By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The 25th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks have fallen harder and faster in early SEC play than they did in the previous three seasons under fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman, and the recent collapses on defense (which was the team strength) in combination with a myriad of ongoing problems on offense has only exasperated matters during the current downward spiral of three consecutive losses by double-digit margins as part of a 4-losses-in-5-games stretch to begin league play.
Throw in that the Hoop Hogs are winless on the road (0-3, all in SEC games), and it makes the team’s mid-week league matchup at Missouri more ominous as Arkansas seeks a course correction to close out the first one-third of SEC play.
Arkansas (12-5, 1-4 SEC, NCAA NET No. 27) has its worst league start through the first five outings, a game behind early-SEC program plunges in 2021-22 (2-3) and ’20-21 (2-3). The Hogs are coming off back-to-back-to-back losses to then-No. 22 Auburn on the road (72-59), then-No. 4 Alabama at home (84-69), and unranked Vanderbilt on the road (97-84).
Missouri (13-4, 2-3 SEC, NCAA NET No. 57) has lost back-to-back league games, both on the road, against Texas A&M and Florida.
The Hogs and Tigers will square off at 8 p.m. CT on Wednesday (SEC Network) in Columbia, Mo., in a rematch from two weeks ago (Jan. 4) when then-No. 13 Arkansas came back from 17 points down to defeat then-No. 20 Mizzou, 74-68, in a home game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
The second meeting with Mizzou will mark Arkansas’ fourth road game in its first six SEC matchups.
“You gain confidence by playing good for 40 minutes,” Musselman said during his Tuesday zoom press conference. “You gain confidence by winning a game. So certainly our mindset going into the game has to be that we’re going to play in front of a crowd, we’re going to play against a really well-coached team and we’re going to play against a team that’s very confident in their own building. So you’ve got to match all of those areas in order to give yourself a chance to win on the road.”
In its most-recent loss against an average Commodores squad, Arkansas fell apart defensively in the second half, squandering a 10-point lead as Vandy outscored the Hogs 57-34 in the final 17:37 to win going away. After making only 11-of-30 from the field in the first half (36.7%), Vandy shot 18-of-26 in final 20 minutes (69.2%), including 6-of-9 from 3 (66.7%), and 21-of-23 from the free throw line (91.3%) in scoring 63 total second-half points (the Hogs had been yielding 64.1 points PER GAME through their first 16 contests).
Combining the full-game three-point shooting efforts of both Alabama and Vandy (the last two teams the Hogs have faced), those opponents were a collective 19-of-38 from 3 (50%). Prior to those games, the Hogs had been holding teams to just over 5 made triples per game with a defensive three-point shooting percentage in the high-20’s. To make matters worse Arkansas has been fouling at a high clip, especially in the second halves against the Tide and ‘Dores as those two teams shot a collective 35-of-40 on second-half freebies (87.5%) against the Hogs. Conversely, Arkansas was a combined 11-of-16 in second-half free throw shooting (64.7%) against those two teams.
The Hogs went from being the 7th ranked team in Division 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency to No. 22 — according to KenPom.com analytics — as a result of those two performances.
Many factors have played into the Hogs’ defensive demise, with the over-arching theme being a squad that has gone from being proactive to reactive, and lacking confidence, continuity, and connectivity, as teams are finding it easy to drive and create space for shots inside and out. Once ball-handlers are able to get downhill or gain a numbers advantage, the Hogs’ help rotations have been slow or non-existent of late, and the close-outs appear to be the same. Flat-footed ball-watching followed by reaching, and aggressive over-play out high defending screens and dribble-handoffs before plowing into opponents are just a couple of examples of miscues that have led to the whistle-and-foul-fest for the Razorbacks.
On offense, poor three-point shooting, poor free throw shooting, and turnovers have been constant issues. Rebounding and scoring in the paint have been mostly reliable staples, but the margins have been too narrow relative to the massive shooting and ball-security issues.
With stars Nick Smith, Jr. (out indefinitely) and Trevon Brazile (out for the remainder of the season) not in the lineup, the Razorbacks still have a talented foundation — albeit challenged in terms of offering offensive balance (inside-out) — in their top 6 rotation of freshman 6-7 guard Anthony Black (12.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 46.0% field goals, 68.3% free throws); junior 6-6 guard Ricky Council IV (18.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 47.8% field goals, 78.9% free throws); junior 6-4 guard Davonte “Devo” Davis (8.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 steals, 81.3% free throws); freshman 6-7 combo forward Jordan Walsh (6.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 70.4% free throws); senior 6-9 forward / center Makhi Mitchell (7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 64.4% field goals); and senior 6-7 forward Kamani Johnson (2.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 50.0% field goals).
Reserves in freshman 6-5 wing Joseph Pinion and senior 6-9 forward Jalen Graham have sparked some offensive production, but have struggled defensively. Senior center Makhel Mitchell has made back-to-back starts alongside his twin brother Makhi, totaling 13 points (6-of-7 field goals and 1-of-4 free throws), 6 rebounds, and 4 blocks in a combined 40 minutes.
The Razorbacks are 33-26 all-time against Mizzou as they have won the last five meetings in the series.
Musselman is 6-2 at Arkansas coaching against Mizzou. Musselman’s 85-33 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 37-26 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.
After the Mizzou game, Arkansas returns home for a matchup against Ole Miss on Saturday at BWA.
