By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — They say you only remember what a college basketball team does in March, but the 14th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks better be laser-focused on just how good No. 3 Purdue has been in October and November, specifically last year when most of the current ’23-24 Boilermakers began steam-rolling their way to ’22-23 Big Ten regular-season and postseason-tournament titles en route to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Hoop Hogs (also 14th-ranked in KemPom.com‘s preseason Division 1 ratings) will host the Boilermakers (No. 1 in KenPom) in a charity exhibition game at 3 p.m. CT on Saturday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville (SEC Network Plus livestream).
The last time Purdue played, it was one of four top seeds in last season’s NCAAT in March, but the Dance ended lightning fast for the Boilermakers as No. 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson pulled off the shocker, 63-58, marking only the second time in the NCAAT’s seeds-1-through-16 format that a No. 1 seed has lost in the first round. It was arguably the worst among multiple, memorable upset exits in the NCAAT in recent years for Purdue.
That should be be fuel enough to seek payback against anyone, especially a ranked team on the road, even if it’s a charity exhibition game in October. This is a Boilermakers squad led by 19th-year head coach Matt Painter and 7-foot-4, 300-pound senior center and reigning Naismith National Player of the Year Zach Edey who are joined by the vast majority of last season’s top rotation of players.
Consider that a season ago Purdue won its exhibition game and its secret scrimmage against Cincinnati (both in October) before opening the regular season with 13 straight wins through November and December before losing for the first time in early January only to run off nine consecutive wins for a 22-1 start to the campaign through Feb. 1 2023.
It all explains Purdue’s preseason Top 3 rankings and postseason national-championship gravitas.
“From afar I’ve always had great respect for how hard (Painter’s) teams play and how well coached they are from an execution standpoint,” fifth-year Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said during a zoom press conference on Tuesday previewing the game. “Certainly to get a chance to play somebody in an exhibition game … To be able to play a team that has a chance to win a national championship certainly makes this game way more meaningful and way more special than just a normal exhibition game when you look at lessons that can be learned once this game is over.”
The Hogs are coming off a successful NCAAT Sweet 16 run as an 8-seed that included knocking off a No. 1 seed (for a second straight Dance, by the way) in the form of then-defending national champion Kansas (currently the No. 1 team in the Associated Press Top 25 poll), but Arkansas also was a team that battled injuries while missing key pieces in ’22-23 with the consequence being an 8-10 finish for 10th place in the SEC regular season.
Overcoming injuries is another hurdle so far in the preseason leading up to the ’23-24 campaign, although star sophomore forward and preseason first-team All SEC pick Trevon Brazile returned to game action for the first time in nearly a year (he had 4 points, 3 rebounds, 1 block in 19 minutes) with junior transfer guard Khalif Battle also shrugging off a nagging foot injury (he had a game-high 14 points in 16 minutes) in the Razorbacks’ 92-39 demolition of Division II Texas-Tyler in the team’s first exhibition game on Friday, Oct. 20. However, the Hogs were without senior forward and Top 8-rotation piece Jalen Graham (back spasms), who it seems is currently questionable for Saturday’s game.
It was a UT-Tyler team that had only one returning player on the roster and a brand new head coach, and the Hogs’ four returnees who played and eight newcomers who played (including six quality transfers) had their way from start to finish.
Expect Brazile, fourth-year junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis (9 points, a game-high 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals against UT-Tyler), and senior big man Makhi Mitchell (9 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 block vs. UTT) to factor early and often against the Boilermakers, with veteran newcomers in senior transfer point guard El Ellis (9 points, game-high 4 assists, game-high 4 steals, and 3 rebounds vs. UTT) and junior transfer wing Tramon Mark (10 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block vs. UTT) joining the Hogs’ starting five forces.
“TB’s done a great job, I think his intensity and workload have increased, especially yesterday,” Musselman said of Brazile’s progress since returning to competitive game action on Friday. “I don’t think they’ll be a heavy minutes restriction on him at all, to be honest with you. I think that probably 15 to 25 minutes we feel comfortable playing him.
“He (Graham) tried yesterday. It was okay. We’ll see today. I mean, hopefully…he tried. He was not going game speed or at the rate [he needs to be]. We’re not going to play him if he’s like he was yesterday, I can tell you that.”
