By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks appear to be a safe bet for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, but first they’ll turn their attention to another golden Quad-1 win opportunity as they begin a brand-new season at the SEC Tournament as the 10-seed with a first-round bye to the second round for a mid-week matchup with 7-seed Auburn at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
The Hoop Hogs have a strong NCAA NET ranking despite recent struggles as they are generally garnering NCAAT 9-seed projections with a 3-9 record in Q1 games, 4-2 in Q2, and 12-1 in Q3/4. They’ll need to win four games in four days to capture the SECT championship while earning the league’s automatic bid to the NCAAT, but even with a first-round loss to Auburn that could land them on the Bubble it would seem they’re on a path to Dance.
Arkansas (19-12, 8-10 for a 10th place finish in the SEC, NCAA NET No. 19) has lost three consecutive games while looking for its fourth consecutive 20-win season under fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman. The team is 3-1 in neutral-site games this season (4-1 if you count the Hogs’ win over Missouri Valley Conference champion Bradley in North Little Rock in December) with all of those games played in non-conference action in November and December. The Razorbacks are coming off back-to-back-to-back losses at No. 2 Alabama (86-83), at No. 12 Tennessee (75-57), and at home against No. 23 Kentucky (88-79) as part of a 5-losses-in-7-games skid to end the regular season.
Auburn (20-11, 10-8 for a 7th place finish in the SEC, NCAA NET No. 32) is coming off a 79-70 home win over No. 12 Tennessee on Saturday after back-to-back losses against No. 2 Alabama (90-85 in overtime) and no. 23 Kentucky (86-54). Like the Hogs, the Tigers are currently a projected NCAAT 9-seed as they reside just off the Bubble.
The Hogs and Tigers will square off at 6 p.m. CT on Thursday (SEC Network) in one of four SECT second-round games.
Arkansas leads the all-time series against Auburn, 37-21, but the host Tigers defeated the visiting Hogs, 72-59, in the teams’ last meeting on Jan. 7. The Razorbacks had won the previous three matchups in the series spanning the previous two seasons. The teams have met only once in the SECT — a 75-67 Arkansas win on March, 12, 2000.
A victory over the ‘Tigers would add a fourth Quad-1 win to Arkansas’ NCAAT resume, and if there is any remaining doubt about a secured NCAAT at-large spot for the Razorbacks a win over Auburn would fix that. The Hogs finished the regular-season 4-9 against the top 9 SEC teams and 4-1 against the league’s bottom 4 teams.
“This is a second season for us,” Musselman said during his Tuesday zoom press conference. “We should have excitement going into Nashville. Obviously we leave today, and then when you look at our first opponent — Auburn — and you only have one opponent right now until you’re able to advance, if you’re fortunate enough to do that. We’re gonna need several things from different guys.
“We were able to make runs the last two years and even, you know, quite frankly the year that it was shut down for the pandemic, I think that I’ve talked about us winning that first game in the tournament and the confidence that Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones, in his heart, thought we were going to win that tournament. No one knows at all how that would play out, but that team was very confident as well at this point of the season. I think with this team, you know, just again with a lot of young guys, just getting them to understand that this is a new season. Going to come down to probably one possession in many of these games. You’re watching the games in the other conference tournaments that have played out and there’s been some incredibly exciting games.”
In the most-recent losses against ‘Bama, Tennessee, and Kentucky, Arkansas was decimated in the paint as the Tide (plus-14), Vols (plus-24), and Wildcats (plus-10) held a dominant, collective 130-82 advantage in points-in-the-paint. In a late-season unraveling, the Hogs’ frontliners often looked flat-footed and at times inactive or slow to react in those three matchups when it came to the paint battles at both ends of the floor. And the guards have been losing contact with their assignments as both backcourt and frontcourt have been struggling trying to defense pick-and-roll and dribble-hand-off two-man game scenarios.
Defensively, the Hogs were overwhelmed in the second half against ‘Bama (the Tide shot 19-of-34 field goals for 55.9% in the final 20 minutes), and that carried over to both halves against Tennessee (the Vols shot 27-of-54 from the field for 50% for the game) as well as both halves against Kentucky (29-of-54 from the field for 53.7% for the game).
“I think physicality,” Musselman answered when asked about his team’s defensive problem-areas. “Understanding is the team trying to shoot threes behind them? Is the team trying to turn the corner? The pick-and-roll game, the DHO game, that’s everybody’s dilemma every night. It’s usually point of emphasis: one, pick-and-roll; two, DHO game; three, how are you playing post defense(?); four, how are you dealing with screens, whether they’re down screens, cross screens or up screens(?). Those are kind of the four areas that as a staff and as a team how you want to play different things.
