Arkansas vs UNC-Wilmington: Khalif Battle Has Message for Critics of Head-Scratching Disparity

Khalif Battle, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs UNC Wilmington
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Arkansas came out of the gates incredibly slow and lackadaisical – again – against Abilene Christian in its last matchup. Despite the Wildcats being ranked as one of the worst teams on the Razorbacks’ non-conference schedule, the Hogs trailed by seven points at halftime and as many as nine points early in the second half.

Fortunately, Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman seemed to figure out a winning formula early in the second half that included a lot more of a four-guard lineup we haven’t seen much this season, leading to a 10-point victory for the Razorbacks instead of a resume-crushing loss.

“We played with pace, we played with energy, we got to loose balls quicker,” Musselman said about that lineup. “Devo Davis played as good of post defense as anybody we had. He was the one guy that fronted the post. … Just the pace. I thought we shared the ball better. We had a sense of energy about our team, as well, and then we become harder to guard when we do that.”

The Hogs have had early-season struggles in every season under Musselman. This season, however, featured his worst start as the Head Hog, and even though nothing is guaranteed solely based on past success, he can take solace in the previous seasons’ teams seemingly finding their rhythm in an instant.

Up next on the Razorbacks’ schedule is one final chance to fine-tune what looked to be a promising start to a new gameplan before SEC play starts, where five of their first seven conference games are Quadrant 1 opportunities – the other two are Quad 2 opportunities.

UNC Wilmington comes to town on Saturday for a showdown with the Razorbacks. The Seahawks already have one impressive SEC win on the road this season when they defeated Kentucky 80-73, though they still rank outside the top 100 in the NET rankings – roughly 10 spots behind Arkansas.

Beware the Depth of UNC Wilmington

Coming off of four straight victories – including a win over Kentucky in Rupp Arena – the Seahawks of UNCW boast some impressive offensive numbers. They’re ranked Top 25 in scoring as a team with 85.4 points per game on 48% from the field and 39% from long range.

However, their win over Kentucky is really the only impressive game on their resume despite being 9-2 on the season. They’ve played games against two NAIA teams, one Division II team, and five teams ranked outside the Top 200 in the NET rankings (including a loss to one of these teams). 

Appalachian State is their only other opponent inside the Top 100 in the NET besides Kentucky. That resulted in a 86-56 loss.

Against Division I teams, UNCW is averaging only 74.9 points per game on 43% shooting from the field and 34% from long range – all respectable numbers, but not nearly as close to the actual elite scoring teams in the country.

Trazarien White (6-6, Jr.) paces this team offensively, averaging 19.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game on 57% from the field, including 45% from long range. Potentially the most dangerous part of his game that Arkansas needs to remain aware of is his ability to draw fouls. He’s shooting roughly 7.5 free throw attempts per game despite only hitting under 70% of those attempts.

For reference, Khalif Battle is Arkansas’ leader in free throw attempts, shooting only 7.0 attempts per game. Battle does have a higher free throw rate, which is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempts, meaning White gets relatively a lot more looks within his offense than Battle does.

Amazingly, White isn’t a starter. Instead, he comes off the bench as part of wholesale “hockey-line” substitutions that UNC-Wilmington coach Takayo Siddle prefers to employ at different intervals throughout the game.

Indeed, UNC-Wilmington’s depth is as good as that of any opponent Arkansas will have played this season, by the way Musselman talked about it on Wednesday: “The team that is coming into Bud Walton on Saturday uses their bench and is as deep as any team that we’ve played all year, and probably as deep as any team we will play all season long. [It] uses their bench as effectively as any team that we’ve played all season and certainly anybody that will play.”

A trio of seniors join White as double-digit scorers for the Seahawks: Shykeim Phillips (6-2, G), Maleeck Harden-Hayes (6-7, G), and KJ Jenkins (6-2, G). Phillips scores the most among this group at 14.2 points and 3.3 assists per game, though he has been relatively poor from long range at under 13% on the season. Harden-Hayes and Jenkins shoot 37% and 40%, respectively, from long range on the season.

Other notable players in UNC Wilmington’s rotation averaging at least 15 minutes per game:

  • Donovan Newby (6-1, Sr.) | 7.3 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 35% 3P
  • Nick Farrar (6-6, Sr.) | 7.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.4 APG, 53% 3P
  • Nolan Hodge (6-7, So.) | 4.2 PPG, 2.4 RPG

Arkansas vs UNC Wilmington: What to Expect from Hogs

After one of the most uninspired halves of basketball you’ll ever see against Abilene Christian leading to a seven-point halftime deficit for the Razorbacks, the Hogs seemed to find a winning formula early in the second half.

A large part of their success came due to a four-guard lineup featuring Keyon Menifield at the point guard position and Devo Davis, the 6-foot-4 guard, essentially playing the power forward position. Khalif Battle and Tramon Mark filled out the wings, while Chandler Lawson, Jalen Graham, and Makhi Mitchell each took turns as the center during the second half.

The three guards (minus Devo) all seemed to find an offensive rhythm at the same time, leading to a big push to take a comfortable double-digit lead late in the second half. 

Battle scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half and was also pretty efficient shooting the ball, going 5 of 8 from the floor, 3 of 4 from deep and 5 of 6 from the line.

