By Kevin McPherson

AUSTIN, Texas — The 10th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks closed out their 2022-23 exhibition-game season with an embarrassing 90-60 road loss against the No. 12 Texas Longhorns on Saturday at the new Moody Center in the last of two October dress rehearsals, and our post-game analysis brings us to a Hoop Hogs stock watch that may not be quite as gloomy as you’d expect as we gauge phases of the game in which the squad as a whole showed improvement, remained static, or possibly regressed relative to six previous dress rehearsals.

Head Hog Eric Musselman:Stock rising. With all that he has accomplished in his first three seasons as he enters his fourth year at the helm at Arkansas, Musselman’s vision to test his team with an unprecedented exhibition game on many levels — on the road in a hostile environment, against a high-major program, against a ranked team, and against a longtime rival that would add to the intensity — was a smart way to help his players’ collective growth while helping himself and the rest of the Hogs’ coaching staff learn more about what is needed to prepare the team for what promises to be the program’s toughest regular season (both non-conference and SEC play) in his fourth campaign at Arkansas, where the expectations are as high as they’ve been since the mid-1990s.

With 11 newcomers among the 13 scholarship players, the Razorbacks — picked recently by the media to finish second in the SEC behind 4th-ranked Kentucky — have used practices and preseason games to 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.

For months Musselman has been talking plainly about the multiple issues and challenges with such a young and inexperienced team, and he more than anybody knew an ugly beatdown like what happened at Texas on Saturday was in the cards somewhere down the line, thus the idea to put that hurdle in at the end of the exhibition season and just prior to the games that count starting Nov. 7.

The Hogs were competitive for the first 19 minutes — they trailed only 33-28 at that juncture before a 7-2 Texas spurt stretched the lead to double-digits, 40-30, at halftime. The second half was a disaster for Arkansas as Texas opened the second stanza with a 7-0 run closely followed by a crushing 20-0 run that put the game out of reach.

The veteran Longhorns — more physical, more savvy, more efficient — imposed their will for the most part 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%).

“I did say that we were in for an eye-opening experience based on how we’ve been practicing and understanding the veteran essence of their roster and understanding how hard they play,” Musselman said during his post-game press conference. “But the turnovers, you have 23 turnovers in a college basketball game and it’s really going to be hard (to compete). We have 11 news guys, so obviously we’re going to be a work in progress, and how far that work in progress gets, I don’t know.

“But this is a great game for us. Not that we played great. We played as bad as any 40 minutes of basketball since I’ve been involved in college basketball. The 11 first-half offensive rebounds, not defending the three-ball, 23 turnovers, 26 points off off turnovers. It’s a lot to overcome.”

Musselman’s wisdom in choosing this kind of test, one he knew his team might fail miserably, is not just a stand-alone barometer on what this team needs to work on, but it could be foreshadowing of a starting block to a turnaround. Go back two seasons ago, and Musselman’s 2020-21 Hogs were dismantled on the road in games against LSU and Alabama — both teams held 30-plus-point leads — as part of a 2-4 start in league play before going on a historic SEC winning streak on their way to an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight and final national Top 10 ranking. And last season (’21-22), the team was blown out in a neutral-site game against Oklahoma (88-66), lost its next game against mid-major Hofstra, followed by three consecutive losses to open SEC play before once against turning things around in dramatic fashion for a second consecutive Elite Eight run and national Top 10 ranking.

Those teams often looked inept, disconnected, and lacking grit in those rough stretches that played out late December / early January in each campaign, but by mid-January each time it was Musselman as the common denominator who turned the tide with rotation tweaks while seemingly weaving significant up-ticks in defensive performances serving as the catalyst for other blue-collar tangibles falling into place.

Ushering in an exhibition game against a quality team like Texas to the October exhibition season was a Musselman preemptive strike to expedite the trial-by-fire-and-growth-through-adversity journey, and though there are no guarantees there won’t be more days (games) like these down the road it can only help the players and coaches learn how to better move the needle in development and chemistry while promoting the necessary grinding resiliency that his two most-recent squads found even if it took them till mid-January to get there.

Player rotations and on-court chemistry:Stock rising (rotations) and falling (chemistry).

