By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — The 9th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks arrived in Hawaii on Friday for the Maui Invitational, a three-day, three-game tournament that annually offers a loaded 8-team field which means opportunities for Eric Musselman’s team to earn its first significant resume wins of the season before the calendar turns the page to December.

The event runs Monday, Nov. 21, through Wednesday, Nov. 23, and first up for the Hoop Hogs (3-0) is an opening-round game against struggling Louisville (0-3) at 4 p.m. CT on Monday (ESPN2) at the Lahaina Civic Center on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

The Hogs-v-Cardinals winner will face the winner of the first-round matchup between 10th-ranked Creighton and 23rd-ranked Texas Tech in the semifinals of championship-bracket play on Tuesday. The losing teams from those two first-round games will square off on Tuesday in the event’s consolation bracket.

The Hogs will meet one of the four teams from the other side of the bracket — No. 14 Arizona, No. 17 San Diego State, Ohio State, or Cincinnati — on Wednesday, the final day of the event.

Just based on the layout of the field, the Hogs are guaranteed to play at least one ranked team and possibly two in the three-game event. If the Hogs win their first game, it will set up a matchup of unbeaten ranked teams in the second round. With several losses by Top 10-ranked teams this week, it could mean that when the Associated Press Top 25 poll comes out on Monday morning that Arkansas and Creighton — currently ranked 9th and 10th, respectively — will each move up closer to, if not within, the Top 5.

While the trip is about business first, it’s also a tropical reward for the Razorbacks who also were treated to a four-game European exhibition tour (Spain and Italy) in August.

“It’s my first time (to visit Hawaii),” Arkansas junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis said following the team’s 71-56 home win over South Dakota State on Wednesday. “I’m excited. I get to see some white sand, the blue ocean. I’ve never seen anything like that. I’m excited. I’m ready to go. I could leave tomorrow.”

Davis and five of his teammates at the top of Arkansas’ rotation have picked up the slack in a big way in the absence of preseason national newcomer of the year and the team’s leading scorer in the exhibition season, Nick Smith, Jr., who missed the first three games (right knee management, precautionary measure) and remains “day to day” according to Musselman.

“He continues to improve, but we want to make sure he’s in a good spot,” Musselman said of Smith’s status. “Still like it has been, he’s day-to-day. He has not practiced.”

Junior transfer wing Ricky Council IV has picked up the bulk of the scoring slack as he leads the Hogs at 18.7 points per game and assists at 3.7 per outing to go with 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 34.3 minutes while shooting 57.9% from the field, including 33.3% from 3, and 69.2% free throws.

Sophomore transfer forward Trevon Brazile is averaging a double-double — 14.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.3 blocks in 31.0 minutes while shooting 50.0% from the field, including 44.4% from 3, and 80.0% free throws.

Davis (12.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.0 steals in 33.7 minutes per game) rounds out the double-figure scorers for the Razorbacks while freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh (8.7 points on 66.7% field goals including 33.3% from 3, 2.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.0 steal in 18.3 minutes); senior transfer forward / center Makhi Mitchell (7.0 points on 58.8% field goals, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 steals, and 2.0 assists in 20.0 minutes); and freshman guard Anthony Black (6.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.0 steals, and 2.7 assists in 28.0 minutes) have each factored heavily into what has mostly been a top 6 rotation.

Putting those pieces together to look at what the Hogs have done collectively, what stands out the most has been a stifling defense — ranked No. 4 in adjusted efficiency in Division 1 according to KenPom analytics — that has forced a total of 64 turnovers (includes 38 Hog steals for 12.7 thefts per game which ranks 6th in D1) for a plus-36 advantage in points-off-turnovers while holding opponents to a combined 54-of-157 field goals (34.4%), including 12-of-54 from 3 (22.2%).

Arkansas ranks 11th in D1 in made three-pointers allowed per game (4.0) and 15th in defensive three-point field-goal percentage.

It’s been blue-collar work on the glass (combined plus-24 rebounds, including plus-9 on the offensive boards) and in the paint (plus-56 points-in-the-paint) to complement the strong defensive performances as the Hogs held all three opponents below 60 points (one below 50 points) while running up a 19.7-points-per-game winning margin.

“Through three games we’re really good defensively,” Musselman said.

