By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the Arkansas Razorbacks, a squad that came into 2022-23 with national Top 10 rankings and realistic hopes of advancing the program even further than the lofty back-to-back NCAA Tournament Elite Eights that were earned and enjoyed the previous two seasons.
And though the wheels didn’t come completely off, two significant injury situations (Nick Smith, Jr., and Trevon Brazile) combined with a near-brand-new roster and a revolving door of various self-inflicted-wound scenarios led to recurring Hog struggles once SEC play started, and with the exceptions of a solid non-conference showing and an impressive five-game winning streak in the middle of league play, Arkansas fell well short of preseason expectations.
At 20-13 overall, including a 9-11 mark against SEC opponents with a current 6-losses-in-9-games skid dogging them, the unranked Razorbacks’ NET ranking of No. 21 feels more like a misprint than a true measure of the quality of the team’s season.
All that’s left now is the ultimate proving ground — the NCAA Tournament — a win-or-go-home scenario the next time Arkansas steps onto the basketball court, which will be on Thursday as the 8-seed against 9-seed Illinois in the first round of the NCAAT West Region in Des Moines, Iowa. The winner likely gets a Round of 32 date with No. 1 seed Kansas on Saturday, assuming the Jayhawks dispose of 16-seed Howard in Thursday’s other first round game in Des Moines.
The Hoop Hogs are not lacking size, length, athleticism, available depth, or individual talent (three postseason all league performers makes a convincing case for the latter), but they’ve often looked one-dimensional, disconnected, and lacking the confident resolve to close out most pressure-cooker games better than their opposition. Those issues were at play in the previous two seasons, too, before being ironed out in mid-January, but here we are in mid-March and the narrative remains the same for this team.
The beauty of the NCAAT for the teams that make it is that it offers a clean slate and a chance to live their best basketball lives, and the Razorbacks have several positives in their favor despite all their troubles getting this far.
Here are five that immediately come to mind …
1. Devo’s greatest hits include postseason excellence. One of two Arkansas veterans that make up the ’22-23 squad, all-league junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis is 9-5 in postseason play at Arkansas (that’s 3-3 in three SEC Tournaments and 6-2 in two NCAATs), and he is one of the most accomplished Hogs ever when it comes to the NCAAT as he was instrumental in the aforementioned back-to-back Elite Eights in ’20-21 and ’21-22.
In his first NCAAT game as a freshman against 14-seed Colgate in March 2021, the Hogs fell behind by 14 points, 33-19, when Davis’ back-to-back steals and 6 points were the catalysts in a 17-0 run to close the first half as Arkansas led 36-33 at the break on its way to an 85-68 win; Davis finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. His ball-hawking defense in the Round of 32 kept 6-seed Texas Tech’s senior guard Mac McClung in check as Davis finished with 15 points and 6 rebounds in the Hogs’ 68-66 victory. His biggest moment at Arkansas came in the Sweet 16 against Oral Roberts when Davis hit a go-ahead, short-range jumper with 3.1 seconds remaining to deliver a 72-70 Hogs win; Davis finished with 16 points and 8 rebounds against the Golden Eagles. The following NCAAT in March 2022, Davis played off the bench in Arkansas’ first-round win over Vermont, 75-71, as Davis scored 10 first-half points and finished with 14.
So far this postseason (two SECT games), Davis has been solid. He had 7 points, a team-high 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal against Auburn in the SECT second round — the theft came with 12 seconds left in the game with Arkansas clinging to a 1-point lead over the Tigers, and after being fouled he made both free throws to ice a 76-73 Hogs win. Davis had 5 points, a team-high 6 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 assist in Arkansas’ 67-61 SECT quarterfinals loss to Texas A&M — his steal and coast-to-coast layup in the second half gave Arkansas its final lead of the game at 51-50.
After an SEC All Defensive-team junior campaign packed with plenty of per-game career-bests — 10.5 points, 1.4 steals, 3.6 defensive rebounds, 34.4% from 3 on 1.3 made triples, 33.4 minutes — Davis is ready to ramp things up once again in his third NCAAT.
“It’s fun for sure,” Davis said of his March Madness(es). “Just knowing it’s my third time, and seeing it pop up (Arkansas’ at-large announcement on Selection Sunday) for the third time is exciting and I know the guys are excited because a lot of them have not been in this position. I’m excited for them as well.”
