Arkansas basketball has hit a somewhat familiar slump a bit earlier than usual.
The Razorbacks have lost three of their last four games, leaving them at 4-3 on the season. While each of Eric Musselman’s teams at Arkansas has experienced an early- to mid-season losing streak of some sort, this is the worst seven-game start the Razorbacks have had since 2015-16, when they started 3-4.
“I want to get a lot better than we are,” a frustrated Musselman told reporters Monday. “When that happens, how that happens, we’re still trying to work through all that.”
After letting a halftime lead slip away against North Carolina in the third-place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Razorbacks will welcome another blue blood program from the Tarheel State to Bud Walton Arena, hosting Duke as part of the new ACC/SEC Challenge.
There’s a lot of 21st century firsts in this one. This is the first time Duke has played on the road vs an SEC program since the Blue Devils took on Shaquille O’Neal and the LSU Tigers in 1992. Plus, this the first time Arkansas has played North Carolina and Duke in the same season since 1990 when it played the two schools nine days apart in the NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks split those contests, beating UNC in the Sweet 16 and losing to Duke in the Final Four.
Fortunately for Arkansas, its upcoming matchup against Duke will take place in front of a raucous home-crowd environment regardless of their recent struggles, as can be seen in the price of tickets for the marquee matchup. The game is set to tip-off at 8:15 p.m. CT Wednesday and will be televised on ESPN.
Previewing Duke Basketball
The Blue Devils come into this matchup at 5-1 with their lone loss coming to Arizona within the first week of the season. Their only impressive win to date has been against Michigan State, when they won 74-65 in a neutral site game.
This shouldn’t take anything away from Duke’s talent, though. It ranks in the top 10 in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom’s metrics, while averaging 84 points on 50% – 35% – 73% shooting splits from the field, 3-point line and free throw line, respectively.
Duke is led by preseason All-American Kyle Filipowski. The sophomore forward is off to a hot start this season, averaging 18.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.2 steals – all while shooting 56% from the floor, including 33% from beyond the arc.
Despite their defensive struggles this season, the Hogs have actually done an excellent job at not allowing opposing post players to get comfortable and hurt them in the paint. In the Bahamas last week, they held all three starting centers on opposing teams to well below their season averages.
Maxime Raynaud from Stanford was held to single digit scoring for the first and only time this season. Memphis’ Jordan Brown – a former Musselman recruit at Nevada – scored five points with no rebounds after averaging 8.8 PPG and 5.3 RPG coming into the contest. Even North Carolina’s Armando Bacot, another preseason All-American, had an off night against Arkansas with only nine points and four rebounds on 33% from the field. There were all season lows.
Bacot was also the No. 2 player on CBS Sports’ top 100 college basketball players coming into this season. Zach Edey, against whom the Hogs played well in their final preseason exhibition win over Purdue, was ranked No. 1. Arkansas now has a chance to complete the trifecta and shut down the No. 3 player on this list, Duke’s Filipowski.
“(Edey and Filipowski) are both elite rebounders,” Trevon Brazile said when asked about the similarities between the two star big men. “You’ve got to keep them both off the glass. That’ll be a tough task for the bigs and the guards, but probably rebounding is the most similar thing.”
Of course, simply bothering opposing bigs has not been a recipe for consistent success so far for the Hogs, but limiting Filipowski would be a great step in the right direction to winning this game. Duke also has its fair share of perimeter threats who are more likely to hurt the Hogs given recent trends.
Tyrese Proctor (6-5, So.) and Jeremy Roach (6-1, Sr.) are both averaging at least 11.5 points and 2.3 assists per game from the guard position. In the 2022 Arkansas vs Duke Elite Eight matchup, Roach had nine points and five turnovers in the Blue Devils’ 78-69 win and will counted on as an experienced hand this time around. Proctor, meanwhile, has been efficient as a facilitator, tallying 5.7 assists to only 1.2 turnovers per game. Arkansas will need elite ball pressure from their defensive-minded wings to slow these two down.
Mark Mitchell (6-8, So.) is yet another Blue Devil averaging double digit scoring with 12.0 points per game. He could quickly provide a mismatch problem for the Hogs with his 220-pound frame. Brazile will likely draw this matchup early in the game, but don’t be surprised if Musselman deploys Tramon Mark – if healthy – or a bigger body like Jeremiah Davenport or Chandler Lawson to handle the scoring forward.
North Carolina found great success in the second half of their win over Arkansas when they started posting up Harrison Ingram against smaller defenders like Davenport. He scored, drew fouls and found open teammates after drawing double teams for seemingly 10 straight possessions to help UNC build its lead. The Hogs have to find a way to match up with these types of players, both to stand a chance against Duke and in general for the rest of their season.
What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball
Despite dropping their second straight game and third in their last four contests, the Hogs actually showed some positives in their recent game against North Carolina.
Tramon Mark specifically was a man possessed for basically the entire game, pouring in a career high 34 points on 77% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of 6 (67%) from long range.
He took a nasty fall late in the game that eventually required him to be carried off the court on stretcher. Later that night, it was announced that he was released from a local hospital and allowed to travel back home with the team. He also shared this encouraging update on Twitter (X).
