer, so any teams that do kind of blitz him, I think it’s worked to our advantage of late. It creates, again, numbers for us offensively. We try to attack and get downhill. But he’s making a lot of winning plays. His play on the Texas A&M offensive rebound and his steal was vital right around that 1-minute mark to end the game the other night.”

On junior guard Ricky Council IV’s recent shooting, scoring, and facilitating resurgence: “I think it’s with anybody that any time your jump shot is falling (you become a different player). If you take away his late-clock, side-step or back-step threes, his shooting percentage is even better. We kind of put him in that situation late clock, so some of his shots are kind of on the team. But certainly I think his assists have been really important, as well. He’s reading over-helps and done a great job getting some other teammates involved with some easy dump-off passes for dunks or spray-out, kick-out three-balls, as well. I think that’s why you’re seeing some of our other players improve their three-point shooting, because of Anthony’s passing and Ricky being a facilitator. We put Ricky in more pick-and-rolls the other night as a ball handler, as well.”

On coaching twins (Mahki and Makhel Mitchell at Arkansas, and Caleb and Cody Martin at Nevada): “I would love to tell you it’s different, but it’s not. All you have to do is go online and Google ‘Personalities of twins,’ or read books. I mean, it’s a different dynamic for sure. The love- at least the two sets- I don’t know every twin, I can always speak to the two sets of twins that I’ve coached. You know, Khi and Khel, their love for one another, it’s a deep love, I can tell you that. They protect each other, they look out for each other. Caleb and Cody Martin argued a little bit more. Different circumstances created different outcomes. I mean, those two guys would fight each other if it came to it whereas, you know, I think Khi and Khel, they’re protectors of one another. But the both sets of twins I’ve had, they really want their sibling to succeed. I mean, that’s definitely been something that I’ve seen both with Caleb, Cody, Khi, and Khel for sure.”

Scouting the South Carolina Gamecocks

First-year head coach Lamont Paris has an enigmatic squad that seems to compete better on the road than at home of late as the Gamecocks’ lone league win was at Kentucky, 71-68, on Jan. 10, and their closest losing margins in league play were both on the road — by 5 points at Vanderbilt and by 3 points at Georgia.

In addition to a quality win over Kentucky, South Carolina has a 60-58 home win over previously ranked Clemson in November.

The Gamecoacks have a star in 6-9 freshman forward Gregory “GG” Jackson II, who reclassified from the Class of 2023 to 2022 and signed with South Carolina. Jackson and Arkansas’ Black helped USA Basketball’s U18 junior national team win the FIBA’s Americas gold medal in Mexico in June.

Jackson, a versatile stretch-4, leads the team with 16.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.0 steal in 33.0 minutes per game while shooting 38.5% from the field, including 32.8% from 3, and 63.6% from the free throw line.

Junior 6-2 guard and Ohio State transfer Meechie Johnson (11.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 30.8% from 3), senior 6-3 guard Chico Carter, Jr. (10.5 points and 43-of-88 shooting from 3 for 48.9% shooting), and senior 6-5 forward and Citadel transfer Hayden Brown (10.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 42.9% field goals) are each double-figure scorers. 

Sophomore 6-2 guard Jacob Wright is contributing 5.6 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in 27.3 minutes per game, while junior 7-footer Josh Gray is pitching in 3.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks in 13.9 minutes per game.

South Carolina ranks No. 254 in Division 1 according to ratings (No. 249 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and No. 245 in adjusted defensive efficiency).

Offensively, the Gamecocks are averaging only 63.7 points per game to rank 342nd in D1 in scoring. The team strength on offense is offensive rebounding (12.4 per game to rank 35th in D1) with nearly all other aspects ranking in the bottom half of D1 teams. South Carolina shoots 39.4% overall from the field to rank 355th in D1, 32.1% from 3 to rank 287th, and 63.9% from the free throw line to rank 345th.

Defensively, there is not a single statistical marker to point to as a team strength unless you count opponents’ collective 66.4% free throw shooting (ranks 21st in D1) against the Gamecocks.

South Carolina typically goes 7-8 deep in its game-to-game player rotation.

“I think with South Carolina, obviously GG Jackson is involved in everything that they do from an offensive standpoint,” Musselman said. “So it’ll be important for us to locate him as soon as he crosses half court. He’s a three-dimensional scorer in the fact he can post-up, he can offensive rebound, he’s got deep three-point range. He’s a high volume shooter. And then obviously, the guard play, both guards … Chico Carter, probably is as good of a three-point shooter as there is in the SEC. Then obviously Meechie Johnson does a great job of facilitating to other players as well as scoring the ball, and he’s got deep range. And he pulls a three-ball at any time. So those off the top. Then on the interior, Josh Gray does a great job of rebounding the basketball and rim-protecting.”

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 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, Feb. 2, the Razorbacks ranked No. 28 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 1-5 record in Quad-1 games — a neutral-site win over San Diego State, a neutral-site loss against Creighton, a road loss against Auburn, a home loss against Alabama, 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) 10-1 record in Q3 and Q4 games (road loss against LSU currently accounts for the Q3 defeat). The Hoop Hogs are 3rd among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Tennessee and No. 4 Alabama. The upcoming road game against NET No. 283 South Carolina on Saturday will count as a Q4 result.

Looking at three other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 17 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 22 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 20 according to ratings (includes No. 12 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 62 in adjusted offensive efficiency).

Arkansas was projected as a No. 11 seed — third in the pecking order of four teams to receive the last four byes (i.e. not playing in the First Four play-in games) — in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.