After dropping the third iteration of the Cardinal and Crimson Classic to Oklahoma last Saturday, Eric Musselman and his Arkansas basketball squad find themselves in unfamiliar territory. The Hogs started 9-1 in each of Musselman’s first four seasons at the helm, but they now sit at 6-4 after a tougher early non-conference slate than most previous seasons.
“We’ve lost to some really good teams,” Musselman said. “I watched Memphis the other day go into Texas A&M and Texas A&M has a lot of returning players, basically their whole roster, they’re really well coached, and Memphis played phenomenal… North Carolina is a heck of a basketball team, and Oklahoma probably went into the season the most underrated team in college basketball.”
Up next on the schedule is a meeting with Lipscomb in North Little Rock seven days after their most recent loss. The break in action perhaps serves as a blessing for a team struggling for answers.
“I think maybe if we were feeling really comfortable, it might be a long time (between games),” Musselman said on his radio show, “I don’t feel very comfortable at all.”
The subpar record and persistent issues on the court don’t exactly inspire comfort at this point in the season. It’s a small consolation that there are 10 games currently labeled as Quad 1 opportunities left on the Arkansas basketball schedule.
The Razorbacks currently rank outside the Top 100 in the NET rankings despite receiving a slight boost from Duke climbing back into Quadrant 1 territory with a blowout victory over Hofstra, the very same team that gave Arkansas fits in Simmons Bank Arena two seasons ago.
In fact, there’s often weirdness that accompanies games in North Little Rock, including the injury to Nick Smith Jr against Bradley last season and the fact that the game hasn’t previously been available to stream.
Thankfully, thanks to a timely assist from the SEC Network, that will change on Saturday. Arkansas vs Lipscomb will tip off at 5:00 p.m. CT and will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus and ESPN-Plus.
Previewing Lipscomb Basketball
Lipscomb (No. 138) is currently the second-highest ranked team in the NET rankings among all of Arkansas’ mid-major opponents, and is also higher than Stanford (No. 176). Only UNC Greensboro, which beat Arkansas in Bud Walton Arena, ranks higher among the mid-majors.
As a team, the Bisons shoot 36% from 3-point range on the season. They have eight different players shooting 33% or better from distance, and six of those eight shoot 36% or better. Arkansas has struggled to defend the 3-point line.
Fortunately for the Hogs, Lipscomb has seen a notable drop off in their efficiency away from home. In eight combined neutral and away games, it is hitting just over 30% of its long-range attempts, including 29.7% in true neutral site games.
Although the game in North Little Rock is considered a home game for Arkansas due to the fan support, the game day routine for both teams is closer to that of a neutral site contest in terms of travel, preparation, familiarity with the court and rims, etc.
“The only thing that I wish is that it was a neutral site game because it is three and a half hours away,” Musselman said after expressing how awesome it is to play in Central Arkansas. “It’s not (counted as) a neutral site game. It is counted as a home game for us, which obviously we’ve got the home crowd and all that, but there are some other programs that have games similar to this that are counted as neutral site games and not home games.”
Derrin Boyd (6-3, Jr.) leads the charge offensively for the Bison, averaging 17.3 points and 3.8 rebounds per game on nearly 39% from long range. Though he’s hitting at 40% in true road games, Boyd’s 3-point percentage has dropped to under 13% in three neutral site games this season.
Weighing in at over 200 pounds, Boyd could also prove to be a mismatch for a relatively smaller Razorback backcourt. Arkansas guards Devo Davis and Tramon Mark, the two most likely defensive assignments for this matchup, each weigh in at 180 pounds.
AJ McGinnis (6-3) and Will Pruitt (6-2) are a pair of junior guards joining Boyd in the backcourt. Each averages double-digit scoring and McGinnis is leading the team in 3-point attempts with 5.8 per game while hitting at a 40% clip on the season.
Other notable players in Lipscomb’s rotation:
- Owen McCormack (6-9, Sr.) | 8.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 35% 3P
- Joe Anderson (6-0, Sr.) | 5.8 PPG, 3.3 TPG, 2.8 APG, 1.6 SPG, 36% 3P
- Dylan Faulkner (6-9, Fr.) 6.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 58% 2P
Adjustments to Expect from Arkansas Basketball
With a week to prepare for Lipscomb, Eric Musselman made it clear that the Razorbacks’ first focus would be on themselves.
