FAYETTEVILLE — Davonte Davis returned to the court with a performance Saturday night that epitomized his four-year career with Arkansas basketball.
In his first game back since “stepping away from the program” a couple of weeks earlier, the senior guard immediately asserted himself into the rotation and helped the Razorbacks beat Georgia 78-75 inside Bud Walton Arena.
He may not have had the sexiest of stat lines, but Davis certainly played a key role in Arkansas handing the Bulldogs their fifth straight loss and avenging a 10-point loss in Athens last month. In 35 minutes off the bench, he finished with 4 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.
“It was good having Devo back,” teammate Tramon Mark said. “Especially because he’s a key on the defensive end. On the offensive end, we looked fundamentally sound tonight. It was good for us.”
Those who had the preconceived opinion that Davis’ presence actually hurts the team and believed the Razorbacks were better off without him, though, probably disagree with Mark’s statement. They’ll likely point to the final minute of the game as evidence.
That’s fair, to an extent. After all, he committed a bad turnover with 33 seconds left, made only 1 of 2 free throws with a chance to make it a two-possession game with 23 seconds left and fouled a 3-point shooter with 3 seconds left in a five-point game.
However, also in the final minute, Davis threw a dime to Makhi Mitchell for an easy go-ahead bucket, hustled back on defense after his turnover to contest what would have otherwise been a wide-open go-ahead 3-pointer by Georgia and then secured the ensuing rebound.
It’s also fair to mention that was his only turnover of the game and he did several other things that don’t necessarily show up in the box score, such as playing exceptional defense, diving for loose balls and giving his team positional flexibility.
Davis played within the offense and didn’t force anything, making the only shot he took when he drilled a 3 midway through the first half. It was just the fourth time he’s had one or fewer field goal attempts in 86 games in which he played at least 25 minutes.
Perhaps the stat that best illustrates how well he played is the plus-minus, in which he was plus-8 — tied with Keyon Menifield Jr. for the best mark in the game.
“He played really hard,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “He had some big loose balls and, like I said, he’s a guy that understands all four positions on the floor so we’re able to play him at the 4 tonight and our offense, our sets we could still get into them.”
Despite some absurd rumors surrounding his three-game absence and accusations of quitting from a segment of the fan base, Davis was greeted by a resounding ovation that drowned out any boos when he checked into the game for the first time — as Musselman predicted a day earlier.
The fifth-year coach’s biggest question was about Davis’ conditioning. Although there was one point when he actually asked to come out for a breather, something Musselman said he never happened before in his career, Davis managed to play all but 5 minutes and 26 seconds Saturday night.
His teammates also seemed to accept him back with open arms, which should dispel any narratives of him “quitting” the team — not to mention Musselman said the day before that he always expected Davis to return and no one on the team has accused him of being a quitter.
“He’s always been that vocal leader for us, especially out there on the floor,” teammate El Ellis said. “He’s played in this league for a long time. Whenever he says he has something to say, I listen to him, we listen to him and that’s what he did tonight. Really got us in spots and held us together all night.”
Barring an incredible stretch run, it’s probably too late for Davis to help Arkansas make it back to the NCAA Tournament. With at least nine games left, though, he could sway public opinion back in his favor. Saturday was a solid start to that, even though he didn’t make all of the clutch-time plays fans became accustomed to his first three years.
From DNP to 37 Minutes
Following a disastrous five-turnover game against Kentucky, El Ellis was sent to the bench and didn’t get up until Saturday.
He didn’t play at all against Missouri or LSU, presumably because of a coach’s decision, but was back in the starting lineup against Georgia.
“I thought his practice habits were really good,” Musselman said. “With no midweek game, we had a lot of time to adjust a lot of different things. I thought he was extremely focused, so he got the start tonight.”
Not only did he start, but Ellis played 37 minutes and turned in arguably his best overall performance of the season. He scored 15 points on efficient shooting (6 of 11 from the floor, 3 of 6 from deep) and had 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and only 1 turnover.
The three steals were particularly impressive because they were his first since the Furman game on Dec. 4. In fact, he had only four total steals combing into the day. Those steals and his five rebounds were both one off from his previous career highs.
Even though he had completely fallen out of the rotation and the season hasn’t gone anywhere close to what he probably hoped when he transferred in from Louisville, Ellis never got too discouraged and found his way back onto the court.
“I would say I really just love to hoop,” Ellis said. “Regardless of the circumstances, I’m going to be ready to play. I’ve got some really good teammates around that keep me uplifted. Keep me ready. We’ve got some really good GAs and coaching staff that keep me staying in the gym.”