As expected, Musselman started freshmen guards Nick Smith, Jr., and Anthony Black, freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh, and sophomore forward Trevon Brazile against Texas. Musselman once again elected to start senior forward / center Jalen Graham as he did in the team’s 83-49 exhibition-game win over Division II Rogers State on Monday, Oct. 24.

Though Graham started, he played only 6 minutes while senior frontliners Makhi Mitchell and Kamani Johnson clocked most of the 5-spot minutes. Junior guards / wings Devo Davis and Ricky Council IV once again played off the bench.

Smith (12 points on 5-of-8 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 1-of-1 free throw to go with 2 steals, 1 assist, and 4 turnovers in 28 minutes) and Makhi Mitchell (8 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block, 1 assist, and 1 turnover in 17 minutes) were the two biggest bright spots in the first half as they provided the bulk of production to keep the Razorbacks in the game. Smith had 10 of his points in the opening half while Makhi Mitchell had nearly all of his production in the first 20 minutes.

Walsh had his most productive game as a Hog — 14 points (6-of-8 field goals, including 2-of-3 from 3), 5 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 assist, 1 block, and 2 turnovers in 25 minutes — but much of his work came late when the outcome was well in the bag for Texas. Conversely, the Longhorns did have some of their top rotation players still in the game when Walsh did his work, and without it the losing margin could have been 40-plus points. Walsh also might have gained some confidence in his three-point shooting, which is desparately needed on this team. Johnson (6 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 block in 13 minutes) gave his usual workman-like performance, and among a sea of newcomers with roller-coaster results in execution and production he has been the most reliable soldier in Musselman’s personnel arsenal.

Black (2 points, 2 assists, 1 turnover in 17 minutes), Brazile (3 points, 1 rebound, 1 block, and 3 turnovers in 15 minutes), Davis (2 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assits, 1 steal, and 3 turnovers in 21 minutes), and Council (5 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 block, and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes) all played well below their potential and the group certainly fell short of the production they generated in previous exhibition games. Those four combined to shoot 3-of-17 from the field, including 0-of-4 from 3. The three-point misses were not surprising, but the ongoing failures to connect inside the arc were.

Team chemistry has been murky in the preseason due too the newness of players relative to the program as well as lacking experience playing with each other — many stretches of disconnectivity on the court — and after a performance like the team had against Texas it’s fair to say there was some regression in on-court chemistry even if that proves to be only temporary.

Despite the overall dysfunction at both ends of the floor against Texas, there is no doubt when looking at the arc of the 7 total dress rehearsals going back to August that Smith, Black, Brazile, Davis, Council, and Walsh established a top 6 rotation to this point. It seems likely, not certain, that remains the case to begin the regular season against North Dakota State on Nov. 7. Graham, Johnson, and Makhi Mitchell seem interchangeable to round out one if not two spots in stretching that rotation out to a top 7-8. If only a subtle gain, it feels like a positive that Musselman has gotten to a place where he can drill down to a tighter rotation, even if he’s still learning more about who he can trust to execute, after using liberal substitutions throughout the preseason.

BUT …

Joseph Pinion:Stock rising. Here’s the thing, and this is a rhetorical question: Who did more with their opportunities in the Hogs’ second exhibition season (Red/White game, Rogers State, Texas) than Pinion? After barely seeing the floor in Europe in August, the 6-5 wing from Morrilton was consistently good with the minutes and opportunities he was given in October. He was 1 of only 5 to score in double-figures in the Red-White game (12 points on 5-of-8 field goal shooting, including 2-of-5 from 3) as he also had the game’s best plus-minus (plus-15) in 22 minutes in the Red team’s 64-59 win. He followed that up to lead the Hogs in scoring (15 points including 4-of-6 shooting from 3) while also earning praise from Musselman for his defense in the win over Rogers State. On Saturday at Texas, Pinion finished with 7 points (2-of-5 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws), 2 rebounds, 1 block, and 2 turnovers in 13 minutes (ninth most minutes played).

Sure, many of Pinion’s opportunities came when games against RSU and Texas were effectively decided, but what stands out most are a couple of things: 1) Pinion’s collective 7-of-13 shooting from 3 (53.8%), which is staggering and sobering when looking at the team’s consistent inability to connect from distance, and 2) Pinion’s improvement on defense, even if the sample size is small and quality of opponent in the case of RSU plays into the perception.

