After losing just one total game in February the last two seasons, the Arkansas basketball team will limp into March this year.
The Razorbacks ended the month with a dud, getting blown out 75-57 at No. 12 Tennessee on Tuesday. They never led and trailed by as many as 24 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
It capped a 4-4 February for Arkansas, which had been one of the hottest teams in the country leading up to its back-to-back Elite Eight runs, going a combined 13-1 in the critical month.
Unlike the loss to No. 2 Alabama, in which they played a great first half and nearly pulled off an incredible comeback after squandering the lead they built, there really were no positives Tuesday night. Head coach Eric Musselman told reporters that the Volunteers “completely outplayed us” and was clearly upset with his how team played with yet another chance to pick up a signature win.
“I thought Tennessee was much more physical than us,” Musselman said on the UA postgame radio show. “We didn’t play up to the standards that we set the last three years. Disappointing loss for sure.”
The Razorbacks found themselves in foul trouble (again), struggled at the free throw line (again), committed numerous unforced turnovers (again) and got dominated in the paint (again).
Those have been recurring issues for Arkansas — more on them below — and it leaves Musselman’s squad in a precarious position heading into the regular-season finale against No. 23 Kentucky.
All of the metrics point toward the Razorbacks being a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. Even after the ugly loss to Tennessee, they are No. 15 on KenPom and remained at No. 14 in the NET. A loss to Kentucky might not hurt those rankings much either.
However, it would be hard to ignore Arkansas’ 8-10 record in that scenario. In the 10 years since the SEC went to an 18-game conference schedule, only one team — 2017-18 Alabama — reached the NCAA Tournament with a sub-.500 SEC record. The Crimson Tide went 8-10 that year before securing an at-large bid by making a run to the SEC Tournament semifinals.
To avoid needing to hold their breath on Selection Sunday, the Razorbacks must bounce back and complete the season sweep of the Wildcats in front of what will likely be a raucous crowd at Bud Walton Arena on Saturday.
“Well, we didn’t bounce back like we had hoped after playing Alabama,” Musselman said. “We’ll continue to do what we’ve done with all of our teams and go back and prepare. We’ve got to do a better job, obviously, but the only thing I know is to go back to work and continue to try to improve.
“We took a step backwards tonight, there’s no question — both as a team and individually, we took several steps backwards — so we’ll get back and try to prepare for Kentucky.”
Beyond comfortably getting into the field of 68, a win over Kentucky would also give the Razorbacks some good mojo heading into the win-or-go-home portion of the season.
It’s unknown where the team’s head is at after the thorough beatdown in Knoxville — Ricky Council IV opted for a “no comment” when asked about the team’s mindset at the moment — but knocking off a ranked opponent before heading to Nashville would undoubtedly provide a confidence boost.
“I just think that we need to bring positive energy,” Council said. “We’ve got to bring positive energy throughout the board — start with the coaches, all the way down to the players. Got one more game left (in the) regular season then we go into the SEC Tournament, so hopefully win this one and bring momentum.”
Offensive Woes vs. No. 1 Defense
The Razorbacks knew going into the Arkansas vs Tennessee matchup that they’d have to play clean basketball on the offensive end because the Volunteers boast the No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency rating in the country, according to KenPom.
Unfortunately for them, that didn’t happen. They committed 16 turnovers and scored just 57 points on 36.7% (18 of 49) shooting. It was their most turnovers in about a month (17 vs. Texas A&M on Jan. 31) and their worst shooting performance since Jan. 7 at Auburn (33.9%).
“Obviously Tennessee, you look at their numbers, it’s not just against us,” Eric Musselman said. “They are one of the best, if not the best, defensive team in the country. But their physicality certainly hurt us.”
Of course, the Volunteers can’t take complete credit for those numbers because Arkansas definitely had something to do with them.
There were numerous times that Arkansas sailed passes into the seats, threw lazy passes directly to Tennessee or botched lobs.
“I feel like we were just making silly mistakes, not necessarily something that they caused,” Ricky Council IV said. “I know all three of my turnovers were really on me, except for that one Vescovi stole from me. The other two I just jumped in the air and threw it out of bounds. Just silly mistakes from me and throughout the team.”
Dominated in the Paint
In their last game out, the Razorbacks gave up a whopping 52 points in the paint to Alabama — the most they’ve allowed since 2014. Tennessee didn’t quite hit that mark, but it was arguably more dominant inside than the Crimson Tide.
The Volunteers more than doubled up Arkansas in paint points, 42-18. That 24-point margin matched the Razorbacks’ largest deficit in the game. Alabama was just plus-14 in that area, outscoring them 52-38.
The problem was two-fold. First, the Razorbacks consistently settled for jump shots — one of their biggest weaknesses — throughout the game, particularly in the first half. Of the 24 shots they took before halftime, 10 were from beyond the arc and another four were long 2s.
