By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Win or lose, the 13th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks will be making history on Wednesday when they host 20th-ranked Missouri in Fayetteville as the matchup will be the first ever between ranked teams in an SEC opener at Bud Walton Arena, the home of the Hoop Hogs.
Arkansas (11-2, 0-1 SEC, NCAA NET No. 12) is looking to get on the winning side of the ledger in league play, of course, as it looks to avoid another SEC slide that saw the program plunge to 0-3 (2021-22) and 2-4 (’20-21) to start up league play the last two seasons before righting the ship in spectacular fashion in each campaign.
Mizzou (12-1, 1-0 SEC, NCAA NET No. 32) is soaring under new leadership as the Tigers are coming off back-to-back double-digit margin wins over ranked teams.
The Hogs and Tigers will square off at 7:30 p.m. CT Wednesday on Nolan Richardson Court inside BWA in a game that will be televised by the SEC Network.
Arkansas is coming off a physical, grinding 60-57 road loss against LSU in both teams’ SEC opener on Wednesday, Dec. 28. The Razorbacks failed to play to their strengths as they succumbed to their biggest weakness — three-point shooting — by launching a whopping 25 triples (making only 4 for 16.0% efficiency) while failing to win the turnover battle (both teams suffered 10 giveaways, but the Tigers were plus-9 in points-off-turnovers) and checking up short at the free throw line (the Hogs were a measly 5-of-10 at the foul line, including only 2-of-5 on freebies in the final 2:38 of the game).
After flipping a 5-point halftime deficit into a 6-point second half lead, the Hogs could not get out of their own way down the stretch of the LSU game, yet stayed within a one-possession deficit late to give themselves a chance to win.
“I think the one thing really is just experience,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said during his Monday press conference. “I think that it was the first road experience for the year. And it was also the first true SEC road experience. They’re going to learn when they go on the road again, as well … With our age and our lack of SEC experience, we are going to be a team that continues to learn, especially through the first half of this season. And we knew that coming in. We knew with six freshmen out of 13 players that that was going to be the case.
“Regardless of talent level, it’s the first time going through this experience, close games, all those things. I’m hopeful that this team will continue to grow and continue to get better with each new experience that we go through as a group.”
Musselman used the week between the team’s first two league games to ramp up live scrimmaging during practices — something he usually minimizes during both pre-season and in-season — in hopes of cleaning up problem areas.l on both ends of the floor.
“Practices have been good,” he said. “We’ve cleaned up some things both offensively and defensively. And we’ve gone more live than we probably ever have in the seven-and-a-half years I’ve been a college coach to try to clean up some areas that we want to improve on, both offensively and defensively. So we have been going live a lot more than what we normally would do.”
A grueling upcoming stretch against three ranked teams begins mid-week with upstart Mizzou followed by matchups at No. 22 Auburn on Saturday and home against No. 7 Alabama on Wednesday, Nov. 11.
“I think every game is tough in this league,” Musselman said. “I really do. And I think that when you look at our league right now, I mean, because some of the teams have just improved so much, you know, that maybe didn’t get the preseason recognition. So every game is hard. We had a road game to start off. LSU had a great crowd. It’s one possession, could have gone either way. They won the game.
“And now you have a really confident Missouri team that’s playing at a high, high level that had beaten two really good teams in their last two games and won a big game on the road against Central Florida. So yeah, it’s hard because we all know what Auburn’s done on their home floor, and their record is incredible there. And then Alabama’s playing great basketball. So really difficult four-game stretch. We knew that coming into the season, and it won’t get any easier after that.”
The Razorbacks — 7-0 at home this season — have a solid foundation in their top 6 rotation of freshman 6-7 guard Anthony Black (12.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 50.5% field goals, 70.9% free throws); junior 6-6 guard Ricky Council IV (17.9 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 48.9% field goals, 78.1% free throws); junior 6-4 guard Davonte “Devo” Davis (8.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 76.0% free throws); freshman 6-7 combo forward Jordan Walsh (8.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.2 assists, 50.0% field goals, 73.9% free throws); senior 6-9 forward / center Makhi Mitchell (7.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 65.6% field goals); and senior 6-7 forward Kamani Johnson (2.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 50.0% field goals).
