By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The 14th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks did not blow through their early-week opponent like they did against their first two foes to begin the season, so that coupled with the fact last season the Hoop Hogs had to overcome a halftime deficit to knock off their next opponent, North Carolina-Greensboro, it means Head Hog Eric Musselman and his team are on high alert for what is expected to be their toughest matchup so far in 2023-24.
The Hoop Hogs (3-0, No. 15 in KenPom.com‘s rankings) and Spartans (1-1, No. 124 in KenPom) will tip around 7 p.m. CT on Friday (SEC Network Plus livestream) at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Arkansas is coming off a too-close-for-comfort 86-77 home win over Old Dominion on Monday while UNC-Greensboro is coming off a 74-70 road loss against Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
Nearly a year ago — on Dec. 6, 2022, to be exact — the Razorbacks trailed by five points at halftime against a physical UNCG squad at BWA. In fact, Arkansas trailed for nearly 30 minutes of the total 40 minutes of game time before eking out a 65-58 win. It was early in that game that Arkansas star forward Trevon Brazile went down with what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury that required surgery.
Brazile, a preseason All SEC first-team selection, is back in ’23-24, and so far he ranks fourth on the team in scoring (11.3 points per game), first in rebounding (5.7), first in blocks (3.0), second in field goal percentage (68.8%), and second in three-point percentage (57.1%, minimum 1 attempt per game).
Although Brazile has led a defensive block party for two consecutive games — he has 9 erasers in that span as the Hogs combined for a 21-1 advantage in blocked shots against ODU and Gardner-Webb — Musselman has not been pleased with his team’s defensive physicality and defensive rebounding in any game to this point, and his frustration was compounded by the team’s overall defensive lapse in the second half against ODU.
Against the Monarchs on Monday, the Hoop Hogs took the lead for good at 7-5 early and built 14-point leads in both halves, but ODU refused to let Arkansas pull away while managing to erase multiple double-digit deficits with scoring spurts to pull within two-possession margins throughout the contest.
The Hogs used a 14-5 run to take their second 14-point lead of the game, 79-65, with 5:06 to play, but ODU struck back with an 8-0 run to pull within 6 points, 79-73, at the 3:42 mark.
Arkansas’ lead was once again at 6 points, 83-77, before the Hogs closed out the contest by making 3-of-4 free throws for the final 9-point winning margin.
Senior guard El Ellis led five Hogs in double-figure scoring with 17 points to go with a game-high 8 assists, 3 rebounds, and ZERO turnovers. Senior big man Makhi Mitchell came off the bench to record a double-double — 15 points and 10 rebounds. Senior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis had 16 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, ZERO turnovers, and a team-high boxscore plus-12 in 37 minutes. Sophomore forward Trevon Brazile had 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 1 assist in 31 minutes.
The Razorbacks’ two leading scorers coming into the game — Khalif Battle and Tramon Mark — struggled with early foul trouble and had relatively off nights. Battle finished with 13 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist in 21 minutes while Mark had a season-low 7 points to go with 6 rebounds and 1 assist in 21 minutes.
Arkansas made 30-of-59 field goals (50.8%), including 8-of-19 from 3 (42.1%), and 18-of-29 at the free throw line (62.1%).
Defensively, the Hogs were solid in the first half but porous in the second half as Old Dominion finished 31-of-71 overall from the field (43.7%), including 11-of-24 from 3 (45.8%). In the second half, ODU got what it wanted inside and out, including an 8-of-13 effort from distance (61.5%). For the game, the Monarchs were 4-of-5 at the free throw line (80.0%).
The Razorbacks were minus-54 on the glass (39-35), including minus-4 in offensive rebounds (12-8). Arkansas was plus-6 in turnovers (10-4) and an impressive plus-614 in points-off-turnovers (18-4). Arkansas lost bench scoring (40-33) and was dominated in fastbreak points (21-9).
“There’s some real positives, believe it or not,” Musselman said after the game. “Defending without fouling is something we really worked on … The fouling was really good. How many foul shots did they take? Five (4 of 5). So defending without fouling, A-plus. Taking care of the basketball, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team only have four turnovers against a high-steal team … So taking care of ball, A-plus.
“Defensive rebounding, Double-F. Transition defense, Triple-F. Guarding the three, there’s no guard it was so bad. So some good, and some very poor.”