Musselman is 2-0 at Arkansas in regular-season tournament-format events (winning the Hall of Fame Classic last season), and 11-4 overall in tournament play (includes the SEC and NCAA postseason tournaments). He’s 7-4 against non-confernece high-major schools, and he’s 18-0 in games played in November.

Musselman is 76-28 overall leading the program, which includes a 40-6 mark against non-conference opponents. He’s 36-22 record against SEC teams and had a 6-2 mark spanning two NCAA Tournaments that culminated in back-to-back Elite Eight runs and back-to-back final national Top 10 rankings.

Scouting the Louisville Cardinals and a brief look at the rest of the Maui field

Louisville is out of the gates 0-3 and has its third head coach since the start of the ’21-22 season, actually make that two head coaches and an interim head coach during that span. Kenny Payne, former assistant coach with the New York Knicks where current Arkansas assistant coach Keith Smart also worked before coming to the college ranks, is in his first season leading the Cardinals. Last season, Chris Mack and Louisville parted ways in January during the middle of the season when Mike Pegues stepped in as interim coach for the final 18 games.

The Cardinals have started their season with three one-point lossess — Bellarmine (67-66), Wright State (73-72), and Appalachian State (61-60).

Musselman on Wednesday during his South Dakota State post-game / Maui Invitational preview press conference was quick to point out that Louisville was only “four points” away (actually six points) from being “3-0.”

Arkansas freshman guard Anthony Black expressed respect for the kind of fight he believes Louisville will bring to Monday’s matchup.

“A team like that that’s struggling, they are going to come out with a lot of fire,” Black said. “So we’ve got to be ready for them come with their hardest, best punch they have. I mean they have three one-point losses. And a lot of times games like that could have gone either way.  They are a couple of buckets away from being 3-0 as well. So we have to disregard their record and respect our opponent and just come up with a good game plan.”

The Cardinals (ranked 124th in D1 according to KenPom analytics) are not an awful shooting team — 44.6% from the field, including 33.8% from 3, and 77.8% from the free throw line — but they struggle taking care of the basketball (16.7 turnovers per game against only 9.0 assists) while not forcing many opposition turnovers (10.3 per game with only 4.0 steals). They’re scoring 66.0 points per game to rank 303rd in Division 1.

Eight Cardinals that have played in all three of the team’s games are averaging at least 12.7 minutes per contest with five of those averaging 20.0 or more minutes.

Senior 6-3 guard El Ellis has been a bright spot, averaging 24.0 points, 3.3 assists, and 2.7 rebounds in 37.7 minutes per game while shooting 47.2% from the field, including 37.0% from 3 (10-of-27), and 80% from the free throw line. Freshman 6-5 guard Mike James is averaging 11.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.7 assists in 32.0 minutes per game while shooting 55.6% from the field, including 50% from 3, and 80% from the foul line.

Junior 6-9 forward Jaelyn Withers is averaging 10.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.3 steals in 23.7 minutes per game while shooting 57.1% from the field, including 37.5% from 3, and 100% free throws (5-of-5). Sophomore 6-10 forward and Tennessee transfer Brandon Huntley-Hatfield is averaging 10.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 1.7 assists in 30.7 minutes per game while shooting 59.1% from the field, including 33.3% from 3 (1-of-3), and 66.7% from the free throw line (4-of-6).

Aside from those four Cardinals, only six more have appeared in games while combining to average 10.6 points, 17.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists.

In the all-time series, Louisville leads Arkansas 4-3. The teams are 2-2 against each other in NCAA tournament matchups, which includes the famous half-court shot to beat the buzzer made by Razorbacks icon U.S. Reed in a 74-73 NCAAT second round win in Austin, Texas, in ’80-81 when Arkansas came in ranked No. 20 and then-defending-champion Lousiville was ranked 12th.

The rest of the Maui field …

– No. 10 Creighton (4-0, ranked 22nd in KenPom); key performers are junior 7-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner (16.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.3 blocks), sophomore 6-7 forward Arthur Kaluma (13.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists), sophomore 6-4 guard Trey Alexander (11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.0 assist), senior 6-7 guard Baylor Scheierman (10.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists), and sophomore 6-0 guard Ryan Nembhard (7.0 points and 6.8 assists); key team stats are 85.5 points per game on 50.2% field goals.

