By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The No. 10 Arkansas Razorbacks had plenty of dress rehearsals bridging August to October, and now it’s time for the real thing against unranked North Dakota State in the 2022-23 season-opener for both teams on Monday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. CT on Nolan Richardson Court (livestream available via SEC Network Plus).
The Hoop Hogs were 5-1 in exhibition games — that’s 4-0 during a European tour in August followed by a 1-1 mark in October — and they’ll look to win their fourth straight regular-season-opener under fourth year head coach Eric Musselman, who in his previous three seasons in games that count is 73-28 overall leading the program. That includes a 36-22 record against SEC teams and a 6-2 mark spanning two NCAA Tournaments that culminated in back-to-back Elite Eight runs and back-to-back final national Top 10 rankings.
With 11 newcomers among the 13 scholarship Hogs — arguably comprising the top overall recruiting class in college basketball in 2022 — combined with impeccable finishes in their last two seasons, the Razorbacks enter ’22-23 with high national expectations as evidenced by multiple preseason team rankings ranging from No. 5 to No. 10.
Despite a rough outing in a charity exhibition game on the road against No. 12 Texas on Saturday when the wheels came off the Muss Bus in the second half of a 90-60 blowout loss, Arkansas gets a clean slate with the Bison of NDSU set to invade BWA on Monday. Expectations are still high, and there are plenty of unanswered questions for Musselman’s fourth Hog squad to sort through.
“I told everybody that I thought before the Texas game it would be an eye-opening experience, and it was,” Musselman said during his Friday press conference. “I think there’s a lot of unknowns headed into this three-game homestand before we go to Maui. I think you’ll see different things start to emerge game by game as well. Roles will start to be solidified a little bit more … but I think that when the lights come on, things can change for players both ways — good and the opposite of good.”
Musselman scheduled the Texas tune-up to fast track adversity for his inexperienced team before the start of the regular season, specifically to help address problem areas in three-point shooting and turnovers, finding consistency on defense, identifying the right lineup combinations for matchup advantages, and ultimately drilling down to a reliable top 7-8 rotation to start the season.
Texas certainly did its part in serving up hard-knocks lessons for the Hogs. The veteran Longhorns — more physical, more savvy, more efficient — imposed their will as they won turnovers (23-13, including 10 Texas steals) and points-off-turnovers (26-12); rebounds (33-32) and second-chance-points (10-8); points-in-the-paint (38-28); fastbreak points (17-7), and bench points (45-29).
Texas was blistering hot shooting from the outset, finishing 33-of-61 from the field (54.1%), including 10-of-16 from 3 (62.5%). The ‘Horns made 14-of-20 free throws (70%). Defensively, Texas held Arkansas to 20-of-50 field goal shooting (40%), including 4-of-12 from 3 (33.3%). The Hogs shot 16-of-23 from the foul line (69.6%).
“We watched the entire game,” Arkansas senior forward Kamani Johnson said during Friday’s zoom press conference. “Like start to finish the entire game. We were probably in here for three hours. It was the longest film session I’ve had since I’ve been here. By far. Probably doubled it, tripled it. It was a day for sure.”
Musselman was pleased to have Texas as a preseason measuring stick for his team, and he said practices since returning home to Fayetteville have been good while still exposing the fact that the Hogs have a ways to go in learning how to lock into preparation with good practice habits.
“We’ve had some good practices,” Musselman said. “Obviously, we want to continue to evolve from a practice standpoint, but I think the guys’ mental makeup and physically we’ve practiced with the energy that we kind of want to have culturally, chemistry-wise and making sure everybody understands in our entire program the mission and the vision. All those things.
“We knew that this was going to be a learning experience and that we were not going to be a finished product a week before our first regular season game, which is kind of when the Texas game took place. We have a lot of uncertainty on the floor, schematically, that we are still trying to work out and understand who our team is. But we’re really happy that we played that game. I think in the long run it will benefit our program in a big way.”
Johnson said Musselman resorted to previous tactics of having the team practice with weight vests and holding bricks during drill work this week.
“I kind of had flashbacks, because we’ve been seeing the weight vests and bricks this week for sure,” Johnson said. “Muss don’t like losing like that, and we don’t like losing like that. He’s going to get us right for sure.”
The beauty of the trial-by-fire beatdown was that after the flames died down, the Hogs left town with no official blemish on their record and no ugly loss on their postseason resume. They got back to practice for a week with their first chance to bounce back against an opponent being the first game that counts with North Dakota State.
“These are not exhibition games, so these games count,” Arkansas junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis said during the Friday presser. “We don’t want to come our first game in and not play as hard as we can and fall short, knowing that we’re playing a good team. It’s most definitely more turned up in practice. We’re screwing everything together to make sure the bolts are tight and we’re ready to play.”
Scouting the North Dakota State Bison
North Dakota State, preseason ranked 206th in Division 1 according to KenPom.com and picked to finish among the top handful of teams in the Summit League in ’22-23, comes into Monday’s season-opener with frontline size, a mix of veterans and newcomers who will figure into the team’s top rotation, and a recent sizzling performance shooting from 3 in the Bison’s final dress rehearsal on Wednesday.
NDSU beat Division II Minnesota-Crookston, 98-64, in an exhibition game on Wednesday as the Bison were propelled by a 15-of-34 effort from distance (44.1%) while knocking down 21-of-37 field goals inside the arc (56.8%). They were 11-of-21 from the free throw line (52.4%). NDSU ripped down 51 rebounds, handed out 19 assists on its 36 made field goals, committed 20 fouls, suffered 11 turnovers, blocked 6 shots, and claimed 6 steals.