Arkansas ended up knocking down a respectable 8 of 22 (36.4%) from deep, but it was the most 3-pointers it put up in a game since chunking up 25 in the SEC opener at LSU on Dec. 28. It also didn’t go well when the Razorbacks did attack the rim, as they made only 4 of 9 layups, according to the official stat broadcast. Makhi Mitchell even missed a dunk.
“We didn’t go in there, and when we did, we didn’t finish,” Musselman said. “Tennessee is really strong. They’re really physical. It certainly wasn’t the blocked shots. They only had two blocks, and I don’t think they had a block in the first half, so we were not driving in there and getting our shots altered.
“We were going in there and not finishing against verticality. You need to go and attack the rim against a physical team. You need to get in the body, and we did not do that from a physical standpoint.”
While the Razorbacks were having a hard time putting the ball through the hoop on their end of the floor, they also struggled to keep Tennessee from scoring at the rim.
Forced to play a bigger and longer lineup following the early injury to 5-foot-9 point guard Zakai Zeigler, the Volunteers dominated the offensive boards in the first half, grabbing eight out of a possible 21 offensive rebounds. That led to 12 second-chance points — or more than a third of their first-half scoring.
“It’s bothering our guys, the physicality,” Musselman said. “We knew as the season wears on that you are going to have to play physical basketball. It only gets more physical.”
Foul Troubles Flare Up
Something that may have contributed to those defensive struggles is the fact that Arkansas’ problems with defending without fouling flared up once again.
Despite playing only 8 and 7 minutes respectively, Makhel Mitchell and Ricky Council IV each picked up three first-half fouls. Nick Smith Jr. also committed two. Mitchell ended up being the only player who fouled out, but getting in foul trouble altered the way the Razorbacks were able to attack Tennessee’s offense.
That may have contributed to the Volunteers going from scoring 13 points in the first 10 minutes (a 52-point pace) to scoring 62 the rest of the way (an 83-point pace).
“I think like earlier in the year, we got in foul trouble early, including myself,” Council said. “That made us less aggressive on the defensive end and they took full advantage of that. They’re already an aggressive team, getting to the rim, setting screens and different things, so we just got beat tonight.”
Anthony Black Struggles Again
Arguably the most consistent player for Arkansas basketball this season, Anthony Black has turned in back-to-back clunkers.
Against Alabama, the star freshman got into early foul trouble, limiting him to only four first-half minutes, and then he never found his rhythm after halftime. By the time he fouled out, he had just 7 points on 2 of 7 shooting, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 turnovers. He posted the worst plus-minute on the team at minus-7.
Black managed to stay on the court Tuesday night, but turned in an uncharacteristic performance in terms of ball handling. He matched his season high with six turnovers, all of which occurred within the game’s first 22 minutes.
On top of that, he had only one assist, which is tied for the fewest he’s had in SEC play (also had one against Alabama on Jan. 11). He did score 13 points on an efficient 6-of-9 shooting and grab 5 rebounds, but that did little to hide all of his turnovers — many of which were unforced.
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
The Razorbacks will wrap up their brutal three-game stretch with their much anticipated regular-season finale against No. 23 Kentucky.
Arkansas will get the advantage of an extra day to prepare for the matchup because the Wildcats still have to play Vanderbilt at 6 p.m. CT Wednesday. That game, which will be played at Rupp Arena, will be televised on the SEC Network.
Tipoff between the Razorbacks and Wildcats, meanwhile, is scheduled for 1 p.m. CT Saturday at Bud Walton Arena and the game will be televised on CBS.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- As if all of their other issues weren’t enough, Arkansas also shot only 59.1% (13 of 22) from the free throw line. That was also a major issue against Alabama, when it missed eight second-half free throws in a game it lost by three. The Razorbacks are now shooting just 69.2% from the stripe, easily their worst mark under Eric Musselman. “Certainly, you want to shoot as a team over 72 percent, 73 percent at the minimum, and we have not lived up to that,” Musselman said. “It’s our coaching staff’s responsibility to make them better foul shooters, so the only thing we can do is continue to get in the gym and work on our free throw shooting.”
- Tennessee was forced to play nearly the entire game without starting point guard Zakai Zeigler, as he went down with a non-contact injury with 17:06 remaining in the first half. It appeared to be a left knee injury, as he didn’t put any weight on the leg as he was helped off the court.
- After missing the last couple of games with a broken toe, Kamani Johnson was available to play in Tuesday’s Arkansas vs Tennessee matchup and got 12 minutes of playing time. He failed to score, missing his two free throw attempts, but did grab 3 rebounds and commit 2 fouls.
Arkansas vs Tennessee Highlights
Arkansas vs Tennessee Postgame Interviews
Arkansas vs Tennessee Box Score
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