– No. 23 Texas Tech (3-0, ranked 25th in KenPom); key performers are senior 6-8 forward Kevin Obanor (12.3 points and 6.3 rebounds) and senior 6-2 guard Devion Harmon (11.3 points, 4.3 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 2.0 steals, 57.9% field goals); key team stats are 6.0 blocks and 17.3 turnovers lost per game.

– No. 14 Arizona (3-0, ranked 12th in KenPom); key performers are junior 6-11 forward Azuolas Tubelis (20.0 points, 7.7 reboudns, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.0 block), junior 7-0 center Oumar Ballo (17.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steal), junior 6-5 guard Pelle Larsson (15.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.0 assists), and junior 6-3 guard Kerr Kriisa (15.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 5.3 rebounds); key team stats are 105.3 points per game (No. 1 in D1), 63.2% field goals (No. 1), 26.0 assists (No. 1), 37.0 defensive rebounds (No. 1), 46.7% from 3 (6th in D1), 20.7 turnovers (4th-most in D1).

– No. 17 San Diego State (3-0, ranked No. 17 in KenPom); key performers are senior 6-9 forward Jaedon Ledee (16.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.0 assist) and senior 5-10 guard Darrion Trammell (15.0 points, 3.7 assists, and 2.7 rebounds); key teams stats are 12.3 steals per game, and 16.0 assists against only 11.0 turnovers per outing.

– Ohio State (3-0, ranked No. 28 in KenPom); key performers are freshman 6-6 forward Brice Sensabaugh (17.0 points and 5.7 rebounds in only 17.7 minutes per game), junior 6-8 forward Zed Key (13.3 points and 12.3 rebounds), and senior 6-6 forward Justice Sueing (12.3 poits and 3.0 rebounds); ket team stats are 49.0 rebounds per game (3rd in D1) and scoring defense (50.7 points per game ranks 6th in D1).

– Cincinnati (3-1, ranked No. 65 in KenPom); key performers are senior 6-0 guard David Dejulius (18.3 points and 3.3 assists), senior 6-7 guard Landers Nolley II (14.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists), and junior 6-7 guard Jeremiah Davenport (12.0 points and 3.0 rebounds); key team stats are 16.5 assists per game against 10.3 turnovers.

Five things Arkansas needs to be Razor-focused on in Maui

For obvious reasons, we’re transitioning from the phrasing laser-focused to Razor-focused as we highlight aspects of the game that Arkansas needs to figure out in its pursuit to maximize execution for preferred results.

1) If there’s a close game in your (Maui) neighborhood and it don’t look good, who ya gonna call? If Smith is out, and that appears likely to be the case, and given that the Hogs have not faced end-of-game adversity yet through six total exhibition games plus the first three regular-season games, the elephant-in-the-room question is “Who can take a game over if needed?” We mention Smith because he’s the only Hog with proven three-level scoring ability who can create for himself and others, then throw in that throughout his career he has embraced, even cherished, high-pressure moments at end of games and it makes the “Who else?” inquiry that more relevant and pressing. Though Council, Brazile, and Davis have been up to the task of picking up the scoring slack, most of their production (with a few exceptions) has come via overwhelming smaller, less athletic counterparts while willing their way to the paint and rim. Maui promises to offer personnel challenges similar to what Texas presented in its 30-point exhibition-game home win over the Hogs on Oct. 29, so it remains to be seen who the go-to guy(s) is/are for this team assuming the game is tight at the end. Musselman is known to turn to one or two players as primary handlers and playmakers in these scenarios. Another problem for Arkansas in close end-of-game situations is that so far this has been an average team in drawing free throws attempted (18.7 FTAs per game) and poor in converting free throw attempts (64.0%), so there’s that.

2) D-E-F-E-N-S-E. Arkansas has been elite on the defensive side of the ball, even if it’s been a small sample size against mid-major competition. Challenging shots at the rim; high hands; active hands; timely closeouts; physicality in traffic; staying attached and walling off drives; crashing passing lanes; communicating while hedging, bluffing, and helping on time; running shooters off the 3-line; funneling dribble-drivers to awkward finishing angles; managing screens and dribble hand-offs with pro-active tactics; and limiting or taking away the opposition’s best player(s) — it’s all been clicking for the most part. The physical, athletic, and skill challenges from opposing lineups will escalate in terms of both quality and quantity in Maui, so the stakes are higher as Musselman and his staff scout and gameplan to prepare the team to execute. Three big additional needs assuming the Hogs remain competent defensively will be a) finishing solid defensive possessions with defensive rebounds (Hogs average plus-8.0 on the glass per game); b) not fouling to bail teams out with extended possessions or free throws (teams are a combined plus-4 in FTAs relative to the Hogs’ total FTAs); and c) cashing live-ball turnovers into easy scores to help an offense that struggles from the perimeter as it relies mostly on production in the paint and at the rim (again, Arkansas is a combined plus-36 in points-off-turnovers).

