By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — The 10th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks are in much better shape while sporting the exact same win-loss record they had this time last year with their annual game in central Arkansas fast-approaching, but history has shown that Hoop Hog games played at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock are no simple task.

This time there’s a significant previous-game distinction as these Razorbacks (9-1, NCAA NET No. 23) will be coming off a 10-point win over Oklahoma — instead of a 22-point loss against the Sooners, which was the case a season ago — when they face the Bradley Braves (7-3, NCAA NET No. 70) at 3 p.m. CT on Saturday in a game that will not be televised or live-streamed.

Last season, the Hogs lost to mid-major Hofstra, 89-81, a week following the aforementioned collapse against Oklahoma (88-66). Those two losses were the team’s first and second of the season and were the first dominos in a 1-5 run that included a 0-3 start in SEC play into early January.

Two seasons earlier (2019-20) in head coach Eric Musselman’s first campaign at Arkansas, the Razorbacks had to claw back from a late deficit to defeat mid-major Valparaiso, 72-68. Including four previous head coaches at Arkansas, the Hogs are 12-10 all-time at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock.

The Razorbacks’ 88-78 triumph over Oklahoma in Tulsa last Saturday was more than a revenge win, it was a litmus test for moving on without star forward Trevon Brazile, who was lost to a season-ending injury in a 65-58 home win over North Carolina-Greensboro just over a week ago (Dec. 6).

The next step is to exercise the demons from last season’s loss in central Arkansas, which is likely to mean more heavy lifting.

“I’m like the players, I’d rather play as much as possible,” Musselman said of the unusual full week between the Oklahoma matchup in Tulsa and the mid-major matchup in North Little Rock for a second-consecutive season. “It’s just a unique week when you’re talking about finals and only playing one game in seven days. It’s just kind of unique. It doesn’t really happen much in college basketball.

“We’re trying to change up maybe some of the things we’ve done in the past leading up to this game. Because the schedule obviously the last two years, it’s been the game in Tulsa, and finals and then this game. We’re going to leave a little bit earlier on Friday than we have in the past. Get in about four or five hours earlier than we did last year. Obviously there’s a game time change to 3 o’clock instead of 7 9on Saturday). So hopefully it’ll help.”

Musselman has always raved about the crowd atmosphere at central Arkansas games, and he respects what it means to his players from the area who get to play in a homecoming game.

“The Valpo game … I was just talking with Hunter (Yurachek, Arkansas athletic director) )literally five minutes ago and we were talking about how loud, when Adrio Bailey blocked that shot against Valpo, that’s as loud as a building he or I have heard. The crowds have been great there. The enthusiasm has been great. When we got out to eat the night before the game, great environment. In the hotel walking through the lobby, everybody’s excited. Now we’ve got to go play better.

“I think certainly the guys from that area like Devo (Davis) and Nick (Smith, Jr.), those guys are really excited probably to play in North Little Rock. Certainly Kamani (Johnson, the Bronx, N.Y. native who played two seasons with the Little Rock Trojans before transferring to Arkansas), the staff, Devo, we’d like to play better than we did last year. But this has not been a one-year thing. You look at our record in North Little Rock, it’s got to improve. We’ve got to play better basketball than what we have of late. Maybe the change in (starting) time will help.”

Smith — the Jacksonville native who’s played in only four games but led the Hogs in combined scoring at 21.5 points per outing in the wins over UNCG and OU last week — is looking forward to playing in front of central Arkansas fans.

“You know it’s going to be a fun experience, just like every game in Bud,” Smith said. “I’m going to treat it as a regular game because you know from the history of Arkansas basketball they haven’t played very well in Little Rock. So my mindset in that game is just to go in and try to dominate … and try to get the win.

“It’s going to be my first time actually like playing basketball in there (Simmons Bank Arena). I’ve been in there plenty of times. I’ve watched Arkansas basketball in there a couple of times, even when coach Mike (Anderson) was here. It’s a fun experience. I just can’t wait to get out there and see what that’s all about.”

Arkansas is on a 5-game winning streak while owning a 3-1 record in neutral-site games this season and a 6-0 mark at home. Based on NCAA NET rankings calculations the games played in North Little Rock are treated as home games for the Hogs.

Musselman is 1-1 coaching Arkansas in North Little Rock, and he’s 82-29 overall leading the program, which includes a 46-7 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.

Arkansas and Bradley have never met in men’s basketball.