“We’re not going to prepare for an opponent for a while,” Musselman said after the Razorbacks loss to Oklahoma. “We’re going to try to get better as a team. We don’t need to talk about Lipscomb. We need to talk about how we can get better.”
Several of the same issues have been cropping up for the Razorbacks regardless of their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. The only teams that Arkansas seems to perform consistently well against are teams heavily reliant on a tall center for their offense (Purdue, Stanford, Duke, etc.).
Defense (buckle up)
Perimeter defense has to be front and center of any discussion of issues plaguing the Hogs, both defending against 3-pointers and preventing straight-line drives to the rim. That’s a weird combination for any team, much less one coached by a defensive-minded guru like Musselman.
Let’s start with the problem of allowing 3-point shots. The main issue here is Arkansas’ inability to stay consistent in their off-ball coverage, including navigating screens. Musselman mentioned “being in the gap” when in help-side defense to take away the easy pass for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Below is a great example of Brazile going under a screen and leaving “the gap” Musselman refers to. You can see the coaching staff getting visibly upset before the shot even goes in:
This type of miscommunication has also been an issue on on-ball screens at times, most notably against Oklahoma. The Sooners did virtually whatever they wanted out of the pick-and-roll action, and Arkansas basketball players couldn’t figure out how to properly help and recover.
Below is basically the first offensive set of the game where the OU guard blows past Chandler Lawson, who is too slow to hedge on the perimeter. On top of that, Brazile is caught in no-man’s land, neither attempting to disrupt the layup attempt nor fully committing to covering the corner 3:
Below is another example of a poorly defended on-ball screen where Makhi Mitchell is in drop coverage, but never gets close enough to the ball handler to deter a shot attempt. Khalif Battle tries to swipe at the ball and Jeremiah Davenport tries to recover, but neither are in good enough position.
Aside from inconsistencies in how the team wants to guard screens, players are oftentimes finding themselves out of position while trying to outsmart the ball handler and anticipate where the play is going next. Oddly enough, this has mostly been an issue for Arkansas’ two most lauded perimeter defenders coming into the season: Davonte Davis and Tramon Mark.
Davis has always been a homerun-hitter type of player who can take gambles on both sides of the ball, leading to either highlight reel plays or sloppy errors. He’s been good enough that the team is willing to live with the mistakes, and he’s actually been much improved in terms of taking care of the ball offensively this season.
He does, however, still tend to shade one side of the ball too hard defensively. Others, of course, are struggling to keep ball handlers in front as well. Musselman spoke recently about how the team has been instructed to force players baseline and not allow them to cross back into the middle of the court where they would have more options to distribute the ball, so Davis’ intent was in line with the strategy. He was simply too aggressive in executing it.
Below is a great example of this, where Davis sees a ball screen coming and jumps so far to the middle of the court to prevent his man from driving to the middle that he allows a wide-open lane to the basket. Only a trailing Tramon Mark, who looks hesitant to leave his assignment, is left to provide any resistance to an open layup.
Musselman noted that the Hogs worked on a few different defensive strategies in practice this week, including, “guarding the ball full court one-on-one, guarding the ball on the wing at a 45-degree angle one-on-one.”
Mark, on the other hand, is prone to flashing for steals and leaving himself out of position with little to no communication to his teammates who might need to rotate in these situations. In the below clip, Mark flashes for a steal with Davenport not yet fully beat by the ball handler. He then stays and double-teams the ball handler and leaves Davenport in a difficult position to recover from the top of the key to the corner.
In this clip, Mark again sees an opportunity to stick his hand into the cookie jar as a ball handler enters the paint. The ball handler quickly pulls the ball back and kicks to Mark’s man who is now open on the 3-point line. Mark recovers, but not nearly quickly or closely enough.
In his recent radio show, Musselman noted that the team would be shifting away from their “no-middle” defensive philosophy and would instead be focusing on keeping their man in front of them. While this might seem like a simple concept, getting back to the basics of defending might be beneficial to this team.