Scouting the North Carolina-Greensboro Spartans
Head coach Mike Jones is entering his third season at UNCG, and his ’23-24 Spartans are off to a 1-1 start having split games against North Carolina A&T (a 94-78 UNCG win in its season-opener) and Vanderbilt (the aforementioned 74-70 road loss on Tuesday).
UNCG overcame a 16-point early-second-half deficit to pull within two points, 72-70, with 8 seconds to play in the game against the Commodores.
Senior 6-1 guard Keyshaun Langley led the way against Vandy with 26 points (including 3-of-9 shooting from 3) with senior 6-8 forward Mikeal Brown-Jones adding 24 points (including 2-of-4 shooting from 3). Senior 6-1 guard Kobe Langley, Keyshaun’s twin brother, added 7 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds. Sophomore 6-5 guard and sharpshooter Donovan Atwell struggled shooting at Vandy, finishing with only 2 points on 1-of-8 field goals, including 0-of-6 from 3.
Those four players are starters for the Spartans and they’re the team’s leading scorers by average through two games this season, combining to score 57.0 points per outing.
A season ago in the 7-point loss to the Hogs, Keyshaun Langley had 9 points, 3 assists, 3 steals, and 2 rebounds in 31 minutes. Kobe Lowery had 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists in that game while Atwell has 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting from 3. Brown-Jones had 3 points and 2 rebounds against the Hogs.
Sophomore 6-8 forward Jalen Breath started against Vandy and is averaging 4.5 points and 6.5 rebounds so far in ’23-24. He clocked 5 minutes against Arkansas a season ago while recording only as single rebound. Junior 6-3 guard Joryam Saizonou, averaging 4.0 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists so far in ’23-24, played 6 minutes against the Hogs a season ago while also recording only as single rebound.
Senior 6-3 guard Akrum Ahemed came off the bench to contribute 8 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal in 17 minutes against the ‘Dores on Tuesday. He was on the Spartans’ team a year ago but played in only four games, none of which included Arkansas.
UNCG has 9 players that have appeared in both games this season with each averaging double-digit minutes of playing time (ranging from 30.5 to 12.0 minutes per game). The team is averaging 82.0 points, 40.0 rebounds, 14.0 assists, 5.0 steals, 2.0 blocks, and 9.5 turnovers per game while shooting 44.4% overall from the field (includes 48.8% on two-point field goals and 37.9% from 3) and 80.0% from the free throw line.
UNCG is grabbing 15.0 offensive rebounds per game to rank 49th in D1, but the Spartans do not draw a lot of fouls and thus rank among the bottom-feeders of D1 in free throws attempted per game (10.0). UNCG attempts 71.0 shots per game so far to rank 16th in D1 (that’s the same number of field goal attempts that ODU had against the Hogs on Monday). The Spartans average 29.0 attempts from three per game to rank 37th in D1. The team makes 31.5 field goals per game to rank 64th in D1, including 11.0 makes from 3 to rank 21st. The Spartan’s 37.9% efficiency shooting from distance ranks 79th in D1.
Defensively, UNCG is holding teams to 41.4% overall field goal shooting to rank 177th in Division 1 while limiting opponents to only 14.0 made two-point field goals per game to rank 32nd in D1. As often as UNCG puts up shots from distance, the team struggles to defend the three-line as it gives up 10.0 makes per game at a 35.1% clip as both marks ranks near the bottom of D1.
Against the Hogs in ’22-23, UNCG dictated a slow-paced, grinding tempo while limiting Arkansas to 18-of-54 field goal shooting (33.3%), including 3-of-18 from 3 (16.7%). Arkansas’ saving grace was a 26-of-33 effort at the free throw line (78.9%) compared to UNCG’s 7-of-11 (63.6%).
Keys to success for Arkansas
– Brazile as the X-factor? UNCG was as difficult a matchup for Arkansas a year as just about any team, and though both programs have added new pieces there are enough key returnees to add intrigue to a matchup that could turn into another late-round decision. The advantage for Arkansas is not only homecourt, but this time around it has a much more veteran, experienced team up and down the lineup … plus a healthy Trevon Brazile, who just might find away to have his best game of the season to send the Hogs off the The Bahamas with an unblemished 4-0 record. Certainly, the Hogs need Brazile to play his game, produce, and have positive impact at both ends of the floor. He’s got plenty of talent, firepower, and experience around him so that the entire burden is not on his shoulders, but he just might be the X factor in this game.
