By Kevin McPherson
FAYETTEVILLE — The 10th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks opened their 2022-23 regular season on Monday with an impressive 76-58 home win over unranked North Dakota State at Bud Walton Arena, and our post-game analysis brings us to a Hoop Hogs stock watch that is rosier than it was a week ago as we gauge phases of the game in which the squad as a whole showed improvement, remained static, or possibly regressed relative to the work it did in the preseason.
Player rotations and on-court chemistry: Stock rising.
With the Hogs’ exhibition-season leading scorer and freshmen guard Nick Smith, Jr. held out (right knee management, precautionary measure), Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman went with a new starting five (relative to six preseason games) of freshman guard Anthony Black, junior guard Devo Davis, junior wing Ricky Council IV, and senior forwards Kamani Johnson and Makhi Mitchell while working in two reserves, sophomore forward Trevon Brazile and freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh, off the bench for a Top 7 rotation.
All but Johnson from that group played at least 18 minutes with Davis, Council, Brazile, and Black each clocking more than 30 minutes.
Council (game-high 22 points), Brazile (21 points including three made triples plus 12 rebounds for a double-double), and Davis (18 points) accounted for just over 80% of the Hogs’ scoring while combining for a boxscore plus-52 in a collective 107 minutes.
Black provided the kind of stat-sheet stuffing performance that he’s known for — 3 points, 7 rebounds, team-high-matching 3 assists, team-high-matching 3 steals, 1 block, 2 turnovers as the primary handler, and a boxscore plus-14 in 30 minutes.
Mitchell’s numbers looked similar to what he put up against Texas in en exhibition game on Oct. 29 — 8 points (4-of-5 field goals), 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals in 20 minutes.
That Musselman cobbled together an effective top rotation in short order due to Smith’s absence was a win in itself.
From a team chemistry standpoint, the Hogs were mostly sound at both ends of the floor (more statistical data later) as they shared and moved basketball, defended well with good communication while helping on drives, and played to their team strength on offense of attacking the paint and rim while minimizing shot attempts from distance.
Blue-collar basketball and defense. Stock rising.
It doesn’t get much more blue-collar good than plus-20 scoring in the paint (44-24) to go with 23 free throw attempts while drawing 16 fouls, and while the plus-5 in rebounding (40-35) was not a lopsided advantage it was nonetheless a blue-collar win.
The Hogs’ 11 steals as part of forcing 14 NDSU turnovers often came from physical one-on-one defensive playmaking as Arkansas defenders got into and challenged the Bison ball-handlers, offering more examples of lunch-pail effort and results.
The Razorbacks were stingy guarding shots as they limited the Bison to 19-of-56 field goal shooting (33.9%), including 5-of-21 from 3 (23.8%).
Arkansas did a solid job of handling NDSU’s screen game while funneling drives to keep the Bison from getting to clean finishing angles.
It was quite a contrast from the Hogs’ meek performance against Texas just over a week ago when the Longhorns were sizzling hot shooting the basketball while winning most of the grit-and-grind plays.
Three-point shooting and turnovers. Stock rising.
That Arkansas’ 4-of-10 effort from 3 (40%) was an overall improvement from the rest of it’s combined efficiency in the preseason is a win, but also keeping the volume of attempts down that low while playing to the team strength of driving to the basket was both savvy and ultra-effective.
The Razorbacks made 24 of their total 28 field goals inside the arc — most of that came on quick-burst slashes into the paint for finishes at or near the rim — as they hit nearly 60% of their shots in the second half. Again, they were plus-20 in points in the paint (44-24) with 47 of their 57 total shot attempts coming inside the arc.
With Smith being duly noted as the team’s top three-point shooting threat, it was Brazile (6-10 stretch-4?) who stepped up to make 3-of-6 from distance while Council hit 1-of-2 from beyond the arc.
As far as taking care of the basketball, the Hogs’ 11 turnovers were roughly half of their average of 20-plus giveaways per game in the preseason.
Davis (5), Black (2), and Brazile (2) had multiple turnovers, and as Musselman pointed out in his post-game press conference most of those were “self-inflicted.”
Still, Musselman’s stated per-game turnover goal for his team is to be at 9 or less, so two over the number was easily improvement compared to the six exhibition games.
Factor in Arkansas’ plus-9 advantage in points-off-turnovers (20-11), and the valuing-the-basketball battle significantly favored the Hogs.
Fouling and transition offense. Stock falling. The Hogs committed 19 fouls that led to 23 free throws for the Bison, and anytime a smaller, slower, less athletic team can match Arkansas’ free throws attempted volume, it’s a problem.
This appears to be the kind of roster that will give Musselman his best fast-break team in four seasons at Arkansas, but the Hogs managed only 9 points in transition while yielding 10 points on the run to NDSU.
These are likely outliers, but nonetheless Arkansas was expected to be superior in both categories (FTA’s and fast-break offense) on Monday but failed to execute on the court.
Photos by John D. James …