If Musselman elects to bring Brazile off the bench again like he did against UTT coupled with Graham’s availability possibly being day-to-day, look for senior transfer forward Chandler Lawson (3 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal vs. UTT) to be back with the starting group like he was on Friday.
“He’s nasty, another high IQ guy,” Mark said of Lawson’s blue-collar value. “He comes with a lot of energy in practice, a lot of energy in the games … He’s a great addition to our team and he just knows what he’s doing out there. He can shoot the three-ball well.”
Battle is likely to play off the bench, but could also be penciled in as a starter if Musselman chooses to begin the game with a small-ball lineup, which could also apply to wings Jeremiah Davenport and Joseph Pinion given the Hogs are looking to finally infuse some much-needed three-point shooting firepower. All three — Battle, Davenport, and Pinion — can each rattle off 2-3 made triples in a matter of a handful of consecutive offensive possessions. It’s not expected but also not inconceivable that anyone of them could get a start just to add a floor-spacing wrinkle on offense to challenge Boilermaker defenders out of the gates.
Arkansas dominated nearly every facet of the game and statistics that mattered in the 53-point win over UTT, so there’s not much to extract from that in terms of what to expect will work or may not work against the incoming Big Ten powerhouse visitors.
What stood out most was that the Razorbacks made 11-of-34 from 3 (32.4%), forced 20 turnovers (included 12 steals) for a 22-5 advantage in points-off-turnovers, limited UTT to 24.5% field goal shooting (including 1-of-20 from 3 for 5%), shot 19-of-23 at the free throw line for 82.6%, and finished plus-10 in fastbreak scoring (16-6).
Arkansas will look to get out and run in transition against Purdue as well as challenge Edey with pick-and-roll offense in the halfcourt while experimenting with both traditional and small-ball lineups.
“It’s going to be a tough matchup for us,” Lawson said of scheming to face Edey. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are going to be guarding him, some fours and some fives. I feel like offensive-wise, we’ve got to run the floor and put him in so much pick-and-roll coverage. I feel like we’ve got to outrun him. The goal is just to run, run, run, just make him keep up with us and our athleticism.
“On the defensive end, it’s going to be a whole group team effort. We’ve been doing a lot of drills in practice lately. The Edey rules, that’s what we call it. I feel like we’re doing a great thing at practice, just covering what Zach Edey likes to do and his tendencies.”
Musselman said the Boilermakers might play two-center lineups.
“It’s not just Edey,” Musselman said. “Again, (Trey) Kaufman-Renn is really, really physical, as well, inside and was their leading scorer in their four games overseas. And they’ll play two centers together. There’s a possibility that 15 Edey will play alongside Kaufman-Renn and then we have a decision whether we’ll match up big-to-big or whether we’ll go with a big and a small and add perimeter shooting and dribble-drive game against maybe two bigs.
“So those are some of the things that we’ll look to experiment with once we get into that 40-minute experimental game.”
Musselman is 6-1 in exhibition games at Arkansas, with the lone loss coming on the road against then-AP-Top-25-ranked Texas last season in late October.
Scouting the Purdue Boilermakers
Painter’s ’23-24 squad is almost a top-rotation replica — with one key senior-graduate transfer addition — of last season’s team that finished 25-6 (including 15-5 to win the Big Ten) and ranked No. 3 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Edey’s national player of the years honors last season were reflected in his impact and stat line as the Toronto, Canada, native averaged 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and 1.5 assists while shooting 60.7% from the field, including 73.4% from the free throw line. The senior has played in 99 regular-season games for the Boilermakers while making 69 starts.
Joining Edey up front to form what Musselman described as a “physical” Purdue corps of bigs are Mason Gillis (6-6 senior forward; 6.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 45.8% field goals, 79.6% free throws in ’22-23; career 92 made three’s for 37.6% efficiency; 63 starts in 93 games as a Boilermaker); Caleb Furst (6-10 junior center; 5.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 51.3% field goals in 18.3 minutes per game in ’22-23; career 32.8% from three; 33 starts in 69 career games as a Boilermaker); and Trey Kauffman-Renn (6-9 sophomore forward; 4.5 points, 1.8 rebounds, 49.6% field goals in 11.4 minutes per game in ’22-23.
