By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — The 15th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks are in familiar stumble-out-of-the-SEC-gates territory with a dangerous 4th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide squad set to invade Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville for a high-stakes, mid-week league game.

Arkansas (12-3, 1-2 SEC, NCAA NET No. 16) is looking to break even in early league play, of course, as it also endeavors 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. The Hogs are perfect in home games to this point (8-0).

Alabama (13-2, 3-0 SEC, NCAA NET No. 6) has been a confident crew, both home and away, while cruising early in SEC play after rolling successfully through an impressive non-conference schedule.

The Hogs and Crimson Tide will square off at 6 p.m. CT on Wednesday on Nolan Richardson Court inside BWA in a game that will be televised nationally by ESPN2.

It’s the first time since 1995 that the Hogs and their opponent have come into a game at BWA both ranked in the Top 15, but it’s the third consecutive game that a ranked Arkansas team is facing a ranked SEC foe.

Arkansas is coming off a dismal showing in a 72-59 road loss to then- No. 22 Auburn as the Hogs face-planted in most facets of a game it mostly trailed by double-digits. The Razorbacks suffered self-inflicted wounds in bulk as they finished minus-6 finish in turnovers (14-8), minus-19 in points-off-turnovers (25-6), 19-of-32 free throw shooting (59.4%), 19-of-56 overall field goal shooting (33.9%) including 2-of-16 from 3 (12.5%), and though they were plus-13 in rebounds (45-32) and plus-10 in offensive rebounds (17-7) they failed to convert several point-blank putback attempts as they were minus-3 in second-chance-points (11-8). Arkansas missed 15 layup attempts in the game.

For an Arkansas team that is accustomed to the aforementioned poor starts in league play, taking on arguably the best SEC team in the Tide is both a challenge as the Hogs try to avoid a 1-3 ditch in league play and an opportunity as they look to pick up a coveted Quad-1 win at home while squaring up their SEC record.

“First of all, just because it’s (bad starts in SEC play) happened that way the last two years doesn’t mean that that’s going to happen this year,” Musselman said during his Monday zoom press conference. “You look at our road games towards the end of the year, you’ve got to go at Tennessee and you’ve got to go at Alabama. But I will say this, and I learned it a long time ago from my father, your schedule often dictates wins and losses at times, as well. Auburn’s won, what, 26 straight at home? So it’s not just Arkansas going in there and feeling that that’s a difficult place to play. There’s 26 opponents before us in a row that didn’t win there. LSU’s playing good basketball. They lost to Kentucky by one on the road. Missouri’s obviously played great basketball.

“If the commissioner said we were only playing through four games and that was the SEC schedule, then it wouldn’t be very good for us the last couple years or this year. But luckily, we have a full schedule, and so you gotta see how it all plays out. The biggest key is, are you still trying to improve your team? So that’s where we are, really, is how do we keep getting better? How do we keep tinkering? If we don’t continue to search and get better, and it was around this time last year when we put Trey Wade in the starting lineup. Not an easy decision maybe to pull out an offensive player like we did last year and put Trey Wade in, who we thought would give us some defense and toughness. We’re gonna keep trying to figure it out as best we can.”

Despite being shorthanded 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 solid foundation in their top  6 rotation of freshman 6-7 guard Anthony Black (12.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 48.8% field goals, 72.6% free throws); junior 6-6 guard Ricky Council IV (18.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 47.1% field goals, 79.7% free throws); junior 6-4 guard Davonte “Devo” Davis (7.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 76.0% free throws); freshman 6-7 combo forward Jordan Walsh (7.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 46.8% field goals, 70.4% free throws); senior 6-9 forward / center Makhi Mitchell (7.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 65.3% field goals); and senior 6-7 forward Kamani Johnson (2.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, 50.0% field goals).

The Razorbacks rank 17th in Division 1 in steals per game at 9.8 and 16th in made two-point field goals per game at 22.9 while coming in at No. 43 in two-point field goal percentage at 55.0% and No. 46 in overall field goal percentage at 47.5%. They rank 15th in D1 in three-point field goals yielded per game defensively at 5.3 and they’re 27th in defensive three-point field goal percentage at 29.0%. Arkansas is plus-4.0 in turnover margin per game, but have steadily had a backslide in turnovers and points-off-turnovers in each of their last three games to start league play. The Hogs are holding teams to 62.9 points per game, which ranks No. 38 in D1.

The Razorbacks are 36-30 all-time against Alabama as they have won 7 of the last 9 meetings in the series, although the Tide have won 2 of the last 3. Arkansas won its last home game against ‘Bama, 81-66, on Feb. 24, 2021, when the Hogs were ranked 20th and the Tide were ranked 6th.

Musselman is 2-2 at Arkansas coaching against Alabama and Tide head coach Nate Oats. Musselman’s 85-31 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 37-24 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 Tide tilt at home, the Hogs will play back-to-back road games — at Vanderbilt on Saturday and at No. 20 Missouri on Wednesday, Jan. 18. The end of that road trip concludes a 4-road-games-in-6-games stretch to open league play for Arkansas.

Muss musings

On freshman guard Anthony Black’s 23-point outburst in 30 minutes at then-No. 22 Auburn: “If he wasn’t in foul trouble I guarantee you he would have played 40 minutes (same as in the Hogs’ first two sEC games at LSU and home against No. 20 Missouri) … He’s just played really good basketball. He’s in great shape and is able to do that. I thought he was phenomenal offensively, much like he was for us in Maui (in late November when he had back-to-back 26-point scoring games). Where we needed some points and he was extremely aggressive both in the half-court and in transition.”

On senior forward Kamani Johnson having more offensive rebounds (24) than defensive rebounds (23) on the season: “Kamani just has a great knack to offensive rebound. He follows the trajectory of the ball on shots. Really good players just have a certain gift that kind of separates them. Certainly, with Kamani offensive rebounding is an area he really excels at. And he takes great pride in it as well.”

On looking for way to increase pace and tempo for more transition scoring opportunities: “Certainly we like to get out in transition. The Auburn game when you have both Devo 9Davis) and Anthony Black in foul trouble in the first half, I mean, you know, we played Ricky Council at the 1 and Joseph Pinion at the 2 during that stretch. That’s a little but unique for us. That lineup has never even really happened in practice. Two point guards that got in foul trouble and one of them in Devo got in foul trouble in the first minute and a half of the game or whatever it was. That’s going to affect your transition because we have a third point guard (Nick Smith, Jr.) that’s not playing right now. There’s not a lot of teams that have four point guards on a 13-man roster, so you get the results of not scoring in transition last game, especially in the first half. But we’ve played against good defenses. Missouri is unique defensively and tries to create steals. LSU’s a little bit more kind of in between. And then obviously you look at the Auburn numbers not just against the University of Arkansas, but you look at Auburn’s defensive numbers across the board and where they rank nationally… But that’s our league. A lot of really good defense. Because now we’ve got probably the best defensive team coming in here on Wednesday. We’re not the only team that has struggled to score in SEC play. Other teams that are good teams have struggled scoring the ball, as well. There’s certain programs, Tennessee, who we have not played yet, obviously. A lot of really good defensive coaches in this league.”

Scouting the Alabama Crimson Tide

Fourth-year head coach Nate Oats has fielded some stout teams since taking over at ‘Bama, but the current ’22-23 group could be his best yet.

The Tide own wins over then-No. 12 Michigan State, then-No.1 North Carolina, at then-No. 1 Houston, and at then-No. 21 Mississippi State with losses against then-No. 20 UConn and then-No. 15 Gonzaga. They also have a win over Memphis as well as additional league victories over Ole Miss (84-62) and Kentucky (78-52) in their two most-recent outing that were both played at home. ‘Bama is 8-0 at home and 3-0 in true road games.

The Tide rank 1st in D1 in both defensive rebounds per game at 32.6 and total rebounds per game 46.1 (they’re 13th in offensive rebounds per outing at 13.5). ‘Bama ranks 9th in both free throws made per game at 18.0 and attempted at 25.4, and its 15th in three-pointers made per game at 9.9 (on 28.3 attempts). The Tide rank 14th in both points per game at 82.9 and blocks per game at 5.7. ‘Bama is a high turnover team offensively, averaging 15.9 giveaways per contest to rank 18th in D1 while forcing only 12.3 turnovers.

Defensively, in addition to having lofty rebounding and blocked shot averages, the Tide are holding teams to 37.8% field goal shooting to rank 12th in D1, including limiting teams to 42.0% on two-point field goals to rank 7th and 27.8% from 3 to rank 11th. Opponents average 69.7 points per game against the Tide.

Alabama goes 9-10 deep in its rotation with only two players averaging 30 or more minutes. It’s a lineup combining skill, athleticism, depth, and exceptional positional size on the wings and frontcourt.

Leading scorer and freshman 6-9 wing Brandon Miller averages 19.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 33.3 minutes per game while shooting 43.3% from the field, including 43.5% from 3, and 83.1% from the free throw line. Junior 6-1 guard and Ohio transfer Mark Sears is averaging 14.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.1 steals in 31.7 minutes per game while shooting 43.3% from the field, including 41.9% from 3, and 77.1% from the free throw line.

Big men in freshman 6-10 forward Noah Clowney (9.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 51.6% field goals, 31.0% from 3, 56.5% free throws) and sophomore 7-0 center Charles Bediako (5.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 blocks) are long, strong, bouncy, and effective as rim-protectors and in transition.

Freshman 6-3 guard Jaden Bradley is averaging 8.9 points, 3.7 assists, and 3.1 rebounds in 22.7 minutes per game while shooting 44.2% from the field, including 25.0% from 3, and 76.7% from the free throw line. Senior 6-1 guard Jahvon Quinerly is averaging 6.9 points, 3.6 assists, and 1.8 rebounds in 17.8 minutes off the bench.

Senior 6-8 forward Noah Gurley (5.9 points and 3.7 rebounds in 17.8 minutes), freshman 6-5 guard Rylan Griffen (5.5 points and 2.7 rebounds in 16.0 minutes), and junior 6-9 forward Nick Pringle (2.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 14-of-15 field goal shooting for 93.3%) round out the top playing rotation.

Alabama ranks No. 7 in Division 1 according to ratings (includes No. 8 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 18 in adjusted offensive efficiency).

“It starts with having a lottery pick in Miller,” Musselman said. “At his size, he’s playing the 3-spot at 6-9. He can shoot over people. He’ll handle the ball in pick-and-roll. He’ll be a screen setter in pick-and-roll. He’ll be a ghost screener in pick-and-roll. I mentioned his ability to follow his own misses, which is a unique characteristic. You’ve got to locate him early because he’s got deep, deep range. Clowney is a really good player, too, as a young player that’s playing really well, then you add in Sears, who is a player who’s got experience and plays really well as a scorer because he can makes threes.

“You look at a guy like Quinerley, who is now coming off the bench for them. He’s been a starter for a lot of his career and now he’s coming off the bench and providing a spark for them off the bench, and they’ll shoot a lot of threes, but they also are really good getting to the basket. Really good dribble-drive team. And there’s a reason they’re ranked fourth in the country because they’re really, really good and they have a really difficult non-conference schedule. They did an awesome job winning those games that they scheduled. They’re a really confident team.”

Musselman elaborated on what makes ‘Bama’s defense formidable.

“I think like with all of us, it’s personnel driven always,” Musselman said. “Their personnel, I mentioned Clowney, who I think is a really phenomenal prospect, who’s got a really bright future. Both centers block shots, so they have rim protection. And Miller at the three spot, at his size at 6-9, it’s unique. And Bradley’s got really good size at the point guard spot. Obviously a guy like Sears played probably his best defensive game against Kentucky the other night when he had six steals. Quinerly can create steals. Gurley’s I think a fifth year guy, maybe more, but he’s an experienced player, who’s got experience playing in this league.

“So I think you add in all those factors and you add in the fact that they’re very well coached on both sides of the basketball, hence you have a really good team. You’ve got good personnel and you’re well coached, then you’re going to be pretty good on both sides of the ball. They’ve got really good talent and they’re really well coached.”

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. 15 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and No. 16 in the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll.

As of Monday, Jan. 9, the Razorbacks ranked No. 16 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 2-2 record in Quad-1 games — neutral-site wins over No. 23 San Diego St and No. 48 Oklahoma, a neutral-site loss against No. 24 Creighton, and a road loss against No. 33 Auburn; b) 2-1 record in Q2 games — home wins over No. 32 MIssouri and No. 62 Bradley, and a road loss against No. 90 LSU; and c) 8-0 record in Q3 and Q4 games. The Hoop Hogs are 3rd among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Tennessee and No. 6 Alabama. The upcoming home game against ‘Bama on Wednesday will count as a Q1 result.

Looking at three of the other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 11 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 12 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 10 according to ratings (includes No. 7 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 42 in adjusted offensive efficiency).