By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The feel good is just about all the Arkansas men’s basketball team and its fanbase can take away from the 14th-ranked Razorbacks’ thrilling 81-77 overtime charity-exhibition win over No. 3 Purdue on Saturday.
Obviously there were some valuable lessons learned in a matchup between two worthy Top 15-ranked teams, but that’s it. No benefit to the official 2023-24 win-loss ledger, no eventual value toward NCAA NET rankings, just a helluva post-win buzz and swelling enthusiasm for a roster that on paper (and in one game against a potential national title contender) looks to be the best under Eric Musselman at Arkansas as he enters his fifth campaign as Head Hog.
Arkansas will endeavor to back up that notion, officially, beginning early next week as the Hoop Hogs will host Alcorn State at 7 p.m. CT on Monday, Nov. 6, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville (livestream via SEC Network Plus) as it’s opening day throughout college basketball.
It came as no surprise that Arkansas would compete well against Purdue, but perhaps there was logical belief that the Boilermakers would have an edge in closing out a tight game down the stretch given the reigning Big Ten champion Boilermakers were anchored by reigning national player of the year Zach Edey as part seven key returnees from last season’s 29-win / 3rd-ranked-in-final-Associated-Press-Top-25-poll / NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed squad, compare to an Arkansas crew that was infusing at least four newcomers into its top 8 rotation and game-closing corps on Saturday.
Transfer guards Tramon Mark, El Ellis, and Khalif Battle proved to be worthy game-closers, as did transfer stretch-5 Chandler Lawson, while preseason All SEC first-team pick Trevon Brazile held his own against Edey in a battle of marquee players.
That group combined to send Arkansas to the winner’s circle in a back-and-forth game that required overtime to decide the outcome
In the extra period, Ellis scored two consecutive paint buckets plus an and-one free throw followed by a pull-up jumper at the nail by Mark as the Hogs used a 7-0 run to go up 76-71 with 1:10 remaining. After a made three by Purdue’s Lance Jones, Mark made 3-of-4 free throws in the closing seconds in concert with the Hogs’ getting crucial stops on defense, including Lawson’s steal with 6.8 seconds that led to his 2-of-2 free throw effort and an 81-75 lead to effectively close out the win.
Mark’s pull-up three pointer with 22.7 seconds left in regulation tied the game at 69-all after Purdue had used a 13-3 run to go ahead 69-66. The Boilermakers’ ensuing offensive possession following Mark’s triple was foiled by a Lawson steal that triggered a transition scoring opportunity for Ellis, but his hard drive left carried him a bit too wide of the rim as his buzzer-beating layup attempt was short, sending the game to the extra period.
Purdue would score first in overtime on a pair of Edey made free throws for a 71-69 lead, and though Mark missed a couple of freebies as part of three straight empty Arkansas offensive possessions (including two turnovers) to start OT, he would score 5 of the Hogs’ final 7 points to help cement the victory.
Arkansas shot 3-of-5 from the field (60%) and 6-of-9 at the foul line (66.7%) in overtime while holding Purdue to 2-of-7 field goal shooting (28.6%) and forcing a late turnover.
Mark and Brazile both started and led the Hogs in scoring with 15 points each as Mark shot 5-of-10 from the field, including 1-of-1 from 3, and 4-of-8 free throws while Brazile made 4-of-7 field goals, including 2-of-4 from 3, and 5-of-5 free throws. Mark also had a team-high 6 rebounds, team-high-matching 4 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal and a boxscore plus-6 in 33 minutes. Brazile chipped in 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 assist, 1 block, and a boxscore plus-8 in 31 minutes.
Ellis (starter) and Battle (reserve) each scored 12 points with Battle ripping down 5 tough rebounds in his 32 minutes and Ellis contributing 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 turnovers, and a boxscore plus-9 in 27 minutes.
Lawson started and turned in arguably the best two-way (offense/defense) performance of the game with 10 points (3-of-4 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 3-of-3 free throws), 3 steals, 3 blocks, 2 rebounds, and a boxscore plus-6 in 33 minutes while mostly matching up with Edey.
Senior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis started and finished with 2 points, 4 assists, 3 steals, 2 rebounds, and 3 turnovers in 22 minutes as he sat more than 14 minutes on the bench in the first half with two fouls followed by what looked to be a head-to-head collision with Edey at the 2:33 mark in the second half that took him out of the game the rest of the way.
Freshman guard Layden Blocker provided a nice lift off the bench with 6 points (3-of-4 field goals) and 1 assist in 8 minutes. Senior Makhi Mitchell, a regular starter last season, had 4 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block with 2 turnovers in 20 minutes in a reserve role. Senior transfer wing Jeremiah Davenport contributed 5 points (including 1-of-4 from 3) off the bench.
For the game, the Razorbacks shot 30-of-59 from the field (50.8%), including a competent 8-of-23 from 3 (34.8%). After not attempting a free throw in the first 28:36 of the game, the Hogs finished 13-of-17 freebies (76.5%).
Defensively, the Hogs held Purdue to 26-of-67 from the field (38.8%), including 8-of-27 from 3 (29.6%). The Boilermakers finished 17-of-25 on free throws (68.0%). Purdue attempted 13 free throws before the Hogs attempted their first freebie.
Arkansas forced 20 turnovers for the second consecutive exhibition game. The home team dug out 14 steals as part of that defensive effort while finishing plus-5 in turnovers (20-15), plus-7 in steals (14-7), and plus-4 in points-off-turnovers (18-14). The Hogs also won bench scoring (27-17), points-in-the-paint (34-30), fastbreak points (10-6), blocks (7-3), and assists (13-10).
The two areas the Razorbacks struggled in against the Boilermakers were: a] on the glass (a minus-14 effort in overall rebounds, 42-28, that included minus-13 in offensive rebounds, 14-1, and a subsequent lopsided loss in second-chance-points, 17-0); and b] at the free throw line (Purdue took 8 more free throw attempts, but made only four more).
“You certainly hope that you have great team-wide maturity, but we need to have better practices the rest of the week than maybe what we had Monday and Tuesday after being off on Sunday,” Musselman said when asked Wednesday during a zoom press conference how his team has dealt with the emotional high of knocking off Purdue as a pre-curser to opening the regular season on Monday. “You never know until you play your next game, but certainly it was an emotional feel that’s not like many exhibition games.
“That game is over, it doesn’t count, you have to look straight ahead. You can’t look backwards. We’re going through some guys having colds and some sickness and minor injuries just based on a physical game we played. We want to try to get healthy too before Monday as well.”
Senior forward / center Jalen Graham — thought to be on a course to secure a Top 8 rotation spot before missing the Hogs’ Pro Day and two exhibition games due to back spasms — is expected to be available for the season-opener (Musselman’s comments on Graham can be found down the page).
Scouting Alcorn State
Alcorn State is the two-time defending Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season champion, having finished 15-3 last season and 14-4 two years ago in league play. The ’22-23 team had an overall record of 18-14. Head coach Landon Bussie’s Braves are coming off a 70-60 exhibition-game win over Miles College on Monday.
Alcorn State (preseason No. 248 according to KenPom.com’s ratings for D1 teams) does not have much frontline size but the team does return some key players, including senior 5-10 guard Byron Joshua (11.0 points per game, 4.2 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 2.9 turnovers, 37.7% field goals, including 23.9% from 3, and 71.8% free throws in ’22-23); senior 6-7 forward Jeremiah Kendall (11.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 49.0% field goals, 66.3% free throws in ’22-23); and senior 6-4 guard Dekedran Thorn (9.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.0 steal, 40.6% field goals, including 35.6% from 3, and 84.8% free throws).
Senior 6-3 guard Jeremiah Gambrell, junior 6-2 guard Roderick Jones, and senior-grad 6-4 guard Jalen Hawkins along with Thorn are a quarter of perimeter players that Musselman has labeled as “really good shooters,” although a season ago ASU was a worse three-point shooting team than Arkansas as the Braves made only 29.6% of their shots from distance.
“When you look at Alcorn State, two-time SWAC champs,” Musselman said. “They have a returning point guard in No. 2 Joshua – great quickness with the ball, high steal player, ability to make three-point shots. And then they have some really good shooters. No. 10 Gambrell took 10 threes in their exhibition game the other day. Jones, No. 4, and Hawkins, No. 3, those guys can shoot the ball. Thorn is a returner who did not play in their exhibition game the other day, No. 12, who is one of the SWAC’s best three-point shooters. They have some experience and some new players, as well. They’re well-coached. They play at a certain pace. They try to dictate the tempo of the game, as well.”
The Braves averaged 67.7 points per game as a team last season — ranking 281st in D1 — which illuminates Musselman’s point that ASU will try to slow down the pace and dictate a more deliberate tempo throughout Monday’s matchup.
ASU was a solid offensive rebounding team a year ago — a trouble spot as described above for the Hogs against Purdue on Saturday — as the Braves ranked 37th in D1 with 12.0 offensive boards per contest. They ranked 44th nationally in D1 in steals at 8.0 per game in ’22-23 while turning opponents over an impressive 14.5 times per outing. ASU also got to the foul line in volume, attempting 20.6 freebies per outing to rank 60th in D1.
Opponents shot at a high clip inside the arc against ASU last season (52.7%) and got to the free throw line often (21.4 attempts per game).
Keys to success for Arkansas
– There is no matchup — not individual, frontline corps, backcourt corps, tangible, or intangible facet of the game — that favors ASU, so the mission for Arkansas is to not play down to the level of competition and give its opponent hope.
– Offensives rebounding. Winning this battle may not be necessary to win the game, but given the glass results against Purdue and given that Alcorn State has been effective on the offensive glass should provide a challenge for the Hogs’ frontliners.