– Three-point shooting could be, probably will be, key as both teams launch in volume and with efficiency. The fact the Hogs are coming off a porous second-half defending the three-line against ODU — the Monarchs made 8 triples at a 61.5% clip in the final 20 minutes against Arkansas — is not the way you want to come into a dagger-fest against a prolific three-point shooting team like UNCG. But aside from one half, the Hogs have been stingy defending the perimeter, and with Musselman having four days in between games to drill down on the details necessary to improve the Razorbacks will be looking to make a statement defending the Spartans’ specialists from distance. Conversely, UNCG has just flat out been awful defending the three, and that could be exactly what ignites this Arkansas team if the Spartans pack things in defensively. The Hogs have one of the best inside-out offenses in a small sample size of three games, so they need to take advantage of whatever is given by UNCG’s defense. Giving the ball energy with movement via the pass is the best way to start, then pick and choose from there when the defense is slow to react and recover.
– Free throw shooting was Arkansas’ saving grace in this matchup a season ago, and it could be again. Look, the Hogs are attempting 22.0 more free throws per game than UNCG, which on its face suggests a huge advantage in the second go-round. There’s also a huge disparity in the teams’ efficiency on freebies with UNCG making 80% and the Hogs only 63.9%, so if those trends hold it could potentially offset the wide gap in FTAs between the teams. At the end of this one, Arkansas very well may point to the free throw line as a reason it won or lost. The goal, obviously, is to establish another landslide win in this category.
– These are Musselman’s talking points, and since he’s been making them for awhile it seems obvious by now that Arkansas needs to find ways to play with more physicality (but not in a way that causes excessive fouling), to close out defensive possessions with more defensive rebounds, to competently defend in transition, and to be more consistent defensively when efforting to stay in front of their opponents while limiting deep dribble-drives into the paint and to the rim. Both teams are averaging just under 10 turnovers per game, so there is no clear advantage there coming into the matchup. But a good combination of winning the above-referenced facets of the game could fuel a lopsided win for the Hogs, but at minimum should help them get to the winner’s circle for the fourth time in as many games to start ’23-24.
– On Brazile facing UNC-Greensboro again, and what it will take for the Hogs to defeat the Spartans: “I hope not (regarding Brazile having the UNCG game circled). I hope he just comes out and plays. I think it’s always hard for a player knowing there was an injury against a certain team. UNC-G is good. We were down five last year in this game at halftime. The game was a single-digit game. They have a potential all-league player back at center. They have the defensive player of the year in Langley back. They have a first-team all-league player back in Langley, one of the best three-point shooters in college basketball. Then they have a guy at the small forward spot that’s an absolute roper. He hit four threes against us. So, they’ve got some guys back from last year that really, really hurt us. We need to play our best game of the season on Friday. That’s for sure.”
– On scheduling UNCG a second consecutive season:It was two one-year deals. We feel like they’re going to win their league. Coach (Arkansas assistant Anthony) Ruta studies these guys and our guys have to step up to the challenge of playing a really good team that’s going to come in here with confidence. We have to come with some… Come a little better than we have.”
– On areas of concern for his team that is set to face seven consecutive games against tougher competition in non-conference play: “Rebounding and physicality and guarding the ball. That’s a lot. Rebounding, physicality, and our perimeter players being able to guard their guy. That’s a lot of stuff to be concerned with … You’ve got to keep the ball in front of you. You can’t get hit on screens. If you get caught on a screen, you’ve got to do a better job rearview mirror contesting. You’ve got to keep your man out of the lane. You can’t give up straight-line dribble drives. If you give up straight-line dribble drives and you give up layups, you can’t always expect our bigs to be there to help because we’re not great at the rim with verticality right now. So, we’ve got to get better at that with our bigs, and our guards… We didn’t guard the three or the dribble drive. It’s one thing if you’re like, ‘Hey, we shut them down from three, and we gave up some dribble drives.’ They (ODU) did whatever they wanted.”