2. Arkansas has been at its best against quality competition away from home. At first glance that notion seems absurd given the Hogs were only 2-8 in true road games in ’22-23, but consider …
– The Razorbacks were 5-2 in actual neutral-site games, which included a 2-2 record in Quad-1 games against current NCAAT teams (wins over San Diego State and Auburn and losses to Creighton and Texas A&M). Conversely, the Hogs were 1-2 in Q1 games at home and 1-6 in Q1 games on the road. Obviously, the entirety of the NCAAT is played at neutral sites.
– Arkansas was only 4-10 overall in Quad-1 games, but three of the wins were accomplished away from home — the aforementioned neutral-site victories over SDSU and Auburn as well as the Hogs’ best win of the season on the road against Kentucky, 88-73.
– Not that it translated to winning, but only once did Arkansas get crushed against quality competition playing away from home — on the road against Tennessee — as the team often held leads (several of the double-digit variety) or stayed within striking distance before losing against Creighton at a neutral site, at Missouri, at Baylor, at Texas A&M, at Alabama, and against Texas A&M at a neutral site.
The point is, it’s not like Arkansas’ NCAAT resume was built solely on home-game success, and the team is certainly battle-tested with a total of 17 games played away from their home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. And while skepticism that Arkansas can string together consecutive wins against quality competition is valid, at least there are signs the Hogs can compete away from home and give themselves a chance to win.
3. Talented backcourt trio of Nick Smith, Jr., Anthony Black, and Ricky Council IV may be ready to take the next step. The all-league, jack-of-all-trades freshman guard Black has been the team’s MVP, and look no further than the Hogs’ four best wins (San Diego State, Texas A&M, Kentucky, and Auburn) for evidence of that claim as Black collectively exceeded most of his season averages and shooting efficiency in those four victories — 16.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.5 steals, 47.5% field goals, 81.3% free throws. Black led talent-loaded teams to championships in high school and international play just before arriving at Arkansas, and this do-or-die stage after 33 games in college might just put an extra charge in his competitive drive.
Despite only having a small 14-game sample size in college as he is still rounding into mid-season form during the postseason, Smith has shown the clutch gene at all stages of his career, including most recently in the second round of the SECT when he hit a go-ahead pull-up jumper in the closing seconds in Arkansas’ 76-73 win over Auburn on Thursday. Smith is an alpha-scorer who can also facilitate on offense, and defensively he’s been a spark at times using his quickness and length to get deflections and steals. Smith has five games scoring 20-plus points — his 14.0 points per game are second on the team — and it’s his ability to create open looks beyond the arc, in the mid-range and mid-paint, at the rim, and in transition while also finding teammates who come open as defenses scramble to cover him that offers a combination he alone possesses on this team. It’s a dynamic that helps improve flow and scoring opportunities for a group that is otherwise predictable and often one-dimensional as a collective. Smith’s best basketball at this level has yet to be revealed, and with the window closing before a promising NBA career, he’ll be tasked THIS WEEK with tapping into more of what makes him a special talent.
Council leads the team in scoring (15.9 points per game) but has been up and down since the start of league play after often displaying dominance offensively in November and December non-conference action. He really struggled in Arkansas’ last four games — 9.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.0 steal, 0.8 assists, 28.1% field goals, 22.2% from 3, 70.4% free throws — as the team went 1-3 in those outings. A poor three-point shooter and streaky at best in the mid-range, Council’s best offense is as a finisher in transition and as a slasher in half court getting downhill and to the rim for close-range buckets or drawing fouls to get to the free throw line where his overall efficiency has been really good (77.4%) on a team that is sub-70% on freebies. The feeling here is Council just might find renewed vigor by getting out of SEC play and matching up with opponents who are not as familiar with his tendencies. He’s got the physical gifts to make his impact felt on both sides of the ball whether he’s scoring or not. Minimizing the over-dribble drives and looking to attack off good ball movement and hard cuts off the ball while playing with purpose on defense might serve him and the team well as they seek to survive and advance.
With Davis at their side packing valuable experience from previous deep NCAAT runs, the talented trio of Smith, Black, and Council aren’t left to navigate this unique high-stakes endeavor alone, but they’ll need to dive in with the same kind of belief and passion that Davis did in his first Dance two seasons ago.