– Turnover game. Again, it may not be a must to come out ahead in the giveaway department, but the Hogs would like to have another 20-turnovers-forced performance defensively while minimizing their own self-inflicted wounds that led to 15 turnovers of their own against the Boilermakers. And again, ASU has been good recently at collecting steals when turning teams over.
– Inside-out dominance, imposing will in transition, clamping down on defense and contesting every shot. The Hogs have the pieces to make this an ugly point differential on the scoreboard, and that could provide an opportunity for Musselman to continue to experiment with personnel packages that could include traditional, small-ball, and big lineups.
– On the injury status of Graham: “Jalen is moving around much better. His chances of playing are trending in the right direction where he will be, again back spasms can change at any moment, but right now we are expecting Jalen to be in uniform on Monday. That’s the plan right now from a training perspective, strength coach perspective, doctor perspective and player perspective, that he will be able to be in uniform Monday.”
– On the exhibition-season contributions from talented freshman guard and Little Rock native Layden Blocker: “Layden, I think in the minutes he’s been given, he’s done a great job. He’s got great toughness, he’s kind of fearless. He’s a really good defensive ball-pressure guy. He can pick up full-court. I think offensively, he’s done a really good job of trying to facilitate as well as being aggressive to score the ball.”
– On keys to improving rebounding production following the aforementioned struggles on the boards against Purdue : “Be physical. I thought our guards did a great job rebounding. T-Mark, his rebounds per minute was good. KB did a great job rebounding the basketball. So those two guys in particular, defending (and) rebounding were phenomenal. We need our bigs to rebound, although one of the assignments for the bigs was to just try their best to keep Edey off the offensive boards. And I told them if you block him out and don’t get the ball, it is one of the perimeter guys’ job to go collect that. And then offensive rebounding we want to be better as well. We need to go to the boards more. We are charting this year ‘goes’ and ‘no goes’ on offensive rebounding. We started doing that after the Purdue game, we charted it. We showed our players which guys went, even if they didn’t get the ball, and which guys didn’t attempt to go. Both offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding. And so we’re going to add some things to the way we chart things, just based on … It was really a lack of offensive rebounding as much as anything. Because Purdue really is a great, great offensive rebounding team.”
– On talented freshman center Baye Fall not playing against Purdue: “We sent Baye down to the scorer’s table at one point, and then there’s a matchup where we wanted to stick with what we had, so we had him come back down. But Baye has done a great job in practice. He’s a worker. It was just a situation where Chandler Lawson was really following the game plan, and it was hard to take him out based on the way that he was defending Edey. Then obviously Khi did a great job too, although the five fouls in 18 minutes. Between those two, those guys ate up the center spot, and then we went with some guards as well. A couple of guards got minutes at the four-spot, and we played the rotation fairly large for us as is.”
– On rotations, roles, and minutes distribution for his fifth Arkansas team: “Even last year we were trying to figure out, I use the example all the time, that’s why a guy like Trey Wade (two seasons ago in ’21-22) went from (not) having a big role to mid-point in the SEC calendar to playing a lot. As a player, regardless of who it is, it’s like how do I get better every day? How do I have a great practice? That’s what you do as a player. How do I make sure that my game preparation, when we quiz our guys in film, that I’m answering…that I know the game plan. What we need to do as well. There’s a bunch of stuff that goes into how we have to divvy up minutes and roles and stuff.”
Hoop Hogs updates and tidbits
– Musselman is 4-0 in season-openers at Arkansas and he’s never had a team lose a non-conference game at BWA as his teams are 33-0 in such matchups. He’s 95-42 overall as Head Hog, which includes a 50-9 record against non-conference opponents and a 45-33 mark against SEC foes (both marks include postseason results).
– Although it did not count, the matchup against 3rd-ranked Purdue was the first of a trio of home tilts for Arkansas against preseason AP Top 10-ranked teams as preseason No. 2 Duke (on Nov. 29) and preseason No. 9 Tennessee (Feb. 14) will trek to BWA in the regular season.
– In addition to its preseason No. 14 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll, Arkansas checks in at preseason No. 14 in both the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll and KenPom.com‘s national ratings for D1 teams.
– The Razorbacks were projected as an NCAAT 4-seed in the most-recent Bracketology update by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
– After the Alcorn State tilt, Arkansas will host the second of four consecutive home games at BWA against Gardner-Webb at 7 p.m. CT, Friday, Nov. 10 (livestream via SEC Network Plus).
– Sophomore forward Trevon Brazile last week was included among the 20 players named to the watch list for the postseason Karl Malone Award, which goes to the nation’s forward in Division 1. Prior to that, junior wing Tramon Mark was included among the 20 players named to the watch list for the postseason Jerry West Award, which goes to the nation’s best shooting guard in Division 1. Brazile and Davonte “Devo” Davis picked up preseason recognition as All SEC first- and second-team selections, respectively.
-Hogville is your one-stop shop for complete No. 14 Arkansas-v-No. 3 Purdue exhibition-game coverage (linked here: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=760118.0) and post-game roster analysis including player rotations entering the ’23-24 season (linked here: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=760121.0).