FAYETTEVILLE — On a wild day across the SEC, Arkansas basketball had a prime opportunity to maintain its recent momentum and make a move in the standings Saturday night.
Results earlier in the day gave the Razorbacks a chance to move into a tie for fourth place in the league, but that required a win over Mississippi State. They didn’t capitalize, though, and had their five-game SEC winning streak snapped with a 70-64 loss.
Despite the final margin being just six points and Arkansas briefly making it a one-possession game in the closing minutes, the Bulldogs (17-8, 5-7 SEC) — riding a four-game winning streak of their own — controlled things for most of the night. They were up by nine at halftime, led by as many as 16 in the second half and trailed for just 3:19.
“I think when you get down 16, that’s a lot to overcome with a team that’s playing with confidence, and they’re certainly a team that’s playing with confidence,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “So 16 is a pretty big hole to dig yourself in.”
It was an overall disappointing effort by a team that was favored by 7.5 points, according to BetSaracen, and riding high after arguably its best performance of the season in a 15-point win at Kentucky.
The Wildcats followed that with a surprising loss at Georgia and Auburn couldn’t hold on to a second-half lead against Alabama, so the Razorbacks could have moved into a tie with Auburn, Kentucky and Missouri at 7-5. Instead, they’re tied with Vanderbilt and Florida for seventh place at 6-6.
“It’s not a good feeling,” freshman Anthony Black said. “We lost a game that we shouldn’t have lost. We got outplayed and we lost, so it’s a bad feeling.”
The loss is also a blow to Arkansas’ resume for the NCAA Tournament. It is likely still in the field as an at-large team even after Saturday, but dropping a game it was projected to win might have erased the distance it had put between it and the bubble with the win at Rupp Arena earlier in the week.
The Razorbacks (17-8) had climbed back to No. 23 in the NET prior to the Mississippi State game, which was their highest ranking since before losing to Vanderbilt on Jan. 14. Those rankings won’t update until Sunday morning, but the Bulldogs were No. 47 and the game was in Fayetteville, so a drop is on the horizon.
It wasn’t as large of a final margin as Kentucky’s loss to Arkansas, but the Razorbacks were ranked much higher in the NET than Mississippi State and they caused the Wildcats to drop nine spots in the NET by beating them on their home court.
Things don’t get any easier from here on out, either. Half of Arkansas’ remaining games are on the road against the top three teams in the SEC — Alabama (12-0), Texas A&M (10-2) and Tennessee (8-4) — not to mention the rematch with Kentucky in the regular-season finale at Bud Walton Arena.
The Razorbacks must hold serve at home, which also includes matchups with Florida and Georgia, just to go .500 in league play. That means they now must steal a game on the road to finish with a winning record.
The Return of Nick Smith Jr
A major subplot of Saturday’s game was the much-anticipated return of Nick Smith Jr., who had missed the previous 13 games for “right knee management.”
In his first action since Dec. 17, the freshman phenom brought a lot of energy to the floor, but was clearly rusty on the offensive end. Without a minutes restriction, he played just over 17 minutes and finished with 5 points on 2 of 7 shooting, 1 rebound and 1 assist.
“I think he did a good job with his minutes,” teammate Anthony Black said. “He played really hard on defense. With me, (regardless of) what you do on offense, as long as you play hard on defense and just take pride in it, I can live with you maybe missing some shots or doing something. It wasn’t bad for his first time out. We’re happy to have him back. We’ve got to start working him back in now.”
Smith’s first shot was a 3-pointer from the wing and it got partially blocked. He also missed the front end of a 1 and 1. Both of those plays were during his roughly three minutes in the first half.
After halftime, Smith checked in at the 15:49 mark and played all but 1 minute and 45 seconds from that point on. He finally knocked down a jumper near the free throw line soon after re-entering and added a late 3-pointer when the outcome was no longer in question, but he never really got it going offensively.
There were times when it appeared Smith tried to force things and others when he wasn’t on the same page as his teammates, leading to turnovers. However, the energy he brought was noticeable, especially on defense.
He was on the court during the 11-0 run that got Arkansas within five, which is the main reason he finished with a plus-3. Only two other Razorbacks — Makhi Mitchell (+5 in 11 minutes) and Jordan Walsh (+3 in 23 minutes) — posted a positive plus-minus.
That number likely would have been even better had he connected on a 3-pointer just inside the final two minutes. Ricky Council IV had just thrown down a reverse dunk to make it a five-point game and Black stole the ball on Mississippi State’s ensuing possession. He quickly found Smith, who had a good look, but missed the shot that would have pulled Arkansas within two and sent Bud Walton Arena into a frenzy.
“There’s a lot of things that happened over the game that didn’t go our way,” Black said. “(That was a) big play, sure, but we’re living with that shot 10 times out of 10. Shot just didn’t fall. We played hard on that possession to get the ball back and the shot just didn’t fall.”
Even with Smith back in the fold, Black played all but 43 seconds of Saturday’s game, while fellow guards Davonte Davis and Council played 37 minutes apiece.
As he continues to work himself back into the flow of things and develop more chemistry with his teammates, it will be interesting to see how Smith’s minutes evolve down the stretch.
“That’s a dilemma that we have to try to figure out and solve trying to integrate him in,” Eric Musselman said. “I thought he played fine. But we have to play better as a team for sure.”
Duo of Duds
On top of Nick Smith’s shooting struggles, which were understandable considering his long layoff, the Razorbacks also got duds from two-thirds of their three-headed monster at guard.
While Anthony Black delivered an efficient 23 points, Davonte Davis and Ricky Council IV had a really hard time putting the ball in the hoop and combined to go just 3 of 17 (17.6%) from the floor.