“Just like in the pick-and-roll game, we’ll go down and go through a Plan A, go through a Plan B, then we’ll ask guys like Devo, who is involved in much of that action, how do you feel most comfortable guarding this particular player in this game? And then we’ll ask our bigs that same thing. Defensively, we’ve been a pretty good team most of the year. We’ve had some great defensive efforts, then we’ve had some other efforts like the Kentucky game where we didn’t defend as well as we need to to win a game.”
Offensively, the Hogs were good overall at ‘Bama but sputtered at times, they were horn-to-horn anemic and turnover prone at Tennessee, and they were awful on layup conversions (2-of-20) against Kentucky. In all three games, Arkansas shot poorly at the free throw line (20-of-29 for 69.0% at ‘Bama, 13-of-22 for 59.1% at Tennessee, and 22-of-34 for 64.7%) against Kentucky).
“I think with youth and inexperience in the SEC play, maybe that’s affected our free throw shooting, and affecting some closing in close games,” Musselman said. “But now everybody’s got a full college season under their belt. Everybody on our roster, even the transfers, have now played a full SEC (schedule). So now you go into the conference tournament, and you’ve got one game to focus on. We’ll continue to (focus) on free throw shooting.”
If Arkansas can bounce back with a win over Auburn, the Razorbacks would earn a season rubber-match tilt against 2-seed Texas A&M in the SECT quarterfinals on Friday. The Hogs and Aggies split their regular-season series with each team winning on its homecourt. If Arkansas were to advance to the SECT semifinals on Saturday, they potentially could have another rubber match against 3-seed Kentucky (the Hogs and Wildcats each won on the road in the regular-season series between the two teams). Three other teams — 6-seed Vanderbilt, 11-seed Georgia, and 14-seed LSU — round out Arkansas’ side of the SECT bracket as one of those three teams will play Kentucky in the quarterfinals on Friday. The Hogs went 4-5 during the regular season against teams on their side of the bracket.
On the other side of the bracket is No. 1-seed Alabama (double-bye to SECT quarterfinals), 4-seed Missouri (double-bye to SECT quarterfinals), 5-seed Tennessee (bye to second round), 8-seed Florida (bye to second round), 9-seed Mississippi State (bye to second round), 12-seed South Carolina, and 13-seed Ole Miss. The Hogs went 4-5 during the regular season against teams on the other side of the bracket.
“I’m always confident and have great belief in the team,” Musselman said. “I’m not taking any shots. We need the team to feel confident. We need the team to believe that we can win, and I think this team has that. I thought yesterday’s practice was good. I think they are looking forward to getting to Nashville and getting settled in and having an open shooting in the arena we’re going to play because tomorrow will be the only time. We won’t get into that arena on Thursday.
“I’m hopeful and think this team is excited to go play. But we have an opponent that’s going to be excited too. That’s what makes these games so competitive. I’m sure everybody on Auburn is excited as well, and that’s the mentality everybody should have.”
Two SECT first-round games on Wednesday will pit the league’s bottom four-seeded teams with second-round games up next on Thursday, quarterfinals on Friday, and semifinals on Saturday. The event culminates with the tourney title game on Sunday.
Musselman — his three previous Arkansas teams each won its first SECT tournament game — is prepared for a lengthy stay in Nashville.
“As many (polo shorts) as potential games could be,” answered when asked how many polo shirts he was packing for the trip to the SECT.
Musselman is 92-40 overall at Arkansas, which includes a 3-2 mark in SECT play as part of a 44-32 record against SEC teams as well as 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.
Scouting the Auburn Tigers and a look back to first UA-AU tilt in January
The Tigers are a strong offensive rebounding team (11.9 per game ranks 43rd in Division 1) while excelling in forcing turnovers (7.9 stealsx per games ranks 56th in D1) and blocking shots (5.2 blocks per game ranks 11th in D1). Auburn is not a particularly efficient shooting team (43.9% overall from the field, 31.4% from 3, and 70.4% from the free throw line) but the Tigers’ defensive field-goal percentage has been at times elite as opponents are converting only 40.2% overall from the field (ranks 20th in D1), including only 28.8% from 3 (ranks 6th in D1).
It’s a veteran, deep, and talented Tigers squad with All SEC second-teammers in big man Johnni Broome and guard Wendell Green, Jr., as well as Little Rock native Allen Flanigan, West Memphis native Chris Moore, forward Jaylin Williams, and guards KD Johnson and Zep Jasper leading the charge.
Auburn currently ranks No. 26 in Division 1 according to KenPom.com ratings (No. 56 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and No. 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency).