In the backcourt — Musselman referred to this group as “scrappy” — it’s not as much about size as it is grit, savvy, and experience.
Sophomore guards Fletcher Loyer (6-4; 11.0 points, 2.4 assists, 1.7 rebounds, 36.7% field goals, 59-of-181 from 3 for 32.6%, and 79.4% free throws in ’22-23) and Braden Smith (6-0; 9.7 points, 4.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 43.8% field goals, 38-of-101 from 3 for 37.6%, and 86.8% free throws in ’22-23) each started all 35 games for Purdue as freshmen. Senior Ethan Morton (6-7 guard; 3.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 32.0% field goals, 26-of-94 from 3 for 27.7%, and 64.9% free throws in ’22-23) started 29 of the 35 games he played in last season.
Senior-grad transfer Lance Jones from Southern Illinois (6-1 guard) averaged 13.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.6 steals last season for the Salukis last season before transferring in the offseason.
Purdue’s rotation is similar to Arkansas with a Top 8 garnering the bulk of the roles and playing time. Last season, the Boilermakers ranked No. 1 in Division 1 in rebounding margin (plus-10.0 per game), free throw attempts by opponents per game (only 11.1 per game, and opponents’ 8.2 freebies made per outing ranked second-fewest in D1), defensive rebounds by opponents per game (19.7), and total rebounds by opponents per game (27.9).
They were also Top 50 in D1 in scoring defense (No. 21, yielding only 62.7 points per game), assist-to-turnover ratio (No. 26 at 1.40:1), assists per game (No. 32 at 15.5). free throws made per game (No. 39 at 15.3), and two-point field goal percentage (54.1%).
Although Purdue was able to win possessions on the glass, it was one of the worst teams in D1 in forcing turnovers (9.9 per game ranked was in the bottom 16 teams in this category in D1). Its three-point shooting was better than Arkansas’, but not significantly better (6.8 makes per game ranked 246th in D1 and 32.2% efficiency ranked 291st in D1).
Hogville keys to success for Arkansas
– MUST make Edey move, run, and work on defense, and when he’s on offense must send multiple looks and schemes at him, not just multiple defenders, while trying to squeeze passing windows to him which could allow defenders to dig into him low and keep him from getting the ball high for finishes. The big man is not a plus-athlete, but he’s a mountainous space-eater who does not need a lot of downhill momentum but instead just uses his frame and physicality to clear defenders out of his 10-to-12-foot bubble around the basket that he operates from, and if you double or triple team him he’s savvy in passing to an open teammate spotting up from three or cutting to the basket. Big time lob threat because he needs very little lift to get to the rim. Not a threat in fastbreak, but trouble in secondary transition against teams slow to set up defensively. A worthy rim-protector because he alters and blocks shots, using pump fakes and quick interior passes are a couple of ways to potentially get him to foul.
– Shade and funnel ball-handlers to the sidelines out high on the floor as much as possible and be careful with gap help on drives because the Boilermakers guards are capable of picking and choosing how to beat slow rotations in help coverage. High hands and active hands using length, quickness, and perimeter size advantages to disrupt ball movement, get deflections and steals, wall off drives, muddy-up interior passing angles, and take away clean shooting looks from the perimeter.
– Run, run, run as Lawson said during Tuesday’s presser. Try to make it as much about end-to-end burst, quickness, and open-court rim-runs as possible. Winning the turnover battle while forcing live-ball giveaways will go along way toward this mission.
– Compete on the glass with the goal being to stay close in total possessions and second-chance-scoring while holding their own in paint presence.
– Offensively, Arkansas must pass first to make the defense work, then make good decisions and execute as a three-level scoring unit (mix of drives which will be necessary to stay competitive in free throws attempted, three-point shooting, and mid-range game).
– The pieces are finally there for Musselman with the most diversity he’s had in skill sets 1-through-5 in the lineup, so the hope this early is that a veteran mix of players possessing that collective versatility can find ways to match the Boilermakers’ cohesive veteran squad for 40 minutes. Not knowing what Brazile is ready to contribute at this point — who knows, he may have another otherworldly performance like he did on Pro Day — the Hogs may need the backcourt trio of Davis, Mark, and Ellis to take over with firepower from Battle, Davenport, and others to steer the ship with the support of a veteran frontline-by-committee pitching in at both ends of the floor.