There hasn’t been much of an update on Mark’s availability heading into Wednesday’s matchup, but Musselman noted that a spine specialist was in the building to see the veteran forward on Monday after he left the Bahamas in a wheelchair. No specific news or injuries being reported yet could be interpreted as a good sign – perhaps there were no major issues to be found. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Mark sees significant minutes, if he plays at all, against Duke only five days after being stretchered off the court with a back injury.
While Mark’s career night pre-injury was fun to watch from a fan’s perspective, it was still a bit concerning that the Arkansas offense was so heavily reliant on a scorching hot shooting performance. The Razorbacks have not been able to generate assists or consistent offense since their first win over Alcorn State, when they recorded 21 assists on 28 made field goals. Since then, Arkansas is averaging 8.7 assists and 10.8 turnovers per game.
Musselman noted this shortcoming in his Arkansas vs Duke press conference: “We need way more assists. The ball’s got to move way better than it has.”
In the latter part of the first half against North Carolina, the Hogs found life and energy from some rather unexpected players. Baye Fall had a monster block to spark a mini-run. Davenport knocked down a pair of jumpers in quick succession to help cut into UNC’s lead.
Perhaps most impactful, though, was Layden Blocker. His gritty performances are becoming less surprising and more expected at this point in the season. After making game-changing plays in the win over Stanford, Blocker earned his way into the starting lineup for the final two games in the Bahamas. He averaged 10.0 points, 2.5 rebounds (all offensive) and 1.5 steals while shooting 55% from the field in those two starts. Musselman noted that while Blocker’s aggression on the offensive glass can have great impact, it can also hurt their already poor transition defense.
“Layden is a very competitive player, but his crashing the offensive glass has affected our transition defense,” Musselman said. “Layden can’t go to the offensive glass and give up transition points to RJ Davis (UNC point guard). So, is Layden playing hard? He’s playing as hard as any player can possibly play. Great effort, great energy, great toughness. But there’s some areas he’s got to evaluate, look at on film.”
El Ellis – the guard transfer from Louisville – has seemingly lost some confidence on the offensive side of the ball. He was brought in to be a scoring punch and facilitator, but he went scoreless in roughly 12 minutes per game in the B4A tournament. He also recorded three total assists with three turnovers in his limited minutes.
While Blocker seems to be vital to Arkansas basketball’s success due to his high energy and game-changing plays, Ellis is still an important piece of this roster. Even if he starts splitting the sixth-man role with Blocker, his ability to score and get out in transition are needed additions to this team struggling to find its identity.
What to Watch in Arkansas vs Duke
Perhaps the two most impressive stats on Duke’s resume to this point have been its ability to take care of the ball and defend without fouling. So far on the season, the Blue Devils are averaging only 8.7 turnovers per game – by comparison, Arkansas is averaging 11.3, including 12.7 in the Bahamas.
It’s worth noting, however, that Duke turned the ball over 24 times combined in its matchups against Arizona and Michigan State – the only high-level competition it has faced so far this year. The Blue Devils committed fewer than 10 turnovers in each of their other four games.
While Arkansas is not the defensive powerhouse they’ve become accustomed to over the past few seasons under Musselman, it seemed to figure some things out against North Carolina during the first half. The Tar Heels were able to slow the game down and take advantage of mismatches later in the game, but if the Razorbacks can speed up Duke and force them to make mistakes, they have a good chance of going on extended scoring runs – something they’ve been desperately lacking this season.
Speaking of scoring runs, not only are the Blue Devils holding opponents to 40% from the field and 31% from long range, they’re only allowing 14.2 free throw attempts per game on 15.5 team fouls per game. Arkansas, on the other hand, is averaging nearly 29 free throws per game, ranking seventh in the country.
While Duke holds the blue-blood status, Arkansas holds home court advantage in this contest. This doesn’t automatically mean they’ll get favorable calls, but it never hurts to have a rowdy crowd giving the referees a piece of their mind.
It’s also worth noting that this is Duke’s first true road game of the season. Their only neutral site game so far was their win over Michigan State. Taking care of the ball and limiting foul trouble are two things virtually every team struggles with more on the road than at home. The Hogs will need to take full advantage of these two areas of the game to give themselves a chance against the Blue Devils.
The Razorbacks will come out energized to be back in front of their home fans after dropping each of their last two games against ranked opponents in the Bahamas. The shooting as a whole will pick up slightly from the 40% effort we saw in all three Battle 4 Atlantis games.
Arkansas will show great improvement in its defensive pressure in terms of forcing turnovers and bothering ball handlers, though it will likely still struggle to close out efficiently to the multiple scoring weapons Duke has, and don’t be surprised to see more timely offensive rebounds – an area Arkansas is still desperately trying to improve in.
The home court advantage provided by Bud Walton Arena will fuel the Hogs to a much-improved performance compared to their last few games, but it won’t be quite enough – especially with Mark being limited at best – as the Razorbacks fall to Duke for their third straight loss, leaving them at 4-4 on the season. Fortunately, the schedule balances out for a few games, so the Hogs may right the ship before SEC play.
Duke wins, 82-77.
How to Watch Arkansas vs Duke
Date: Wednesday, Nov. 29
Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Tipoff Time/TV: 8:15 p.m. CT (ESPN)
ESPN BPI: Duke has a 52.3% chance of winning, favored by 0.6 points.
Watch Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman’s press conference ahead of Arkansas vs Duke:
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