By Kevin McPherson
FAYETTEVILLE — Once again there was a mix of good and not-so-good emerging from the 14th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks second blowout win to open the season, an 86-68 romp over unranked Gardner-Webb on Friday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
In this space we’ll focus on the who’s and what’s in terms of improving stock game two for the 2023-24 Hoop Hogs (2-0). Arkansas’ next game is a quick turnaround against Old Dominion on Monday (7 p.m. CT, BWA, SEC Network Plus livestream).
– Senior guard Khalif Battle: Senior guard Khalif Battle led the way with his second consecutive game of scoring 21 points (5-of-9 field goals, including 3-of-4 from 3, and 8-of-10 free throws) to go with 4 rebounds and 1 assist. Battle scored 10 points in a 19-5 game-deciding Arkansas run to end the first half in building a 48-36 lead at the break. Battle is averaging 21.0 points (55.6% field goals, including 60.0% from 3, and 84.2% from the free throw line) in the unbeaten Hogs’ first two games to lead the team as he’s also averaging 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in a sixth man role off the bench. Battle’s efficiency tells one impressive story, but the eye test tells another as Battle’s offensive skill set is as as good as any Arkansas player in recent memory. He’s effectively a starter playing off the bench, and certainly looks to be a game-closer when things get tight late in games like was the case in the team’s 81-77 overtime exhibition win over 3rd-ranked Purdue on Oct. 28. Stock: WAY UP
“He’s (Battle) been phenomenal,” Head Hog Eric Musselman said following his team’s win over the Runnin’ Bulldogs on Friday. “Battle is a starter. He’s just not hearing his name called right away. He’s been our most efficient offensive player. He stretches the floor, he can play one-on-one, he can draw free throws. He’s a good foul shooter. He did a decent job on the defensive backboards tonight. Really happy with how he played.”
– Junior wing Tramon Mark: Mark continues to produce efficiently and effectively on offense while impacting the game in positives ways on defense. He started and contributed 14 points (6-of-12 field goals, including 0-of-2 from 3, and 2-of-4 free throws), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block in 27 minutes in thew in over Gardner-Webb. In two games, he’s averaging 15.0 points (60.0% field goals, including 50.0% from 3, and 50.0% free throws), 2.5 assists, and 2.0 rebounds. Mark’s mid-range work, especially getting to his preferred shot at or near the nail (15-to-16 feet away from, and directly in front of, the basket), is sublime. There is ZERO doubt at this point that he’s an everyday started, closer, and potential primary ball-handler at any stage of the game. Stock: WAY UP
“His pull-up game is really, really good,” Musselman said of Mark. “I give him credit, he took two threes, and it wasn’t there for him tonight. And then he got to his sweet spot. Other guys need to take a page out of that book as well and understand that if you’re not knocking threes down, you’ve got to get to the mid-range or to the cup and back cut and get some easy baskets.”
– Sophomore forward Trevon Bazile: It was another highly efficient performance offensively for Battle, but his team-leading 7 rebounds and game-high 5 blocks revealed a plus blue-collar effort from Arkansas’ preseason All SEC first team selection. Brazile finished with 10 points (4-of-4 field goals, including 1-of-1 from 3, and 1-of-2 free throws) and a boxscore plus-20 in 24 minutes. Through two games, he’s averaging 11.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks while shooting 88.9% from the field, including 66.7% from 3, and 83.3% from the free throw line. Brazile has not forced shots while being a steady force as a team player so far, and given the blowout nature of the first two games it seems only a matter of time before Brazile breaks out with major production when the stakes go up against top-shelf opponents. Stock: WAY UP
“I think when you look at TB’s five blocks, most of them came against a 4 man who was an elite dribble driver,” Musselman said.