More Muss musings

  • On Smith’s value and rapid development since being cleared to play: “I think Nick is progressing exactly how we hoped that he would. He’s fully engaged in practice, pre-practice and post-practice. I think he’s getting more and more comfortable with each game both scheme-wise and also from an individual standpoint, as well. Obviously, the points come to mind right away, but he stretches out the defense because of his ability to shoot, not only three-point shots, but shoot them at a really high clip. He’s really good in transitions. He’s excellent at creating his own shot when plays break down. He’s a really willing passer. He’s got a high basketball IQ. All those things I think make our team much harder to defend and gameplan against. Winning is so important to him, No. 1. And then No. 2, I think he understands that you have to respect the defense and take what the defense gives you. I think all those things are part of who he is as a basketball player, what his DNA is and certainly those assists mean a lot to us because defenses are going to focus in on him. He’s going to draw extra defenders when he’s in isolation or pick-and-roll situations. So, certainly, not only a willingness to be a passers but also a feel for who to pass to and when to pass to is real important. I think he loves to get his teammates excited to play. He’s vocal in timeouts. Some guys quietly go about stuff and other guys are emotional spark plugs. I think his energy is an emotional energy the whole team feeds off.”
  • On Davis as a defender: “He defensively attacks dribbles, so every time a guy on the opposition dribbles the ball, he seems to be attacking it with his reach and stabbing at the basketball. He’s just got an incredible quickness, combination quickness, strength and then reading the offensive player. Certainly his defense has created big scoring runs for us just based on when you have someone out on the ball putting so much pressure, it kind of forces the other four teammates to play with the same defensive tenacity. I think he’s really unique. When you think about great defenders, I don’t really like to compare players but Gary Payton always had such an impact on games when he played as a defender. I certainly think Devo has a similar type of impact from a defensive standpoint where it creates offense for you. We’ve had some really good defenders. Jimmy Whitt, Jalen Tate and guys like that, but those guys were really solid defenders. Devo has this uniqueness to being able to really create havoc and disruption. Those are two words I’d say he’s able to do from a defensive standpoint.”
  • On Makhi Mitchell making strides as a player: “Unbelievable amount of growth. Both sides of the basketball. He’s starting to run a lot more dribble-handoffs then maybe even two or three weeks ago. He’s playing out of the elbow a little more. I think early on he was just more of a screen-setter, and now we’re starting to play through him a little bit because of his decision-making. Obviously, against Oklahoma he made some great backdoor passes. His defense, being able to block shots, being able to be a help defender, and against Oklahoma he was really good on the ball guarding his guys. I thought they tried to go into (Tanner) Groves to start the second half, and I thought Khi did a great job.”

Scouting the Bradley Braves

Under eighth-year head coach Brian Wardle, the Braves are looking to find the consistency that led the program to back-to-back-to-back 20-win seasons spanning 2017-2020. Bradley’s record includes a 2-0 start in Missouri Valley Conference play.

Bradley — 5-0 at home, 2-1 in road games, and 0-2 at neutral sites — has won four consecutive games. The Braves have wins over Eastern Michigan, Southest Missouri State, Northern Iowa, and Missouri State among others, and their three losses were against Utah State (84-62), Auburn (85-64), and Liberty (55-44), with the latter two coming in the Cancun (Mexico) Challenge in late November.

Like the Hogs, the Braves have battled the injury bug all season long. Senior forward Ja’Shon Henry (13.0 points and 6.0 rebounds) played in only four games early in the season due to ongoing concussion issues, although Musselman said he expects he’ll return to face the Hogs. Sophomore 6-6 wing Zek Montgomery (broken right wrist) and junior 6-9 forward Rienk Mast (MCL sprain) are two starters who have recently returned to the lineup, but each has only played in four games so far this season. Mast is averaging 13.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 25.3 minutes per game while shooting 61.8% from the field, including 42.9% from 3, and 87.5% from the free throw line. Montgomery averages 8.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.0 steal in 22.0 minutes while shooting 45.8% from the field, including 44.4% from 3, and 60.0% from the free throw line.

Senior 6-9 forward Malevy Leons has played in all 10 games and is averaging 12.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, and 1.7 steals in 31.6 minutes per game while shooting 48.2% from the field, including 38.9% from 3, and 78.8% from the foul line. Sophomore 6-3 guard Connor Hickman averages 10.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.0 steal in 30.4 minutes per game while shooting 37.1% on field goals, including 39.1% from 3, and 60.0% on free throws. Junior 5-8 guard Duke Deen averages 9.6 points, 3.4 assists, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.4 steals while shooting 37.6% from the field, including 30.9% from 3, and 64.3% from the free throw line.

Senior 6-4 guard Ville Tahvanainen and junior 6-9 forward Darius Hannah have each played in all 10 games, combining to average 16.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.9 steals. Hannah is shooting 57.6% from the field all coming inside the three-point arc.

