FAYETTEVILLE — It is still very early, and the Arkansas basketball team is about to see an uptick in competition at the Maui Invitational, but the three games already played gives us an idea of what Eric Musselman has in store with fourth team.
The Razorbacks are 3-0 and haven’t had much trouble in those games, winning them by an average margin of 19.7 points.
Defense has been a strong suit for Arkansas so far and it got Best of Arkansas Sports thinking about how it might compare to the three previous teams coached by Musselman through the first three games of the season.
After diving into the numbers, and considering the fact that the Razorbacks’ best player has yet to get on the court, it’s easy to get excited about the potential of this year’s team moving forward. It very well could be the best team of the Eric Musselman era, which is saying a lot because his last two reached the Elite Eight.
(NOTE: For the purpose of this project, we excluded the 2020-21 season opener against Mississippi Valley State. Most early-season opponents are on the “cupcake” side, but MVSU was essentially a glorified scrimmage when the pandemic eliminated actual scrimmages. The Delta Devils not only finished dead last in KenPom’s ratings that year, but were the worst team in college basketball in eight years. As you’d expect, the Razorbacks blew them out 142-62, so including that game would severely skew the statistics.)
Level of Competition
|Game||2019-20 (KP)||2020-21 (KP)||2021-22 (KP)||2022-23 (KP)|
|Game 1||Rice (199)||North Texas (72)||Mercer (196)||North Dakota State (232)|
|Game 2||North Texas (77)||UT-Arlington (253)||Gardner-Webb (167)||Fordham (209)|
|Game 3||Montana (137)||Lipscomb (238)||Northern Iowa (91)||South Dakota State (115)|
Before diving into the statistics, it’s important to acknowledge the level of competition. As things currently stand, the first three games of this season are – generally speaking – comparable to Musselman’s first three seasons at the helm. We won’t truly know how the three-game stretch compares until more games are played and KenPom’s ratings adjust based on how the season unfolds, but it’s at least in the range so far.
Arkansas Basketball Scoring
The Razorbacks are scoring at a very similar rate as Musselman’s first two teams. Obviously last year’s team seems to be the anomaly, but it makes sense considering the return of three significant contributors from the previous season (J.D. Notae, Jaylin Williams and Davonte Davis), making it arguably Musselman’s most experienced team – especially when you throw in the additions of transfers like Stanley Umude and Au’Diese Toney.
Of course, even that group came crashing down to Earth when it comes to 3-point shooting. By the end of last season, Arkansas was shooting just 30.4% from beyond the arc. Each of the first two teams under Musselman saw their 3-point percentages increase by the end of the year.
Another cause for hope in this area is that Nick Smith Jr. has yet to play one second for the Razorbacks. He is widely expected to be their biggest offensive weapon and Musselman has even admitted to needing to adjust their plans on the fly without him available. When/if he gets healthy and returns to the court, it’s not too big of a stretch to think Arkansas will make massive strides offensively.
Smith will likely be the Razorbacks’ best 3-point shooter, so his presence might boost that percentage, but it’s still worth pointing out that this year’s team seems to recognize its lack of shooting, as evidenced by its small number of attempts. They’ve made it a point through three games to attack the basket and score in the paint.
Perhaps the biggest concern is the free throw shooting. Musselman’s teams typically get better as the season progresses, but this year’s squad has a much lower starting point. It’s not too much of a surprise, though, considering the five transfer additions had shot a combined 58.4% from the charity stripe in their careers. However, two of those guys – Ricky Council IV and Trevon Brazile – are a combined 17 of 23 (73.9%) this year.
Once again, this year’s numbers are very similar to Musselman’s first two teams, with last year being the outlier. As mentioned earlier, that is likely because of the continuity of that team compared to the others.
It’s also worth reiterating that Smith – a projected primary ball handler – is not playing, and the main point guard is a true freshman. Granted, Anthony Black is incredibly talented and a projected first-round pick, but he’s still a freshman and has made 2 or 3 freshman-like mistakes in each game. As he settles in and the team continues to gel, all of those numbers should improve.
The Razorbacks have already seen that some in their most recent game. Musselman praised his team for making 231 passes against South Dakota State, which is more than their goal of 200 and well over the 150-170 they had been making in previous games. That should eventually translate to more assists and fewer turnovers.
It’s fun to look back at the 2019-20 team and remember just how much of a struggle it was to rebound when its starting center was 6-foot-6. However, especially early in the season, the Razorbacks still attacked the offensive glass. They just had a tough time keeping their opponents from doing the same.
Since then, the Razorbacks have been pretty steady when it comes to rebounding, especially through the first three games of the season. They’ve been especially good when it comes to limiting opponents to second-chance opportunities, posting the best single-season defensive rebounding percentage in school history (since 1986-87) in back-to-back years, according to HogStats. Arkansas is tracking nicely to do it again and, with as much size and length as it has, should be able to maintain it throughout the season — and maybe even pick it up a little on the offensive boards.
Defense has been a calling card of Musselman-coached teams and that’s reflected in the numbers above. It did take last year’s team a little bit to get fully locked in defensively, but once it did, it was phenomenal on that end of the court.
This year’s team has gotten back to another trait of Musselman teams: limiting teams from beyond the arc, in terms of both sheer attempts and shooting percentage.
One thing that jumps out is that opponents have gotten to the free throw line more through three games than the previous three years. That could be another side effect of the youth on this team. For example, freshman Jordan Walsh struggled with foul trouble in each of the first two games, even fouling out of the opener. As they get acclimated, expect that number to drop. (It also doesn’t help that the opponents have been pretty good from the free throw line, either. There’s nothing you can do about that, other than not let them get there in the first place.)
Arkansas Basketball Defense
At first glance, it might be surprising to see that this year’s team – despite all of its size, length and proven track record at other schools – is blocking fewer shots than the last two seasons. However, it’s important to remember that Connor Vanover was still getting significant minutes early on those years and he accounted for a good chunk of those blocks, especially in 2020-21. Without him, those numbers drop to 2.3 and 3.0. The 4.0 blocks per game by this year’s team should be much most sustainable, and may tick upward as younger defenders like Brazile and Walsh develop their timing.
Where this team has shown to be drastically different than the last two teams that ultimately made it to the Elite Eight is when it comes to steals and forcing turnovers. They have absolutely harassed the first three teams they’ve faced so far, which is something the last two teams eventually did, but not this early in the season.
The numbers are similar to those of Musselman’s first team, but much like their proficiency on the offensive glass, forcing turnovers was out of necessity because of their lack of size. This year’s team does it because it’s capable of doing it with its incredible length and athleticism – which should be a scary thought if you have Arkansas basketball on your schedule this year.
Another scary thought is what Nick Smith Jr. might bring to the defensive end of the floor, as well. He’s certainly a gifted scorer and will make an immediate impact on offense when he returns, but he’s also very quick and a tenacious defender. There shouldn’t be a drop-off defensively with him and it’s not inconceivable to think the defense might even get better.
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