New Look for Arkansas Basketball
Eric Musselman promised to have some new wrinkles that Georgia hadn’t seen this year and one of them was a new-look rotation that utilized virtually every point guard on the roster at the same time.
The four-man combination of Keyon Menifield Jr., El Ellis, Davonte Davis and Tramon Mark had never been used before, but ended up playing 26 minutes and 25 seconds against the Bulldogs. Despite that creating a small lineup, it was highly effective for Arkansas, which was plus-13 when them on the floor together.
It wasn’t until the 9:18 mark of the first half that the quartet made its first appearance, which just so happened to be the start of a 15-1 run that gave the Razorbacks a solid lead at halftime.
They doubled that lead in the first seven or so minutes after halftime with that group, too.
“I thought the ball really, really moved,” Musselman said. “I think Michael (Musselman) said we had like 119 passes in the first half. So the ball was moving and the ball had energy. Tonight, we created more steals than we have.”
Playing those four together played right into Musselman’s strategy of going small against Georgia, whose 4 men were primarily Jabri Abdur-Rahim (6-foot-8) and RJ Melendez (6-foot-7). He was content with the Bulldogs feeing the post because that meant they weren’t shooting 3.
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, this was mostly matchup based and likely won’t be used much, if at all, in future games.
“I don’t think that there’s probably going to be an SEC team that El Ellis can guard their 4-man for 20 minutes,” Musselman said. “I just don’t see that as I look at our upcoming schedule, but tonight it allowed us to do that.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
Another ranked opponent will visit Bud Walton Arena on Wednesday, as the Razorbacks are set to host No. 6 Tennessee at 8 p.m. CT.
The Volunteers will likely drop in the AP Poll, though, after getting blown out 85-69 at Texas A&M on Saturday. That dropped them to 17-6 overall and 7-3 in the SEC, which is good for fourth in the league. Even with the loss, Tennessee is still No. 7 on KenPom, which gives Arkansas just a 15% chance to pull off the upset.
Dalton Knecht, a transfer from Northern Colorado, is one of the best scorers in the country for the Volunteers. He’s averaging 20.3 points this season and has been even better in SEC play, putting up 26.4 points per game while shooting 44.1% from deep.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- The Razorbacks used their 13th different starting lineup in the Arkansas vs Georgia rematch, going with El Ellis, Layden Blocker, Tramon Mark, Jeremiah Davenport and Chandler Lawson. That’s their most in one season in the 11 years worth of data on KenPom, surpassing the 2016-17 team that used 12.
- Early in the second half, Arkansas actually stretched its lead to 12 points a few times, with the last coming on a Jalen Graham free throw with 16:01 remaining. However, that lead was completely erased in about 12 minutes, with a Justin Hill 3-pointer with 3:57 left giving Georgia the lead. That was the first of six lead changes over a 2-minute, 15-second span before Arkansas went up for good on an Ellis 3-pointer.
- Makhi Mitchell reached double figures for the fourth straight game, finishing with 14 points on 4 of 6 shooting and 6 of 8 free throws, plus added 5 rebounds, 1 assist and 3 blocks. It’s the first time in his career that he’s scored 10-plus points in four straight games. Over that span, he’s averaged 13.8 points on 60.7% shooting, 8.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.8 blocks in 30 minutes.
- Georgia missed its first 11 attempts from beyond the arc and finished just 4 of 18 (22.2%) despite shooting 36.2% from deep over its first 10 SEC games. That’s the Bulldogs’ lowest percentage of the season. “we added a bunch of drills that were new,” Musselman said about his team’s 3-point defense. “Obviously what we’ve done the last four years, those drills haven’t really worked. … I don’t have the whole year’s stats, but that’s as good as we’ve done against a quality team guarding the 3, without a question.”
- The trio of Jabri Abdur-Rahim (13.2 ppg), Noah Thomasson (12.3 ppg) and RJ Melendez (10.7 ppg) came into the game as the Bulldogs’ three leading scorers, but was limited to a combined 10 points on 5 of 18 shooting, including 0 of 9 from deep, in 70 total minutes.
- Arkansas basketball legend and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Sidney Moncrief was in the building Saturday. He was shown on the video board before the game.
- Another notable attendee was 2024 signee Jalen Shelley, who received a nice ovation when he was shown on the video board during the under-8 media timeout in the first half.
Arkansas vs Georgia Highlights
Arkansas vs Georgia Box Score
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