3) Limit offensive turnovers, tame three-point shooting, and play to the team strength of attacking the paint and rim. Turnovers and three-point shooting were both major problems in the exhibition season. Turnovers appeared to get better in the first two games of the regular season (12.0 compared to 20-plus in the preseason), then devolved to 20 giveaways in Arkansas’ last outing against South Dakota State. Three-point shooting was not so bad in games one and three (combined 11-of-32 for 34.4%), it was awful in game two (2-of-16 for 12.5%), but the team saw attemtps rise each game out (10 then 16 then 22) when the clear strength of the team is slashing and grinding into the paint and getting to close-range shots at or near the rim (the Hogs are an eye-popping plus-56 in collective points-in-the-paint). One of the bright spots in the last game is that Arkansas had five different players make a three-point shot, with a couple (Davis and Walsh) each hitting two for a combined 44.4% effiency. If the Hogs can manage 4-5 makes from three per game with a relatively low attempt volume while staying in the 30-35% efficiency range AND scaling the turnovers back to 10-12 per game, then they should have a chance to win every night out no matter who they face in Maui.

4) Trevon Brazile and the frontline must show up and put up. Brazile has been spectacular at times, but in each case it’s been in response to the challenges of the coaching staff after ho-hum production and/or impact. In the first two games in Europe, the 6-10 sophomore transfer was underwhelming as a rebounder, but after the staff challenged him he came alive with two solid games on the glass including his jaw-dropping 28-point, 9-rebound effort against a Danish pro team in Arkansas’ final Euro game. Fast-forward to the Texas exhibition game, and Brazile shrunk as he had one made field goal and one rebound. But once again the staff got his attention to the tune of coaxing out the aforementioned early-season double-double average with impressive shooting splits of 50-40-80. The Hogs don’t need Brazile to average a double-double in Maui — make no mistake, they’d take it — but he must continue to play with the focus, intensity, determination, and confidence that he showed in the first three games. Senior big man Makhi Mitchell parlayed a big first half against Texas into a starting role and consistent contributions so far, so he will be counted on to remain consistent and reliable. Senior transfer forward Jalen Graham has been up and down, and his last performance (specically forced shots on offense and not getting back in transition defense) was not good. Senior forward Kamani Johnson was consistently good in Europe but has seen limited court time through three games in part due to the effectiveness of Brazile and Mitchell. The Hogs likely need at least two, preferably three, of the frontliners to play up to their capabilities for the team to enjoy a successful run in Maui.

5) Effects of three games in three days on a tight player rotation and lightning-fast gameplanning. These are two huge challenges that Musselman and his team are forced to deal with. There is little between-game time to prep the team for its next opponent, and with a tight 6-7 player rotation with Smith sidelined (assuming that remains the case) the issue compounds into double-trouble for the Razorbacks. Musselman said on Wednesday that he’s statified with his team’s conditioning, and certainly if anyone can fast-track a gameplan with competence it’s the Head Hog. Still, what can help is if more than one or two of the aforementioned frontliners come to play to allow Musselman to steal minutes for stretches of games for the starters to be fresh late, and certainly the pressure on the starting guard/wing/combo forward rotation of Council, Davis, Black, and Walsh to produce will be eased if each can play within their strengths while sharing the ball, limiting mistakes, and remaining sound defensively. Musselman says he prefers this team play uptempo and dictate pace to maximize transition scoring, but executing while out-toughing opponents in a few grind-games might not be a bad alternative.

Rankings, polls and analytics

Arkansas is ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and No. 10 in the USA Today / Coaches Top 25 poll. Looking at three of the advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 9 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 14 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 14 according to KenPom.com ratings (includes No. 4 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 46 in adjusted offensive efficiency). Arkansas is projected as a No. 3 seed in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.