– On the before-the-game-is-ever-played comparison between Arkansas and Purdue: “Coach Painter has done a great job of getting shooting to surround a player that’s got great skill [on the] interior. So I would say that this prep for a Coach Painter team, they’re tough, they execute, a lot of continuity. I would say they’re for sure way ahead of where we are today, and they’re probably way ahead of a lot of other programs. And then you add the fact they played four games overseas with a bunch of returners, this is a team that’s going to present a lot of things that we need to try and cover between now and Saturday afternoon.”
– On his team’s progress toward being more physical with a physical test against Big Ten team in Purdue up next: “Yesterday was Day 1 of the practice week and I thought it was a really good practice, a very physical practice. Purdue, obviously the physicality with Edey inside, the physicality of No. 4 (Trey) Kaufman-Renn, those two guys are physical. No. 1 (Caleb) Furst is really physical, as well. 0 (Mason) Gillis is another physical player. And then their guards are just so scrappy, so we’ve got to have physicality 1 through 5 positionally as we prepare for Purdue. And then certainly the physicality on the glass, because they do a great job when the ball goes in to No. 15 Edey, they do a great job of cutting with force to offensive rebound from their 4 spot. Defensively block outs because extremely important, as well. But I thought yesterday we had a good practice as far as preparation.”
– On Arkansas’ frontline matching up with Purdue’s formidable bigs: “Obviously Khi (Makhi Miitchell) went through a stretch this summer of being injured. He missed a good part of our offseason with a broken foot. But he did a great job continuing to lift weights with our strength coach. I think in this particular game, Chandler Lawson will get an opportunity to guard Edey and obviously Khi will get an opportunity to guard him. Jalen Graham, if he’s able to suit up, would possibly get a chance to go in and guard him. Maybe (freshman 6-11 center) Baye Fall. So there’s a lot of different guys that might get the opportunity, but certainly Khi and Chandler are the two players on our roster that have the experience of maybe defending some of the more physicality guys that we could see.”
– On Purdue’s backcourt: “It’s as good of a backcourt as you’re going to face. Both guys can make threes. Obviously Smith has got great defensive awareness and his steals numbers show that. They’re both really, really high, high basketball [IQ] players. Loyer’s father is a longtime NBA coach and executive, and he presents problems because he understands passing angles. From an offensive standpoint he understands how to move without the ball to get himself open. Just a really, really phenomenal backcourt. Then No. 55 Jones, the transfer from Southern Illinois, he’s a guy that can take a high volume of threes and field goal attempts in his minutes. Those three guards in particular can all present problems for you.”
– More on game-planning to account for the best player in college basketball, Zach Edey: “That’s one of the reasons that we’re so excited about playing Purdue, is you’re talking about maybe the hardest player in college basketball to game plan against. Because of his size, because of his skill level, and because of his teammates that play surrounding him. We’ve gone back to some of the notes we used when we played against Shaquille O’Neal. To be honest, I did pull out some of the old scouting reports just because of the crowd you want Edey to play in. Meaning the five guys on the floor, how are you going to make him feel a little bit of pressure. You’ve got to obviously have more than just a Plan A to defend his post-up.”
Hoop Hogs updates and tidbits
– Senior wing Tramon Mark was included among the 20 players named to the watch list for the postseason Jerry West Award, which goes to the nation’s best shooting guard in Division 1. Mark joins Brazile and Davis who also picked up preseason recognition as All SEC first- and second-team selections, respectively, last week.
– Sports San Diego officials announced on Tuesday the four-team field for the 2024 Rady Children’s Invitational, which will include Arkansas, BYU, Notre Dame, and Purdue during the ’24-25 season. The second annual tournament will take place Nov. 28-29, 2024, on the campus of UC-San Diego.
– In addition to its No. 14 ranking in both AP and KenPom, Arkansas checks in at No. 14 in the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll released last week. Purdue was No. 2 in the Coaches poll.
– After the Purdue tilt, Arkansas opens its ’23-24 regular season at home against Alcorn State on Nov. 6.