By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Once again there was a mix of good and not-so-good emerging from the 14th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks in their third win to open the season, an 86-77 triumph over unranked Old Dominion on Monday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
The Hogs struggled to hold onto double-digit leads against the Monarchs while having issues in defensive rebounding, transition defense, free throw shooting efficiency, and an overall defensive lapse in the second half, but in this space we’ll focus on the who’s and what’s in terms of the positives — the stock-risers — from game three for the 2023-24 Hoop Hogs (3-0). Arkansas’ next game is against North Carolina-Greensboro on Friday (7 p.m. CT, BWA, SEC Network Plus livestream).
– Senior guard El Ellis: The Louisville transfer had his best offensive game to date as he led the team with 17 points (7-of-11 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 2-of-4 free throws) to go with a game-high 8 assists (a handful of which set up triples for teammates), 3 rebounds, 1 steal, and ZERO turnovers in 34 minutes. In the second half, the Hogs’ offense often ran through Ellis in middle screen action, allowing him to get downhill to the basket with burst as he finished with skill. Still a work in progress as the team’s lead guard with primary ball-handler and facilitator duties, Ellis has had solid back-to-back performances after a couple of dicey outings against Purdue and Alcorn State. On the season, Ellis is averaging 12.7 points, 5.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.0 steal, and 1.3 turnovers in 29.7 minutes while shooting 53.6% from the field, including 33.3% from 3, and 62.5% from the free throw line. Ellis seeks out advice from the coaching staff to help him improve, and that has helped build trust with Head Hog Eric Musselman as Ellis continues to learn how to balance being a scorer and facilitator. Stock: WAY UP
“El has done a really good job of asking for feedback on what we’re looking for,” Musselman said following his team’s victory on Monday night. “I gave him a sheet today of the women’s coach at Duke [who] had some great quotes about being a point guard and what Pat Summitt had kind of taught her. I was on the treadmill and circled some stuff and gave it to El. He’s a guy that wants to…like he understands what areas want to see from him, which is taking care of the ball. And then quite honestly, late game, we’ve played three regular-season games and in this particular game late-game we went to El. It was him in middle pick-and-roll to try to get to the basket. We’ve had another game where we went to T-Mark late game. The good thing is we’re finding some strengths for different people in late-game situations or late-game packages.”
– Senior center Makhi Mitchell: The veteran big man had his best game since … well, since his previous outing against Gardner-Webb on Friday. Against ODU, Mitchell put together his first double-double at Arkansas entering his second campaign with the Hogs — 15 points (6-of-7 field goals and 3-of-5 free throws), 10 rebounds, and 1 block in 29 minutes. He was the lone bright spot on the glass while playing with physicality among the team’s frontline corps, and his scoring was efficient and necessary on a night when the team’s two leading scorers on the season — Khalif Battle and Tramon Mark — were having off games due to foul trouble. Combined with his solid effort against Gardner-Webb, Mitchell has averaged 10.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks while shooting 77.8% from the field and 66.7% from the free throw line in the last two outings. It’s been a revolving door at the 5-spot, but his production, efficiency, impact, and recent praise from his head coach make it clear Mitchell is firming up a role in the Top 7-8 rotation — at least for now — whether he starts or not. Stock: WAY UP
“I thought he was awesome,” Musselman said. “The one shot he missed was his easiest look. It was the cleanest look he had all night and he missed it. Really happy that he went 6 of 7 and could have been 7 of 7. He didn’t force anything, had 10 rebounds. I mean, thank goodness for him and T-Mark defensive rebounding.
“This was Khi’s best game. This was Khi’s best game in everything. This was his best game body language. This was his best game in timeouts and huddles. This was his best game with his teammates. This was his best game with the coaching staff, and then he played really well, too. Hopefully he can keep doing that. I thought from a maturity standpoint and really doing what we needed and doing it with really positive passion, he was really good tonight. Really good. Proud of him.”
– Senior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis: It was a Jekyl-and-Hyde defensive performance for the entire team (solid in the first half, poor in the second half) including the returning SEC All Defensive team guard from Jacksonville. But Davis raised his game on offense on Monday as he finished with a season-high 16 points (6-of-11 field goals, including 1-of-4 from 3, and 3-of-6 from the free throw line), 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, ZERO turnovers, and a team-high boxscore plus-12 in 37 minutes. Davis has yet to commit a turnover in the Razorbacks’ first three games. He’s averaging 8.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.0 steal in 27.7 minutes per game while shooting 41.7% from the field, including 18.2% from 3, and 50.0% at the foul line. Despite the inefficiency shooting, Davis has been a good all-around player for the Hogs in the early going. Stock: UP
“Phenomenal,” Musselman said of Davis’ offensive game against the Monarchs. “I mean, Devo taking care of the ball, there’s some real positives …”
– Three-point shooting: The Razorbacks continue to show vast improvement from distance over the previous two seasons, and the latest exhibit was the team’s 8-of-19 shooting from 3 (42.1%) against ODU on Monday. It was once again a concerted effort as star sophomore forward Trevon Brazile (2-of-4 from distance as part of his 11 points), senior guard Khalif Battle (2-of-3 from 3 as part of his 13 points), junior wing Tramon Mark (1-of-3 from 3), senior wing Jeremiah Davenport (1-of-2 from 3), Ellis, and Davis all got in on the scoring from beyond the arc. Through three games, Arkansas is 27-of-67 shooting from distance (40.3%) to rank 34th in total triple makes in Division 1 and 41st in triple efficiency in D1. Stock: WAY UP
– Turnovers, rim-protection, FTAs, adjusted offensive efficiency: The Hogs won the turnover battle against ODU (10-4) while dominating points-off-turnovers (18-4). Suffering only four turnovers was a big step at least for one game for this team. In fact, after having 15 turnovers in the season-opener against Alcorn State, the team has combined to commit only 14 turnovers in its last two outings. Arkansas won another block party, this time 6-1 against the Monarchs, resulting in the team averaging 8.3 blocks per game to rank 7th in D1. Brazile has totaled 9 blocks in his last two games with Mitchell chipping in 5 of his own in the same span. When looking at KenPom.com‘s early adjusted offensive efficiency ratings, Arkansas is ranked 18th in D1 which for once is actually outperforming the team’s adjusted defensive efficiency that is ranked 24th in D1. The Hogs have shot 50% or better in each of their three games, which includes the aforementioned 40-plus-% from 3. Obviously taking better care of the basketball has helped Arkansas’ offensive endeavors as well, so for now the one trouble area is free throw efficiency. The Hogs are attempting 32.3 free throws per game to rank 11th in D1 (that’s the good news), and though the 20.7 free throw makes per game ranks 25th in D1 the 63.9% efficiency ranks 276th. Stock: UP
“I think we’ve got really good dribble-drive penetration guys,” Musselman said. “Some guys didn’t settle; they attacked and got downhill. Really happy with 29 FTAs. I thought we did a good job with our free throw attempt attack game off the bounce. We’ve got to convert them better. It’s the second game in a row where we haven’t done a good enough job converting free throws.”