– Senior guard El Ellis: A work in progress so far as a lead guard with primary ball-handler and facilitator duties, Ellis appeared to have a bounce-back game as he contributed 13 points (5-of-11 field goals, including 1-of-3 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and only 1 turnover in 32 minutes against Gardner-Webb. Ellis struggled against Purdue and Alcorn State in back-to-back games as he combined for 5 turnovers in those contests while finding it difficult to run the offense during stretches of both games. Against the Runnin’ Bulldogs, however, he looked more liked the relaxed and patient playmaker who combined for 10 assists against only 1 turnover in the Red/White instra-squad scrimmage and exhibition win over Division II Texas-Tyler. Through two games, Ellis is averaging 10.5 points (47.1% field goals, including 28.6% from 3, and 75.0% free throws), 3.5 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.0 steal, and 2.0 turnovers. Stock: UP
“We need El, especially with our lack of physicality sometimes, we need to have all of our guards defensive rebound, and that’s what we talked about at halftime,” Musselman said.
– Senior center Makhi Mitchell: The veteran big man had his best game since last season as he came off the bench for 5 points, 5 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 assists, and a game-high boxscore plus-23 in 17 minutes. Mitchell’s two dimes were reminders of just how good he is out on the floor finding cutters for backdoor scoring opportunities, but his effectiveness in two-man game out high or at the elbows in DHO’s and while screening have helped teammates get to their spots for open looks. After starting the vast majority of games a season ago, Mitchell has yet to start through 4 games to this point (two exhibition, two regular-season). It seems he is in a three-man battle for 5-spot minutes with seniors Chandler Lawson and Jalen Graham with Brazile as another option for Musselman to consider. Stock: UP
“I think it probably is going to be a different guy maybe for us at that (center) spot,” Musselman said. “And I haven’t put Brazile over there yet. Probably my fault not moving him over there a little bit. Execution. Doing what we want. Knowing the plays. And then us maybe having four guards out there. But, first two games we’ve won by pretty good margin, and we’ve gotten a lot of players in to evaluate. I think sometimes when we’ve gotten to the fourth of fifth game in years past, I’ve wished we had looked at some others… We’ve looked now. We’ve got the whole summer. I pretty much know now where we’re at.”
– Three-point shooting: After starting 1-of-5 shooting from 3, the Razorbacks made 6 of their final 13 attempts from distance to finish 7-of-18 beyond the arc (38.9%). Overall, Arkansas shot 30-of-60 from the field (50.0%) and the team made only 19-of-31 at the foul line (61.2%). Compared to the visiting Runnin’ Bulldogs (6-of-23 from 3 for 26.1%) the Hogs were better from 3 in makes and efficiency. Through two games, the Razorbacks are 19-of-48 shooting from distance (39.6%) to rank 78th in triple makes in Division 1 and 67th in in triple efficiency in D1. Stock: WAY UP
– Defensive rebounding, rim-protection, and adjusted defensive efficiency: Although Musselman voiced displeasure with his team’s defensive rebounding effort against Gardner-Webb, the Hogs rank 29th in D1 in defensive rebounds per outing (34.5) as the team has averaged a plus-10.5 margin in defensive rebounds in wins over Gardner-Webb and Alcorn State. Off the strength of an otherworldly 15-0 advantage in blocked shots against the Runnin’ Bulldogs, Arkansas is averaging 9.5 blocks per game to rank 4th in D1. When looking at KenPom.com‘s early adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, Arkansas is ranked No. 11 which is where the team finished in ’21-22 on the way to the program’s second consecutive NCAA Tournament Elite Eight run (the Hogs were 10th in the same defensive metric during ’20-21’s Elite Eight run.) Stock: UP
“I thought we did a great job of altering and blocking shots,” Musselman said. “But we have to really improve with physicality vertical. We blocked a shot or gave up a layup. So we have to get a lot better defensively. We have to become a lot more physical than where we are right now. But certainly rim protection was great with the finesse of blocking shots. Disappointed with our defensive rebounding for sure. And then we gave guys an opportunity tonight, and we did not play very well the last nine minutes of the game — at all.
“We’ve got to hold our ground more when people get into our bodies. That’s where … we’ve given up way too many three-point plays, meaning the old traditional drive it, and-1. We’re not physical enough at the rim across the board, the entire team. I mean, I don’t know how many and-1s there were tonight against undersized players. You’ve got to hold your ground, and right now we’re just not doing that at the level we need to. Old Dominion is going to play four guards and they have an all-league guard. We’ve got to guard the three, and we’ve got to guard the dribble drive. That’s just what you’ve got to do.”