We’re not predicting a Pinion move into the top rotation, but along with freshman 6-6 small forward / wing Barry Dunning, Jr. (who was a rotation factor in Europe in August) we are keeping an open mind on the possibility that one or both factor in somewhere down the line as Musselman looks for combinations to best help the team.

Blue-collar basketball and defense.Stock mostly falling (blue-collar) and drastically falling (defense). The easy answer is to say the Hogs’ stock is categorically falling fast and hard in the blue-collar and defensive categories. Afterall, the aforementioned stat comparisons against Texas speak plainly enough to the Hogs’ toughness and physicality failures as well as a lack of ability to get stops on Saturday.

There is ZERO doubt that Texas won the overall blue-collar basketball battles on Saturday, but let’s add more context to that part of the equation as it relates to that game and looking ahead. Perhaps no test in this category will better challenge and prepare a team than matching up against a Chris Beard-coached team, so as bad as it was it’s not the first time or the last that this particular Beard-led team will swing a bigger hammer than its opponent.

Also, the Hogs did manage to earn three more free throw attempts than the ‘Horns (23-20) which on the road is always a chore, and Arkansas had 6 blocked shots compared to Texas’ 2. And though the Longhorns held a significant rebounding edge in the first half, the Hogs won that battle in the second half to bring both overall rebounds and second-chance-points to a virtual draw by game’s end. That may seem like cherry-picking data, but in fact those are three areas that are as blue-collar as any in a basketball game.

Some of those factors allowed Arkansas to stay within a possession through the first 17 minutes and two possessions through the first 19 minutes of the 20-minute opening half, although Musselman did not quite see it that way.

“Whether it’s a baseball game and you talk about it’s close through 5 innings … I’ve been around too long,” Musselman explained. “Texas totally outplayed us. It’s hard to get a lot of separation in 17 minutes.

“We subbed more than we will in a regular season game, but (Texas) Coach (Chris) Beard’s team had a great toughness tonight. I thought they climbed all over the offensive boards at the beginning of the game. I think they set the tone.”

Certainly looking at Arkansas’ overall performance defensively, the aforementioned stellar shooting efficiency for Texas is clear evidence the Hogs did not find ways to turn the game into a grinding affair as the Longhorns had their way both in transition and in halfcourt sets. And when the Hogs did get stops in the first half, they often did not close out the possessions with defensive rebounds as Texas had its way on the offensive glass.

Several statistical wins on defense in Europe and against RSU were exposed as potential paper tigers as the Hogs completely wilted on that end of the floor in the second half (aside from putting up a better effort on the glass) against Texas.

The Longhorns’ guards dictated tempo and narratives at both ends. They were excellent defensively in concert with their frontline teammates in physically and athletically challenging the Hogs which led to offensive transition opportunities, and then on offense they got to their spots fairly easily everywhere in the halfcourt while bully-balling their way to the basket when they were not knocking down triples. The Razorbacks were never able to string together enough consistent efforts on the defensive end to turn the tide before Texas eventually opened the flood gates early in the second half.

Three-point shooting and turnovers.Stock falling (shooting from distance) and falling (giveaways).

That Arkansas’ 4-of-12 effort from 3 (33.3%) was an overall improvement from the rest of it’s combined efficiency in the preseason is not much of a consolation. The positive takeaway is that someone, anyone, not named Nick Smith, Jr., stepped up from distance, with Walsh joining Pinion in that regard in the latest game against Texas. Very small sample size, so considering the consistent struggles of the team shooting the three-ball, the team enters the regular season with diminishing returns in a part of the game that factors heavily into winning and losing.

The same is true of turnovers, and the Hogs were bad in Europe, bad against Rogers State (17-14 for minus-3), and remained bad against Texas (again, minus-10 at 23-13 as the Longhorns collected 10 steals). The Hogs looked unsure, tentative, nervous, and often confused when facing pressure from UT.

Asked if Texas’ defensive collapses and help rotations, or Arkansas ball-handlers not passing soon enough, or Hogs lacking confidence, or just good all-around ‘Horns defense led to the continued turnover problems, Musselman effectively conceded it was all of the above.

“A, B, C, and D,” he said. “I’d love to tell you it’s one thing and we could correct it. It was a combination.”