4. Frontcourt X-factors. Senior big man Makhi Mitchell and freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh have been the most consistent frontliners this season, and both have added that X-factor element to complement the backcourt which has been the backbone of the team. The senior trio of Makhel Mitchell, Kamani Johnson, and Jalen Graham have provided a carousel of positive impact at times as they’ve mostly operated in reserve roles.
This group experienced its worst stretch of games in the Hogs’ last three regular-season outings — all losses — as the team’s defense took a dive with rim-protection, defensive rebounding, and physicality all of a sudden lacking among the bigs who often appeared to be ball-watching, flat-footed, tentative, and inactive.
Makhi Mitchell bounced back in a big way in the SECT — 13.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 2.0 steals, 1.5 assists, only 3 turnovers in 2 games, 84.6% field goals, 83.3% free throws. Walsh was solid — 9.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 block, 66.7% field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 83.3% free throws. Kamani Johnson (against Auburn) and Makhel Mitchell (against Texas A&M) were effective in support of Makhi Mitchell. Graham played only a total of 4 minutes in the SECT as his role has once again diminished, but in the past he’s provided key contributions in games after not seeing much floor time for weeks.
This group can be great by simply being active, smartly aggressive, dependable, and productive relative to its strengths. That’s it.
5. Tangibles and/or intangibles? You decide. Let’s get to it …
– Eric Musselman is one of the best in the business in terms of game-planning, analyzing opponents and matchup opportunities, and making in-game adjustments. It seems to have served his teams well in the postseason as he’s taken them beyond the first weekend of the Dance — one to the Sweet 16 (Nevada in ’17-18) and two to the Elite Eight (Arkansas in ’20-21 and ’21-22) — in three of the previous five seasons. Most of what was good that fueled his two prior NCAAT teams at Arkansas became apparent in mid-January in each of those seasons (i.e. the Hogs’ NCAAT success wasn’t simply Muss’ conjuring up postseason magic, you could see those teams coming together with staggering February and March success). So, while the lack of a similar mid-season course-correction in ’22-23 is a valid concern entering the NCAAT, Musselman’s ability to prepare his teams for what’s next and in short order remains a constant, and until proven otherwise in the postseason it should be considered an advantage for the Hogs.
– Winning the first game will be a challenge, most all of Arkansas’ recent first NCAAT games have been and that’s true for most teams. But if Arkansas does win, it likely faces No. 1 seed Kansas in the second round. Since 2000, only 5 out of 36 No. 1 seeds have lost in the second round (13.9%), BUT 4 of those 5 were the 8-seeds knocking off the 1-seeds. And though this is a different team, Arkansas last season (albeit as a 4-seed) knocked overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. This Arkansas team twice stayed within striking range of this NCAAT’s overall No. 1 seed Alabama, down by only two points at home with about 5 minutes to play in January, then in late February the Hogs led by 11 on the road and had a chance to send the game to overtime before losing by three points. Davis, Johnson, and Musselman know the feeling of knocking off a No. 1 seed in the Dance just a year ago, and the team this season has been on the verge of taking down ‘Bama as well as East Region 3-seed Baylor, and East Region 6-seed Creighton — all in games played away from home against teams that have been ranked in the Top 10 this season. Sure, an 8-over-1 is a long shot, but it’s been done before and these Hogs (should they win their first-round game) will NOT go in un-tested against that caliber of opponent.
– Some heavy combination of these five consistent negatives — poor free throw shooting, turnovers, poor three-point shooting (includes settling on too many triple attempts), excessive fouling, extended second-half defensive lapses — have been the undoing of the Hogs in 13 losses, many of which saw Arkansas blow leads and/or not close out tight games late. To have any chance to win an NCAAT game let alone knock off a 1-seed if they can get to the Round of 32, for starters the Razorbacks need to completely remedy and remove “second-half defensive lapses” from that list as well as proactively limit their own three-point attempts (thinking 10 or 11 per game, max) in favor of a relentless attack on the paint and rim. Those seem to be within their control if they set out with a determined discipline to play to their strengths and execute the game-plan. Adjusting to whistles (how fouls are called, especially when officials call things more tightly in second halves) is not a strength of this team, but that will be a significant challenge as part of competing at the foul line (FTA volume and FT efficiency relative to opponents). Cobbling together some formula where they limit the damage of turnovers is another thing. Arkansas won’t conquer all these issues, but if they can find ways to limit the snow-ball effects that have overwhelmed them — you know, suffer their self-inflicted wounds in small doses — they just might find a path to 2-0 this weekend in Iowa.