– On eventual likelihood that transfer sharpshooter Jeremiah Davenport catches fire from three, and other areas where he’s helping the team: “JD is a great shooter. We see it every day in practice, he’s got a great release. I talked to him the other day, ‘just get your feet set and kind of take your time.’ The one thing he’s done a really good job of, he’s defending better than maybe we thought. He’s rebounding, although tonight only one, but he’s rebounded through the elbows better than any of our guards … So defensively, rebounding, intangible stuff, he’s done a great job. Shooting the ball… When you’ve got a guy that’s a high-volume shooter, you can’t get in his head. You’ve got to just let him launch and hope he gets hot, which we certainly think he will.”
– On his team’s inability to put ODU away comfortably: “I mean, we kept getting it to 10 then it’d get back to 5 or 6. We didn’t separate. Maybe we’d get up 10, give ups a transition basket or give up a three then they get a little momentum. They play hard. They play tough. They’re probably going to be right there looking at a conference championship. That’s why we scheduled them. I watched the whole Baylor/Gardner-Webb game and that was a six-point game until about the seven-and-a-half minute mark. We’re playing some teams that are pretty good. Baylor couldn’t separate from Gardner-Webb like we did. There was no 25-point lead in that game at all. Their biggest lead was at the end of the game, and Baylor is a really good team with a lottery pick, and they’re really well coached, so I think the state of college basketball right now is you’ve got to come ready to play. There was probably an upset tonight, too. It’s every night now just with the way the transfer portal is. This team we just played, they’ve got a guy that played at Wichita State, they’ve got a guy that played at Oregon. Teams…they’re tough to win. University of Miami tonight against FIU, that was a single-digit game, too. FIU hadn’t won. They were 0-3. Miami is a really good team, so it’s just kind of the nature of how it is if you don’t come and play for 40 minutes.”
Hoop Hogs updates and tidbits
– Musselman has never had a Razorbacks team lose a non-conference game at BWA as his teams are 36-0 in such matchups. He’s 98-42 overall as Head Hog, which includes a 53-9 record against non-conference opponents and a 45-33 mark against SEC foes (both marks include postseason results).
– The Hogs are 2-0 all-time against UNC-Greensboro entering Friday’s game at BWA, where the two previous meetings also took place (the aforementioned 65-58 Arkansas win last season and an 89-74 Hogs’ triumph in ’01-02, which was the last season coaching at Arkansas for Naismith Hall of Famer Nolan Richardson).
– Musselman has started the same lineup for five straight games (two exhibition matchups in October and three regular-season games in November) — Brazile, Davis, Mark, Ellis, and senior Chandler Lawson.
– Arkansas initially slipped three spots in KenPom.com‘s national rankings for Division 1, going from No. 13 to No. 16 after the team’s win over Old Dominion before the Hogs moved back up a spot to No. 15 on Wednesday, Nov. 15. The Hogs are ranked No. 20 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI). Arkansas remained at No. 14 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll update that was released on Monday, Nov. 13.
– Arkansas adjusted offensive efficiency is ranked 20th in D1 and its adjusted defensive efficiency is ranked 28th in D1, according to KenPom. More Razorbacks rankings in D1: The Hogs are 5th in blocks per game (8.3), 7th in free throws attempted per game (32.3), 20th in free throws made per game (20.7), 34th in defensive rebounds per game (32.0), 37th in three-point shooting efficiency (40.3%), 44th in defensive two-point field goal efficiency (40.6%), 58th in overall field goal percentage (50.9%) as well as points per game (88.3), 90th in three-point field goals made per game (9.0), and 94th in total rebounds per game (41.7).
– The Razorbacks were projected as an NCAAT 5-seed — a drop from a 4-seed projection in the prior week — in the most-recent Bracketology update by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi released on Tuesday, Nov. 14.
– After the UNC-Greensboro tilt, Arkansas is off to the The Bahamas for the three-game Battle 4 Atlantis tournament (Nov. 22-24) with the Hoop Hogs’ first-round matchup against Stanford set for a 6:30 p.m. CT tip on Wednesday, Nov. 22, on ESPNU.
– Hogville is your one-stop shop for complete 2023-24 Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball coverage (schedule, results, and game articles are linked here: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=756493.0) plus ongoing analysis including our game-to-game stock-risers (linked here: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=760826.0).