“Overall, I think both of them played really hard,” Black said. “They gave us a chance to win, despite what they were doing on offense. Stuff happens. People have games like that. We’ve got to try to make sure only one of us has a game like that. But they still played hard and they fought. Sometimes stuff like that happens.”
It was a particularly tough night for Davis, who saw his nine-game streak of scoring at least 15 points come to a screeching halt. He missed his first nine shots — including a failed fastbreak that, for some reason, isn’t in the official stats — before knocking down a 3-pointer at the 10:40 mark of the second half that actually capped the aforementioned 11-0 run.
Davis also had the fastbreak layup that pulled Arkansas within three with 1:22 remaining, but that made him (officially) just 2 of 11 from the floor. At 18.2%, it was his second-worst shooting performance of the season, behind only his 0-of-2 outing against San Jose State on Dec. 3.
While Council was just 1 of 6, he did draw six fouls and go 11 of 13 from the free throw line. He has now reached double figures in 23 of 25 games this season.
“They’re one of the best defensive teams in college basketball and they’re physical,” Musselman said about Mississippi State limiting two of his primary scorers. “And obviously, especially in the first half — and for some guys the entire game — their defense bothered guys. They do a good job, when you put it on the floor, of kind of swarming and…we were unable to convert.”
While the trio of Smith, Davis and Council went a combined 5 of 24 (20.8%), the rest of the Razorbacks shot 16 of 24 (66.7%).
Perhaps even more disappointing than the off-shooting nights by their star players was Arkansas’ defensive performance against one of the worst offensive teams it has faced this year.
Mississippi State came into Saturday’s game averaging just 61.0 points in SEC play and it hadn’t reached the 70-point threshold in regulation since Dec. 3, when it beat Mississippi Valley State 82-52.
“I think any time a team gets hot that the defense has something to do with it,” Eric Musselman said. “I did not think we defended with the intensity that we normally do.”
Even though they were just 13 of 23 on layups, the Bulldogs still shot 47.4% (27 of 57) from the floor — well above the 40.5% they had been shooting in SEC play.
Needless to say, Arkansas didn’t play up to its top-15 adjusted defensive efficiency rating on KenPom.
“You see the teams that we’ve played and held to fewer points and worse percentages, and you see them — they’re a good team, too, but…you see teams with pros and we’re holding them to less points,” Black said. “That’s on us. They’re a good team, yeah. They play hard, they do all that, but it’s on us. It’s on our defense. We just didn’t get it done today.”
Where Mississippi State really hurt the Razorbacks was from beyond the arc. It took only 10, but made six 3-pointers. At 60%, it was easily the Bulldogs’ most efficient game from distance, surpassing their 7-of-14 (50%) performance against Akron in the second game of the season.
Shakeel Moore and Dashawn Davis came into the game shooting just 26.7% and 25.6% from deep, respectively, but combined to go 4 of 5 against the Razorbacks. Moore made both of his attempts, while Davis missed just one of his three.
“I thought (Shakeel) Moore and Dashawn Davis did an excellent job,” Musselman said. “Those two guys, their shot selection from 3… Tough to overcome when their guards are so efficient from 3.”
Considering they were the sixth-worst 3-point shooting team in the country — and worst among high-major programs — at 27.9%, that kind of performance could be written off as an anomaly, but Anthony Black said the blame rested squarely on Arkansas’ shoulders.
“Doesn’t surprise me because as a team we weren’t playing good defense, myself included,” Black said. “I was out there making mistakes. We were all making mistakes and giving them open threes.
“They weren’t just coming down, dribble-dribble, side step, contested three. They were getting open shots. They were making shots. I think anybody can make an open three. We can’t just give teams open threes.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
The Razorbacks are back on the road next week, heading to College Station, Texas, for a rematch with the second-place team in the SEC, Texas A&M.
In the first meeting between the two teams this year, Arkansas handed the Aggies one of their two conference losses this season, winning 81-70 inside Bud Walton Arena.
Now two weeks later, Texas A&M has won three straight, including a 74-62 win at LSU in which it led by 24 at halftime.
Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. CT Wednesday and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- Saturday’s result has been a rarity under Eric Musselman. It is just the second February loss by the Razorbacks in three seasons, as they were 6-0 in the month two years ago and 7-1 last year, plus they had won their first two games of the month this season.
- As much success as he’s had at Arkansas, Musselman has struggled to beat Mississippi State. He has just a 2-4 record against the Bulldogs.
- Makhi Mitchell started, but picked up his second foul less than two minutes into the game. He eventually fouled out after playing just 11 minutes, finishing with 6 points on 3 of 3 shooting, 4 rebounds and 1 block. Arkansas outscored Mississippi State by five when he was on the floor.
- The Razorbacks were held scoreless over the final 6:04 in the first half and then managed only two points in the first 4:22 after halftime. During that stretch of more than 10 minutes, they were 1 of 7 from the floor and had five turnovers. In the other 29 minutes and 34 seconds, Arkansas scored 62 points — which would have been about 84 points if averaged out across a full 40-minute game.
- After attempting only nine 3-pointer in the Kentucky game, Arkansas shot past that in the first half against Mississippi State, going 2 of 11. It finished just 4 of 18 (22.2%) from deep, which was a byproduct of the Bulldogs’ game plan. “We wanted to protect the paint at all costs,” Mississippi State basketball coach Chris Jans said. “They’re not shooting it great from 3…so we really, really wanted to keep the ball out of the paint as much as possible.”
Arkansas vs Mississippi State Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Mississippi State Box Score
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