The Razorbacks rank 9th in Division 1 in both steals per game (10.5) and made two-point field goals per game (23.6) while coming in at No. 42 in two-point field goal percentage (55.5%) and No. 34 in overall field goal percentage (48.5%). They rank 15th in D1 in three-point field goals yielded per game defensively (5.1) and they’re 27th in defensive three-point field goal percentage (28.4%). Arkansas is plus-5.6 in turnover margin per game.
The Razorbacks are 32-26 all-time against Mizzou with four consecutive wins in the series. Arkansas’ last loss against the Tigers was at BWA, 81-68, in the team’s SEC home opener in ’20-21.
Musselman is 84-30 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 36-23 record against SEC teams and a 6-2 mark spanning the last two NCAA Tournaments that culminated in back-to-back Elite Eight runs and back-to-back final national Top 10 rankings.
On the status of Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr. (out indefinitely, knee management): “No update on Nick.”
On the status of Arkansas sophomore forward Trevon Brazile (out for the remainder of the season, knee surgery to repair ACL): “TB had a good surgery. One of the coolest things ever, he lifted weights last night. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a player still on crutches right after surgery be a couple days after in the weight room. That was really cool to talk with TB and find out he was already back in the weight room. He’s with us every day. He was in yesterday getting rehab with Matt (Townsend, team trainer). He was in already this morning getting rehab. I know my wife saw him in the office one day before I was in here and he was in getting rehab. He’s doing a great job and diving into the rehab process.”
On the UA-Mizzou matchup being the first ever between ranked teams in an SEC opener at BWA: “I didn’t look at the LSU game like it was a ranked or non-ranked team. I looked at it like they had lost one game all year, and I look at Missouri, regardless of their ranking, and think this is a really well-coached team that has an identity that they’ve created, a style that they’ve created on both sides of the floor with their transition baskets, with their ability to make threes, with their ability to get to the cup and with their disruptive defense, playing both the 1-3-1, also playing a bit of a matchup zone so to speak and picking up full court. So, they’ve created an identity. They’ve created a style of play, which is the hardest thing to do as a coach, let alone a coach in year one. So, tremendous respect for them regardless of if we’re ranked, they’re ranked. A team that’s 12-1 and playing great basketball, especially their last two games.”
Scouting the Missouri Tigers
First-year head coach Dennis Gates has arguably the surprise team of the SEC to this point, and the aforementioned back-to-back wins over ranked teams came at home against then-No. 16 Illinois (93-71) and then-No. 19 Kentucky (89-75 in the teams’ SEC opener on Wednesday, Dec. 28). Just prior to those wins, Mizzou went on the road and earned a quality victory over Central Florida, 68-66.
The Tigers opened the season with nine consecutive wins before suffering their one and only loss, 95-67, against then-No. 6 Kansas. Mizzou has won its last three games — against UCF, Illinois, and Kentucky.
The Tigers rank 3rd in D1 in points per game at 88.8, 4th in assists at 19.8, 2nd in two-point field goals made at 32.8, 4th in overall field goal percentage at 51.1%, 3rd in two-point field goal percentage at 61.3%, 14th in made three-pointers per game at 10.0, and 59th in three-point field goal percentage at 37.1%. Arkansas’ 5th-ranked defense in D1 according to KenPom.com analytics will be challenged by arguably the best offense in the country.
Defensively, Mizzou ranks No. 1 in D1 with 12.5 steals as part of forcing 19.4 turnovers per outing. Tigers opponents are shooting 36.0% from 3, but efficiency from distance is not a strength of the Hogs (only 20.0% on the season). Opponents have shot 21 more free throws collectively than Mizzou on the season, while the Hogs rank in the top 40 in D1 in both free throws made and attempted per game. The undersized Tigers are not a particularly strong defensive rebounding team which could bode well for Arkansas attacking the offensive glass.