Clarifying comments on his Monday night radio show regarding Arkansas as a (paraphrasing) target for league opponents: “I mean I think we’re going through a lot of new experiences, meaning sold-out buildings. We have six freshman that obviously have not experienced college basketball, and some other guys that probably haven’t played in these type of atmospheres. Then you add in the fact that the team has had success the last two years, then you add in the fact that every day that this team has been together they’ve been ranked. So there is a little bit of an excitement when Arkansas plays on the road right now. And you know it’s new for a lot of guys, for sure.”
On lessons learned from three road defeats as part of a 4-losses-in-5-games skid: “I think that, I mean it’s a lot of things. You’ve got to play well offensively. You’ve got to play well defensively. You’ve got to limit runs by the other team because they’re playing at home. So there’s a lot of areas that we have to continue to improve and grow in, both on the road and at home.”
On potential increased role for freshman wing Joseph Pinion moving forward: “Well he’s gotta defend at a high level. I mean, we went back and watched that film and some of the guys that we just mentioned that had good games, I mean, we’ve got to do a good job on them. Joseph is still learning a lot of things from a conceptual standpoint, just as many of our guys are. But he’s certainly… The thing that’s most impressive about Joseph is every game he goes in with a self-belief that he’s going to impact the game and he doesn’t take a long time to come in and get a flow or a rhythm offensively. So he’s… How the game unfolds, we don’t know. Every game has its own themes and we have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C on how things could go, but you’ve got to read the game and make adjustments as they happen.”
Scouting the Missouri Tigers with a look back to the teams’ first meeting two weeks ago
Like Arkansas, Mizzou is 0-3 in SEC road games. But the Tigers are unbeaten in two home league games (wins over Kentucky and Vanderbilt) with their lone home setback coming against then-No. 6 Kansas, 95-67, in early December.
Missouri ranks No. 57 in Division 1 according to KenPom.com ratings (No. 9 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and No. 186 in adjusted defensive efficiency).
The Tigers are undersized and go 9-10 deep in their rotation with no player averaging 30 or more minutes. Senior Kobe Brown leads the team with 15.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 55.7% from the field, including 42.6% from 3, and 78.5 from the free throw line. Three other Tigers average double-figure scoring — D’Moi Hodge, Noah Carter, and DeAndre Gholston — with veteran transfer guards Nick Honor, Sean East II, and Tre Gomillion offering backcourt versatility as scorers, facilitators, and opportunistic defenders.
In the team’s first meeting two weeks ago, Pinion sparked a late first-half rally to bring the Hogs back from a 25-8 deficit to down only 34-27 at the break, and Council responded to playing off the bench in the second half by finishing with a game-high 25 points (including 11-of-13 at the free throw line which mostly fed his 21 second-half points with a 5-of-6 freebie effort coming in the final 25 seconds to ice the win).
Missouri was led by East II (13 points), Honor (12 points), and Brown (11 points). Tigers leading scorer at the time — Hodge (16.5 points per game coming into the first meeting) — was limited to 6 points on only 2-of-4 field goals.
Offensively, the Razorbacks looked confused for the longest stages of the first half while trying to solve the Tigers’ zone defense as they fell behind by 17 points at the midway point of the first 20 minutes. But Arkansas put together a more assertive game plan to navigate the zone defense and attack the paint and basket in the second half, resulting in a blistering 16-of-26 shooting effort (61.5%) from the field (including 4-of-9 from 3 for 44.4% in the final 20 minutes) as the team scored 47 second-half points after mustering only 27 in the opening half. The Hogs finished the game making 26-of-54 overall from the field (48.1%), including 6-of-21 from 3 (28.6%). They made 16-of-23 free throws (69.6%).
Defensively, Arkansas held Mizzou’s vaunted offense (88.8 points per game coming in) to 20.8 points below its season average, and the Hogs kept the Tigers’ nationally elite team field goal shooting — especially inside the arc — well below their season efficiency (24-of-54 overall from the field for 44.4%, including 6-of-19 from 3 for 31.6%). Mizzou came in shooting better that 51% from the field, including better than 61% on two-point field goals.
Arkansas dominated the glass (40-23), including a 15-9 edge in offensive rebounds that led to a plus-9 win in second-chance-points (17-8). The Hogs were plus-7 in fastbreak points (18-11). The Tigers did win the turnover battle (17-10), points-off-turnovers (21-8), and points-in-the-paint (28-26).
“I think both teams will make adjustments,” Musselman said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. I mean, you can’t go into a game with the same game plan. I mean, we were down by 17 points in that game. So the way that we went into that game cannot be the way that we start this game. So I think both teams will make adjustments. Players on both rosters will have the film and study different things from an offensive and defensive standpoint and come away with something different.”
Hoop Hogs earning SEC and national honors
Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., was the most-recent 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. 25 in both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll.
As of Tuesday, Jan. 17, the Razorbacks ranked No. 27 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 2-3 record in Quad-1 games — neutral-site wins over No. 31 San Diego St and No. 45 Oklahoma, a neutral-site loss against No. 24 Creighton, a road loss against No. 26 Auburn; and a home loss against No. 3 Alabama b) 1-2 record in Q2 games — home win over No. 53 Missouri, and road losses against No. 90 Vanderbilt and No. 107 LSU; and c) 9-0 record in Q3 and Q4 games. The Hoop Hogs are 4th among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Tennessee, No. 3 Alabama, and No. 26 Auburn. The upcoming road game against Missouri on Wednesday will count as a Q1 result.
Looking at three of the other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 15 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 28 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 22 according to KenPom.com ratings (includes No. 22 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 46 in adjusted offensive efficiency).
Arkansas was projected as a No. 6 seed in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.