It was a nice bounce-back game for the Temple transfer, as he was coming off a tough 2-point performance against Lipscomb. He had also been just 3 of 15 from the field over the previous two games and over the course of the season has shown he is more efficient from beyond the arc (43.6%) than inside the arc (40.4%). 

That 2-point percentage is last on the team among rotation players just behind Davis, Jeremiah Davenport and El Ellis.* Meanwhile, his 3-point percentage is second behind only Trevon Brazile.

That’s a pretty large disparity, and on Thursday night Battle indicated he’s heard some grumbling about his inefficient shooting within the arc with this “X” post:

Musselman, for his part, chimed in after the game last week with this: “He’s going to shoot, which is good. He’s got a green light. Whether I say it’s yellow or red, in his mind he’s got a green light. Sometimes that is a really, really good thing.” It may be fair to speculate, however, that the light is a bit greener from beyond the arc at this point.

On defense against Abilene Christian, Devo Davis and the centers did a great job a week ago, limiting the Wildcats to only 39% shooting after halftime.

While it’s worth remembering that this game was against Abilene Christian – a team ranking outside the top 240 in the NET – it was very encouraging to see Arkansas find a formula that consistently worked for extended minutes. This doesn’t guarantee their problems are fixed, but perhaps Musselman found a core rotation and gameplan to build on moving forward.

Keyon Menifield specifically has provided a boost of energy for the Razorbacks after his unexpected clearance from the NCAA. After scoring only two points in his first game, his higher pace of play and overall energy came to the forefront in the Razorbacks’ comeback victory against Abilene Christian.

He scored 11 points – all coming in the second half – along with dishing out 2 assists and grabbing 6 rebounds despite being the smallest player on the court for the Razorbacks. The 6-foot-1 guard also recorded a plus-21 box plus/minus in his 28 minutes of action (plus-17 in the second half alone).

“Keyon just plays hard,” Musselman said. “We’ve been asking our guards to rebound. Keyon goes in the game, he weighs less than me, and he has six rebounds, five defensive rebounds. Four of eight (shooting). Still has a lot of rust on him. Ball moves, pace of play is quicker, 55 points in the second half compared to 28 in the first half.”

Menifield – along with Mark and Davis – never left the game in the entire second half.

Arkansas vs UNC Wilmington: What to Watch for

After a burst of renewed energy and offensive efficiency in the second half of their most recent victory, Arkansas might have found its best lineup – one that didn’t include projected first-round NBA Draft pick Trevon Brazile.

The 6-foot-10 sophomore played just over one minute in the second half of the Razorbacks’ comeback victory, recording one rebound, one turnover, and a minus-two box plus/minus on the box score in that time. It was part of an overall startlingly low USAGE rate for the likely future NBA player.

While Arkansas likely won’t be able to get away with a smaller guard like Davis guarding the four position for extended minutes, it’s worth paying attention to how Brazile slots back into the rotation now that Musselman found a lineup that gave him the offensive energy and efficiency the Hogs have been searching for seemingly all season.

Brazile also now has as many games scoring zero points as he does double-digit performances in his last six games. It’s not a talent issue by any stretch of the imagination, but more of an aggression and comfortability issue that seems to be plaguing Brazile.

He’s still shooting 49% from the field and 44% from long range, but on only 6.7 and 2.8 attempts, respectively. He ranks fourth on the Razorbacks in both categories despite currently being their only projected first round pick.

It doesn’t help that the same hesitation and lack of aggression has hampered Brazile as a help-side defender on the other side of the ball. Too often, he can be seen second guessing himself or not sliding over to help hard enough, appearing to not be able to make up his mind on the spot between leaving his man and stopping the ball.

Below are a few examples of this:

If Arkansas wants to do more than squeak into the NCAA tournament as a low seed, they need Brazile to be more aggressive and confident on both sides of the ball. He has the talent to be a game-changer, but so far, he’s been either a non-factor or even a negative factor at times on the defensive side of the ball.

Arkansas vs UNC-Wilmington Prediction

Arkansas will deploy their energy-producing lineup early and often in this game, even if they don’t start the opening tip with the small-ball lineup. The change in offensive game plan will also be on display as the Hogs put together arguably their best game against a mid-major opponent all season.

The Seahawks, specifically Trazarien White, could put the Hogs in foul trouble at some point in the game with their ability to get to the free throw line. The Hogs have  struggled to defend the perimeter without fouling, so that could be an issue,  but look for the depth of this rejuvenated Arkansas roster to prevail.

Arkansas picks up one more win and gets quality reps in before their first SEC matchup against Auburn after New Year’s.

Arkansas wins, 82-70

How to Watch

Date: Saturday, Dec. 30

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)

Tipoff Time/TV: 4 p.m. CT (SEC Network)

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 75.1% chance to win, favored by 7.2 points.

*The two worst shooters on the Razorback in terms of percentage on 2-pointers are Khalif Battle and Devo Davis (41.5%). Yet those two are also No. 2 and No. 3 on the team in two-point shots attempted. 

For Arkansas to start winning more, this large of a disparity from two key players cannot continue.

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Check out what Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman had to say ahead of Arkansas vs UNC Wilmington:

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…

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