Bradley typically goes 9-10 deep in its game-to-game rotation with seven players averaging at least 22.0 minutes per game. There’s decent size and versatility on the frontline and capable producers in the backcourt to make up a deep, veteran team.

The Braves are yet another opponent that defensively keeps teams under 60 points per game on average, although facing the same against the Sooners over the weekend the Hogs exploded for 88 points. Bradley ranks 19th in Division 1 in opposition per-game scoring (59.2).

Bradley mainly plays man-to-man defense with some 1-3-1 zone while springing some three-quarters court pressure to slow tempo as it forces 14.6 turnovers per game (8.5 steals ranks 66th in D1) while limiting teams to 39.1% field goal shooting (ranks 46th in D1), including 31.5% from 3.

Offensively, the Braves prefer low-tempo as they average 69.0 points per game while shooting 46.0% from the field, including a respectable 35.4% from 3. They’re almost right at a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio (13.5 assists per game against 13.3 turnovers).

Bradley ranks No. 101 among D1 schools according to ratings (includes No. 60 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 177 in adjusted offensive efficiency).

“Bradley is a really well-coached team,” Musselman said. “Obviously, 7-3 right now. No. 21 Dean at the point guard position has great speed. He can really shoot the basketball. Hickman, another shooter at the off-guard spot, No. 10. He’s got deep-range. He’s a good basket-cutter. Leons, No. 13, can kind of play the 3-4 for them. A shot-maker. 23 (Tahvanainen) off the bench is a really, really good shooter. He can really shoot the basketball. And then at the 4-spot, 35 Hannah, very athletic. Left-handed. They’ll run a fake dribble-handoff where he will keep the ball going to his left. Montgomery, a guy that can shoot it, No. 3, and is pretty athletic. And then Henry, really good dribble-driver. Their leading scorer. He’s been out for a few games. We expect 22 Henry to play. And then 51 Mast is an all-league center.

“This is a really, really good basketball team that is extremely well-coached. They have an excellent overall defensive scheme and game plan that they put together, and then they have quite a few shooters, especially at the 1-spot with Dean and Hickman at the 2 and Leons at the 3 and even (James) Weathers coming off the bench, No. 1, is a high-volume free-throw attempt player.”

Hoop Hogs earning SEC honors

Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., was the latest Hog to pick up recognition as he was named the USBWA National Freshman of the Week, the SEC Freshman of the Week, and Dick Vitale’s National Diaper Dandy after leading 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 and Oklahoma last week.

The previous week, Arkansas junior combo guard Ricky Council IV 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 and San Jose State.

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. Black led all scorers in the event and was named to the all tournament team.

Where Hoop Hogs rank statistically in the SEC

  • No. 1 individual scoring: Ricky Council IV, 19.2 points per game
  • No. 2 team field goal percentage: Arkansas, 49.2%
  • No. 4 team steals: Arkansas, 9.7 per game
  • No. 4 team free throw percentage: Arkansas, 72.6%
  • No. 5 team scoring: Arkansas, 79.2 points per game
  • No. 5 individual field goal percentage: Ricky Council IV, 52.6%
  • No. 6 team blocks: Arkansas, 4.7
  • No. 7 team assists: Arkansas, 14.1 per game
  • No. 9 individual blocks, tie: Makhi Mitchell and Trevon Brazile, 1.2 per game
  • No. 10 team rebounds: Arkansas, 35.7
  • No. 10 individual assists: Anthony Black, 3.7 per game
  • No. 11 individual rebounds: Trevon Brazile, 6.0 per game
  • No. 11 individual steals: Anthony Black, 1.8 per game
  • No. 12 team three-point field goal percentage: Arkansas, 31.1%
  • No. 15 individual three-point field goal percentage: Anthony Black, 40.7%

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

Arkansas is ranked No. 10 in both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and USA Today / Coaches Top 25 poll.

As of Wednesday, Dec. 14, the Razorbacks rank No. 23 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 1-1 record in Quad-1 games — win over No. 40 San Diego St and loss against No. 48 Creighton; b) 1-0 record in Q2 game — win over No. 53 Oklahoma; c) 4-1 vs. NET Top 100 — includes wins over No. 98 Troy and No. 99 Fordham; and d) 7-0 record in Q3 and Q4 games; The Hoop Hogs are 4th among SEC teams in NET behind No. 4 Tennessee, No. 5 Alabama, and No. 6 Mississippi State. Upcoming game vs. Bradley (No. 70) on Saturday in North Little Rock will count as a Q2 result if the Braves maintain a NET Top 75 ranking.

Looking at three of the other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 16 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 14 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 14 according to ratings (includes No. 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 33 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.