Mizzou goes 9-10 deep in its rotation with no players averaging 30 or more minutes, but 10 Tigers do average between 28.5 minutes and 11.4 minutes per game. Five players average double-figure scoring.
Leading scorer and senior 6-4 transfer guard D’Moi Hodge followed Gates to Missouri from Cleveland State, and he averages 16.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.8 steals, and 2.2 assists in 27.9 minutes per game while shooting 52.0% from the field, including 41.8% from 3, and 66.7% from the free throw line.
Senior 6-8 combo guard Kobe Brown has enjoyed both individual and team success against Arkansas over the years, and he’s averaging 15.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.3 steals in 25.5 minutes while shooting 60.6% from the field, including 45.7% from 3, and 80.5% free throws. Brown scored 30 and 31 points, respectively, in the wins over Illinois and Kentucky.
Junior 6-6 forward and Northern Iowa transfer Noah Carter, senior 6-5 guard and Milwaukee transfer DeAndre Gholston, and senior 5-10 guard and Clemson transfer Nick Honor each averages double-figure scoring as they combine for 31.1 points per game to go with a collective 9.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 3.7 steals per outing. Honor leads the team in minutes per game at 28.5, and he leads the team in assists per contest at 3.6.
Junior 6-3 guard and Bradley-then-junior-college transfer Sean East II heads up a worthy 5-man second unit as he averages 8.2 points, 2.9 assists, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.2 steals in 21.8 minutes per game while shooting 51.2% from the field and 80.0% from the free throw line. Senior 6-4 guard and Cleveland State transfer Tre Gomillion also plays off the bench, and he averages 5.7 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.1 steals in 18.8 minutes per game while shooting 53.6% from the field.
Mizzou ranks No. 33 according to KenPom.com ratings (includes No. 150 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 4 in adjusted offensive efficiency).
“They create a lot of turnovers, and their turnovers are live-ball turnovers where you can get out in transition much like our defense tries to ignite our offense,” Musselman said. “We can’t have any turnover shots, meaning ill-advised shots. We have to have a high quality of shots. They thrive off turnover shots, and they jump in passing lanes and create disruption with their defense and that allows for the offensive numbers that you see. But they have a lot of really good offensive players.
“Really impressed with the way that Honor kind of runs the team, No. 10. And he’s got experience. If you look at their age, they have… East is 20-plus years old and Kobe Brown’s 23 and Honor’s got some experience. So I’m really impressed with their coaching staff coming in and getting older, veteran guys. Because that, especially early in conference play, I think that says a lot. He did a great job, too, much like LSU, of bringing players with him because I think that really helps create continuity from a schematic standpoint. When you’ve got guys like Hodge and different guys that have played in that system — No. 2 (Gomillion), same type thing — it’s a little bit easier for them to help buddy coach teammates. I think that’s why you see a team get off to a great start in year one with both LSU and Missouri.”
Hoop Hogs earning SEC and national 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 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, 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 (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 is ranked No. 13 in both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll.
As of Monday, Jan. 2, the Razorbacks ranked No. 12 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 2-2 record in Quad-1 games — wins over No. 22 San Diego St and No. 45 Oklahoma, and losses against No. 34 Creighton and at No. 75 LSU; b) 1-0 record in Q2 game — win over No. 62 Bradley; and c) 8-0 record in Q3 and Q4 games. The Hoop Hogs are 3rd among SEC teams in NET behind No. 3 Tennessee and No. 8 Alabama. The upcoming home game against 20th-ranked Missouri (NET No. 32) on Wednesday will count as a Q1 result should the Tigers finish the season ranked in the NET Top 30.
Looking at three of the other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 8 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 9 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 10 according to KenPom.com ratings (includes No. 5 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 35 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.