Arkansas vs Abilene Christian: Former Teammate of 3 One-Time Hogs Is ACU’s Head of Snake

Airion Simmons, Moses Moody, Arkansas basketball, Abilene Christian basketball, Arkansas vs Abilene Christian
photo credit: ACU Athletics / Arkansas Athletics

Arkansas basketball barely survived its most recent game against Lipscomb in North Little Rock after building a 20-point lead midway through the second half. The near collapse ended with a heroic, acrobatic layup from Devo Davis to give the Hogs somewhat of a cushion on the final possession.

The narrow victory over a team currently ranked outside the top 130 in the NET rankings did little to nothing for Arkansas’ metrics – and no, it’s not too early to start paying attention to where the Razorbacks currently sit in metrics that the NCAA Tournament selection committee will use for seeding and selection.

“I just know we’ve got a lot of work (to do),” head coach Eric Musselman said about the win. “I’d be not telling the truth if I said I was relieved. I’m disappointed.”

The Hogs have two more home games against mid-major opponents, starting with Abilene Christian on Thursday night. They need to shore up some of the issues that have been a consistent thorn in this team’s side all season before they dive head first into SEC play, where five of their first eight games are currently Quadrant 1 opportunities, with the other three being Quadrant 2.

Abilene Christian is 5-6 on the season and ranks No. 232 in the NET – currently the third-worst team Arkansas has faced this year by that metric. The Wildcats check in with an offensive efficiency of 204 and a defensive efficiency of 195 on KenPom. In other words, this is a prime opportunity for Arkansas to get its feet under it and work on problems it’s continually having against theoretically lesser competition.

And it’s as close to a must-win game as you can get this early in the season.

Previewing Abilene Christian Basketball

The Wildcats are not having a tremendous start to their season despite losing only two more games than the Razorbacks thus far. Four of their six losses have come in their last six games – all coming to teams outside the top 100 in the NET, including their most recent loss to Northern Arizona (No. 203). By comparison, three of Arkansas’ four losses have come against teams in the top 40 of the NET.

A pair of experienced wing players lead ACU on offense. Ali Abdou Dibba (6-4, Jr.) paces the team in scoring with 13.8 points per game while shooting nearly 38% from long range on the season. He’s also contributing 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists, and 1.2 steals per game across his 26.6 minutes of action.

Airion Simmons (6-5, Sr.) is a name that might ring a bell for some Razorback fans – specifically those in the central part of the state. Simmons is a Little Rock native who played at Little Rock Parkview before joining Abilene Christian in 2019. In the 2016-17 season, Simmons played alongside future Razorbacks in Moses Moody, Khalil Garland and Ethan Henderson.

Now, as a fifth-year senior, Simmons is averaging career highs in points (13.1) and rebounds (5.7) to go along with 1.9 assists, 1.5 steals and over 34% 3-point shooting. He has started nine of the team’s 11 games and plays bigger than his listed 6-foot-5 height might indicate thanks to his 264-pound frame. Pay attention to this potential mismatch against potentially weaker forwards for Arkansas like Tramon Mark or Trevon Brazile.

“He’s an excellent player,” Musselman said Wednesday. “He’s a guy who can make 3s. He’s a three-level scorer. He’s a guy who can post up. He’s a really good passer. He’s a vital part of their team, plays the 4 spot for them. They’ll put him on elbows and run backdoor cuts with him as a passer.”

Hunter-Jack Madden (6-1, Sr.) joins these two wings as double-digit scorers for the Wildcats with 11.5 points on 43% shooting from distance in roughly 30 minutes per game – a team high. Leonardo Bettiol (6-8, So.) is a player Arkansas needs to be aware of as well. His 6.3 points per game on the season are very misleading considering his missed nearly two weeks of action earlier in the season and combined for only four minutes played in the game he got injured in and his first game back to action.

Since his return, Bettiol has really picked up his production. Over his last four games, the big man is averaging 10.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists on 77% shooting from the field. He has yet to attempt a 3-pointer yet this season, so perhaps Chandler Lawson – who has struggled to close out to shooters and defend guards in pick-and-roll action at times – will thrive in this inside-the-arc matchup.

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

Despite coming away with a narrow victory in Simmons Bank Arena, it’s hard to take many positives away from what was nearly a collapse of epic proportions. After leading the game by 20 points with under 12 minutes left to play, Arkansas saw its lead trimmed to one point with under 30 seconds on the clock.

A lot of factors caused the second-half meltdown for the Hogs, but the biggest issue seemed to be one Arkansas has continually struggled with regardless of opponent this season: staying in front of the ball on the perimeter.

Musselman has noted that his team typically deployed a defensive strategy that attempted to keep players from dribbling toward the middle of the court. The idea is to force the ball handler baseline where the out of bounds line – and hopefully a help-side defender – will put the offensive player in a tough spot.

This often led to straight line drives to the rim, however, due to over-playing towards the middle of the court and slow (or non-existent) help-side rotations. After the Oklahoma loss, Musselman said that strategy is out the window and his team would be playing a “keep your guy in front of you” defense from then on.

This strategy looked fine in the first half against Lipscomb – not perfect, but it was Game 1 with a new strategy, so some slack can be given. Then the defense seemed to collapse entirely after the break. The Bison had their choice of open layups or 3-point shots, because Arkansas defenders weren’t cutting off either option effectively throughout Lipscomb’s 17-0 run.

Below are four great examples of Lipscomb executing out of the pick-and-roll with the primary defender trailing the play and no help-side defense to be found, either being too slow to rotate or not committing to stopping the drive and ending up in “no man’s land,” defending neither the ball nor their man.

Some of this was scheme related to players like Makhi Mitchell and Trevon Brazile not wanting to leave their assignment on the perimeter since they were guarding a good 3-point shooter, but stopping a wide-open layup attempt should take precedence.

It wasn’t all bad for Arkansas, though. One of the major headlines leading into the game was the debut of Keyon Menifield, who was thought to be out for the season with a non-scholarship redshirt designation. News broke roughly 24 hours before tipoff that he had received a waiver from the NCAA allowing him to play now that the fall semester had ended.

The Washington transfer logged 19 minutes and finished with 2 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. While this is not an eye-popping stat line, Menifield seemed to lift the overall pace and urgency while he was on the court while still being willing to share the ball and make the small plays, like the offensive rebound he grabbed leading to his lone bucket of the game.

“I thought it was important to get him in the game,” Musselman said. “He’s active, he’s bouncy. He is a reactor to loose balls. It’s hard to be thrown into a game 10 games in. But I think his quickness, his willingness to be a ball distributor can help us.”

Jalen Graham also had his best game of the year after dealing with a back injury for much of the season so far, finishing with 11 points, 2 blocks, 1 rebound and 1 assist in his 15 minutes of action. With more floor spacing on this year’s squad compared to last year, many were excited to see how Graham operated in post-up situations – myself included.

While he did look really good with his back to the basket offensively, Musselman noted that the team needed more defensive rebounds from Graham in his minutes – an issue that often popped up when fans questioned Graham’s lack of playing time last season.

“Jalen Graham is such a gifted, skilled offensive player,” Musselman said. “But we need him to defensive rebound. He had one rebound tonight, and we feel like he can rebound more per minute than what we’re getting.”

Perhaps this is why Graham never left the bench again during Lipscomb’s near-disastrous run late in the second half despite being an overall positive factor earlier in the game.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Abilene Christian

Arkansas currently ranks 13th in the country with 26.5 free throw attempts per game, even after attempting only eight free throws against Lipscomb. That lack of free throw attempts was a byproduct of Lipscomb’s zone and the Hogs’ willingness to settle for jump shots rather than attack the paint.

Coincidentally, Arkansas has also struggled to defend without fouling, ranking No. 328 in the nation with 20.3 fouls committed per game. Musselman has been vocal about this being a strange trend since his team is also not generating steals – usually aggressive teams can pick up a lot of steals and fouls, or conservative teams could have few steals and few fouls.

Even though the Hogs are on the extreme end of both free throws attempted and fouls committed, Abilene Christian is somehow even more extreme in both categories.

The Wildcats rank No. 9 in the country with 26.7 free throw attempts per game – while also hitting those attempts at a higher percentage than Arkansas – as well as No. 338 in fouls committed with 20.9 per game.

“They do a great job attacking the rim,” Musselman said. “They do a great job of high-low. Their bigs do a great job of ducking in. … Obviously when you hard duck-in and you go high-low, those will be able to create free throw attempt situations.”

If you love watching refs blow the whistle, this might be the game for you.

Arkansas guard Khalif Battle ranks among the best in the country at both drawing free throw attempts and converting at the charity stripe. He currently ranks No. 18 nationally with 78 attempts on the season and hits at an 83.3% clip.

He – along with the rest of the Razorbacks – will need to continue to be aggressive offensively in an attempt to earn more free throw attempts than the Wildcats, but this will largely be accomplished on the defensive side of the ball.

ACU does not attempt many 3-pointers per game, ranking well outside the top 325 teams in attempts per game. Perhaps Arkansas’ struggles to stay in front of the ball won’t rear its ugly head in this matchup, but it will have to find a way to defend inside the arc without fouling to avoid yet another non-conference close-game scare.

Game Prediction

Abilene Christian’s unique style of play in the modern game with fewer 3-point shots might seem like a match made in heaven for this Razorback defense struggling to defend the 3-point arc, but their physical, inside-the-arc play will likely become a problem for the Hogs in terms of foul trouble.

Still, the Razorback depth and overall talent should keep this game relatively in control even with a lot of free throws likely to be shot on both sides of the ball. Khalif Battle should be in for a big game with his ability to get to the free throw line, and other guards will have the opportunity to bolster their percentage at the charity stripe as well.

Arkansas will see its usual share of struggles that fans might have become accustomed to by now, but the new-look rotation with the entire roster available will take another step forward in their second full game together.

Arkansas wins, 82-68

How to Watch Arkansas vs Abilene Christian

Date: Thursday, Dec. 18

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)

Tipoff Time/TV: 6 p.m. CT (SEC Network)

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has an 88.9% chance to win, favored by 14.5 points.

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Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman speaks to the media ahead of Thursday’s Arkansas vs Abilene Christian matchup:

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