“Auburn’s very well-coached and they’ve got a lot of veterans,” Musselman said. “As I’ve looked at the experience on their roster, I mean, (Allen Flanigan), No. 22, has played in these tournaments. And Chris Moore has and (Zep Jasper) and (Wendell Green) and (KD Johnson). I mean they’ve got a lot of guys. (Jaylin Williams]), who’s an excellent scorer and rebounder at the power forward spot.
“So they have a lot of guys back that were in this tournament last year. So we’ve got to understand from a preparation standpoint that Auburn does have more experience in this setting than we do.”
In the aforementioned 72-59 Auburn win in the teams’ first meeting in January, the Tigers extended their homecourt winning streak to 27 games at the time. They employed an effective zone defense — which goes against the team’s preference of playing man-to-man — and combined with a variety of the Hogs’ self-inflicted wounds in bulk Auburn was able to build and maintain multiple double-digit leads in both halves en route to the 13-point victory.
Among the Razorbacks’ trouble-spots were a 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).
Meanwhile, Auburn shot 24-of-55 from the field (43.6%), including 7-of-21 from 3 (33.2%), and 17-of-22 at the free throw line (77.3%). The Tigers doubled up the Hogs in steals (8-4), they were plus-2 in blocks (6-4), plus-4 in assists (13-9), and plus-19 in bench points (27-8).
The Tigers were led by Green’s 19 points (5-of-8 field goals, including 2-of-4 from 3, and 7-of-9 free throws), Broome’s double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 blocks), and Flanigan’s 18 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals.
Arkansas was led by freshman guard Anthony Black, who battled through foul trouble for a game-high 23 points (5-of-11 field goals and 13-of-16 free throws) to go with 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block. Junior guard Ricky Council IV had 14 points, and freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh contributed 6 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 assists.
Recapping Arkansas’ 2022-23 season
Linked are Hogville’s game articles for Arkansas’ 31 regular-season contests plus 6 exhibition games (4 in Europe in August and 2 in October): https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=744358.0
Hoop Hogs national and SEC honors
Arkansas landed a trio of Razorbacks on the SEC coaches’ 2022-23 postseason all league teams that were announced on Monday, March 6: Freshman guard Anthony Black was named second-team All SEC as well as SEC All Freshman team; junior guard Ricky Council IV was named second-team All SEC; and junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis was named to the SEC All Defensive team.
On Tuesday, March 7, Council was also named to the Associated Press’ All SEC second team.
Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., has twice been named SEC Freshman of the week with two national FOW honors as well. He avgeraged 25.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.0 steal while shooting 48.6% from the field, including 63.6% from 3, and 77.8% at the free throw line as the Razorbacks split games against Georgia (Feb. 21) and Alabama (Feb. 25). Prior to that, Smith was named the USBWA National Freshman of the Week, the SEC Freshman of the Week, and Dick Vitale’s National Diaper Dandy in early December 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).
Council was one of 50 players named to the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Oscar Robertson Trophy mid-season watch list that was released on Jan. 19. The honor is awarded in the postseason to recognize the national player of the year in college basketball. He 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).
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.
On March 2, Arkansas freshman guard Derrian Ford was named to the SEC Men’s Basketball Community Service Team. As an education major, Ford has worked with the Extra Yard for Teachers. He’s also supported several children’s charities such as the First Tee Golf Event; the Children’s Safety Center, which empowers children to overcome abuse; the Yvonne Richardson Center Bike Giveaway, which gave away 100 bikes over two days; and the Miracles and Magic Radiothon for NWA Children’s Hospital, which helped kids and their families access to the best pediatric care.
How Razorbacks stack up in polls, NCAA NET, analytics, and bracketology
Arkansas has been out of both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll since Jan. 23, which at the time marked the first time of the 2022-23 season that the Hoop Hogs were unranked.
As of Tuesday, March 7, the Razorbacks ranked No. 18 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 3-9 record in Quad-1 games — road win over Kentucky, a home win over Texas A&M, a neutral-site win over San Diego State, two losses to Alabama (home-and-away), a home loss to Kentucky, a road loss against Tennessee, neutral-site loss against Creighton, a road loss against Auburn, a road loss against Baylor, a road loss against Missouri, and a road loss against Texas A&M; b) a 4-2 record in Q2 games — a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home win over Bradley, a home win over Missouri, a home win over Florida, a home loss against Mississippi State, and a road loss against Vanderbilt; and c) 11-1 record in Q3 and Q4 games (road loss against LSU currently counts as a Q3 defeat). The Hoop Hogs are 3rd among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Tennessee. The upcoming SECT neutral-site game against NET No. 32 Auburn on Thursday will count as a Q1 result.
Looking at three other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 14 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 21 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 19 according to KenPom.com ratings (includes No. 16 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 53 in adjusted offensive efficiency).
Arkansas was projected as a No. 9 seed on Tuesday, March 7, in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.