“I don’t want to hear, ‘Well, I’m not allowed to let my guy go middle, so he just blows by me on the baseline side in a straight-line dribble drive,’” Musselman said. “That excuse is out the door. Now it’s, ‘Guard the guy in front of you and keep him in front of you.’”
The glaring issue on offense is the lack of ball movement. Arkansas has plenty of potent individual offensive weapons, and it’s a luxury to be able to give the ball to someone and say “go get a bucket,” but that shouldn’t be the vast majority of the offense like it has been in some games.
For starters, previous Musselman teams that have struggled offensively have been able to overcome those struggles with elite defensive play that leads to turnovers and fast break points, or at the very least helps players get into a better rhythm. Perhaps the change in defensive philosophy will lead to a change on the offensive side of the ball as well.
If defense doesn’t spark the offense, the Hogs have to find a way to keep the ball moving offensively. Musselman noted that the team has added to their secondary fast-break and open offense to “try to get the ball to move from side to side and get more people involved.”
Forward Jalen Graham got right to the point when asked about the priority list on offense.
“Ball movement,” Graham said. “Not sticking to the ball. We put in a rule where it’s a 0.5 rule. So, if you catch the ball you only have 0.5 seconds to dribble, pass, or shoot. But you’ve got to get it out of your hands.”
Perhaps a big part of this problem is the lack of a true facilitator on the court. Ellis and Davis are both averaging a decent number of assists, but neither as a true facilitating point guard. Both operate better as combo guards that can lend a hand in the ball-handling duties, but thrive in transition and scoring inside the 3-point line.
On Thursday, it was announced that Keyon Menifield can start playing tonight after having to sit out the first part of the season. Menifield, who may be the quickest player on the team, could be a big help in this area.
Layden Blocker is often the point guard on the court, and he’s doing such a fantastic job defensively that he is on the cusp of joining Mark and Davis in reputation as a defensive ace. He also creates intangible game-changing plays like crashing the glass, diving for loose balls and increasing the general intensity of the team. Still, Blocker is not yet the true facilitator Arkansas could really use at this point.
Overall, Arkansas has actually been relatively on par with previous Musselman-led teams offensively, though the 3-point percentage expectedly improved after adding proven shooters in the offseason. The Hogs are shooting 34% from long range through 10 games this year after hitting 31%, 29%, 33% and 29% in each previous season under Musselman, respectively. Finding a way to overcome inconsistencies at the point guard position and moving the ball with more urgency would solve a lot of the Razorbacks’ issues offensively.
Despite their overall record – and any lingering oddities in Simmons Bank Arena – Eric Musselman and his staff are using the seven-day break between games to fully address the Razorbacks’ issues. This doesn’t mean that everything will be perfect against Lipscomb, but returning to play against the mid-major ranks will provide Arkansas an excellent opportunity to deploy its adjustments.
The defense will look better in this game with an overall new philosophy, though don’t be surprised if Lipscomb hits some tough, contested looks early in the game – what else would you expect against Arkansas from an experienced mid-major opponent?
The Hogs take care of business in this game and lead by double-digits with plenty of time to spare, though. Musselman may take the opportunity to hammer home some of the finer details of his new game plan rather than give his bench players a chance to play.
Arkansas wins, 85-68
How to Watch Arkansas vs Lipsomb
Date: Saturday, Dec. 16
Location: Simmons Bank Arena (North Little Rock, Ark.)
Tipoff Time/TV: 5 p.m. CT (SECN+ / ESPN+)
ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 75.4% chance to win, favored by 7.8 points.
- Arkansas is 17-10 all-time in North Little Rock and 13-10 Simmons Bank Arena. The arena in North Little Rock opened for the 1999-00 season but Arkansas did play in the city four times in the early history of the program, including the sixth game ever on Dec 31, 1923, versus North Little Rock HS.
- The Razorbacks have played in NLR in 21 of the last 22 years with a 20-year streak of playing in North Little Rock snapped in Dec. 2020 due to COVID.
- The only other year Arkansas did not play in NLR was the 2000-01 season. Arkansas is 79-21 when playing across the river in Little Rock, but has not played there since Dec. 30, 1992. – via Razorback Communications
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman discusses his team’s struggles ahead of the Arkansas vs Lipscomb matchup:
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