Bison head coach David Richman, entering his ninth season at the helm of the NDSU men’s basketball program, led his team to a second-place finish in league play in ’21-22 (23-10 overall, 13-5 in Summit League).
Junior Grant Nelson (6-11 forward) — he had 17 points and 8 rebounds on Wednesday — averaged 11.6 points (50.8% field goals, including 32.2% from 3), 4.9 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks with 21 starts a season ago. Sophomore Andrew Morgan (6-10 forward) finished with 22 points on Wednesday, while junior Boden Skunberg (6-5 guard) chipped in 10 points. Those two combined to average 11.2 points and 6.7 rebounds last season.
Newcomer guards Travis Miller (6-4) and Lance Waddles (6-3) combined for 38 points (including a collective 10-of-17 from beyond the arc) on Wednesday, while Luke Yoder (6-0 guard) contributed 7 points and 6 assists.
Junior Dezmond McKinney (6-0 guard) did not play in NDSU’s exhibition game but could figure into the Bison’s rotation after averaging 10 minutes per game last season as a sophomore.
NDSU ranked 75th in Division 1 a season ago in points per game at 74.8 while shooting a respectable 35.8% from 3 to rank 64th in D1.
“They present some problems and some uniqueness that maybe we don’t see in SEC play,” Musselman said. “So yeah, we’re trying to come up with little themes and how we can be innovative in our preparation for a team that has good skills shooting and passing the ball.”
Five things the Razorbacks need to do (or attempt to do) against NDSU
1. On defense, Arkansas should focus on preventing a three-point barrage by NDSU, close out possessions with rebounds, force live-ball turnovers to get into transition, and get back to stop the Bison in transition — these were ALL FAIL categories defensively for the Hogs against the ‘Horns, and certainly NDSU will not have the talent, athleticism, and matchup versatility that Texas used to frustrate Arkansas just a few days ago. The Razorbacks are built just right to defend the paint and rim, but they’ll need to be in concert and communicate better the further they move away from the paint if they are to be a forceful defensive unit that executes to Musselman’s standards, and that journey begins on Monday.
2. Dictate tempo, run out in transition, and attack the paint and rim in the halfcourt on offense. This was a winning combo in Europe in August and against Division II Rogers State a couple of weeks ago. With all the size, length, and athleticism added to the roster in the offseason, the Hogs need to remain devoted to playing to their strengths despite being collared by Texas recently. Freshmen guards Nick Smith, Jr., and Anthony Black come in with the open-court talent as finishers and facilitators to set the table for a great rim-running team, and both need to push that envelope in their college debuts on Monday. The determination and execution to attack should also lead to plenty of trips to the free throw line, which has become a staple of Musselman-coached teams.
3. Continue to employ good judgment shooting from three, and take better care in ball-handling and passing to minimize turnovers while valuing possessions. It’s well-known by now that Arkansas is simply not an efficient three-point shooting team while consistently being a turnover machine in the preseason. The team may be limited in how it can improve shooting the basketball, but much of the turnover problems should be fixable. If the stated strength of the team is attacking the paint and rim and getting out in transition, then Arkansas should continue to maximize those facets of their offense while minimizing three-point shot attempts, which is what they succeeded in doing for most of the exhibition season. The goal against NDSU should be to stay that course while cutting down on risky, homerun-type passes and telegraphed passes to get more (and better) shots on goal, which is always a prime objective of Musselman.
4. Tighten up the rotation. It’s what Musselman always seeks to do when the games that count begin, and though several question marks remain regarding which Hogs (and how many) that Musselman trusts to carry the big roles and minutes it seems it’s in his and the team’s best interest if he can whittle down to a reliable 7 or 8 players by game one. That may be wishful thinking, and certainly Musselman has been known to make significant tweaks to his rotation by mid-January. Outside of Smith, Black, and sophomore forward Trevon Brazile — a trio that seems to make up the foundation for any top rotation for the Hogs — it’s likely the group of Jordan Walsh, Devo Davis, Ricky Council IV, Kamani Johnson, Jalen Graham, and Makhi Mitchell will factor into sorting out the remainder of the top rotation with freshmen wings Barry Dunning, Jr., and Joseph Pinion being the darkhorses to eventually get their shots at roles.
5. Get back to blue-collar basketball. It’s been the calling card of Musselman’s best teams — stingy defenses, attacking and getting to the foul line on offense, and out-toughing the other guy while executing (especially at the end of games). The Hogs were devoid of these tangible and intangible qualities in their most-recent outing, but it’s been in the DNA of the program since Musselman arrived and it should be the stated goal of the team every night they step onto the court. Whether faced with a tight game or enjoying a blowout, the Razorbacks need to make it a priority to win the gut-check moments. Johnson was the ONLY Razorback in the preseason who consistently checked these boxes, and the clock is running to see who and how many will join him.
Rankings, polls and analytics
Arkansas enters the 2022-23 regular season with these preseason rankings: No. 10 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll; No. 10 in USA Today’s Top 25 rankings; No. 7 in Sports Illustrated’s rankings; No. 6 in Blue Ribbon Yearbook’s rankings; and No. 5 in CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander’s preseason Top 100-and-1 rankings. The Razorbacks enter the season with these initial advanced metrics rankings: No. 17 according to Sagarin / USA Today; No. 14 according to KenPom.com; and No. 7 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI).