FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas put forth arguably its best effort of SEC play Saturday night, but it still wasn’t enough to avoid yet another loss.
Feeding off a raucous crowd, the Razorbacks built an early 10-point lead only to see it nearly erased by halftime and ultimately come up short 63-57 against No. 6 Kentucky at Bud Walton Arena.
The loss drops Arkansas to 10-10 overall and an abysmal 1-6 in conference play. It’s only the second time head coach Eric Musselman has been .500 in nine years as a collegiate head coach, with the other coming in 2016-17 at Nevada (when the Wolf Pack started 1-1).
It’s also just the second time the Razorbacks have won only one of their first seven SEC games. They started 1-12 en route to a 2-14 conference record in 2008-09, which was John Pelphrey’s second season at the helm.
Those historic marks are likely why Musselman wasn’t about to take a moral victory, even if it was a much better showing than the 20.6-point average margin of defeat in their first five SEC losses.
“In our sport, it’s you win or you lose,” Musselman said. “We lost. I’m not happy. I am proud of the effort, I will say that, but I’m a competitor. I walked into the building not trying to be close. I walked in here confident that we were going to win the game and we didn’t win the game.”
Kentucky didn’t take the lead until Reed Sheppard jumped in front of an El Ellis pass and took it down the floor for a fast break dunk with 12:54 remaining. That was the first of five lead changes over a 2.5-minute span, but the Wildcats regained the lead for good at the 10:21 mark.
Arkansas managed to hang around until Kentucky put it away with an 8-0 run that was bookended by 3s from Antonio Reeves and Sheppard.
“As a coach, as a leader of the program, effort, enthusiasm, energy, connectivity — our roster is what it is right now, so all those things are what you want,” Musselman said. “Look, I know people are walking out of the building and we don’t have a good SEC record, but if you walk out of the building and didn’t think we played hard, then you’re wrong. Because we did play hard.”
Wasted Opportunities Early
After digging themselves large early holes and never leading in their last two games, the Razorbacks flipped the script Saturday and jumped out to a big lead in the first half against Kentucky.
They actually led by 10 on three separate occasions, totaling 1 minute and 35 seconds of game time, but that dwindled to one before Arkansas took a 26-24 lead into the locker room.
Despite the lead shrinking, Musselman described his team’s first-half performance as “flawless” in terms of execution on both sides of the ball.
That’s a curious choice of words because it felt like the Razorbacks left a lot of points on the floor and should have held a much larger lead at the break considering how well they played defensively and how poorly Kentucky shot the ball. In fact, it’s possible to ballpark estimate how much they left out there.
In the opening portion of the game, Arkansas struggled with taking care of the ball, committing five turnovers in the first 8 minutes and 10 seconds. During that stretch, the Razorbacks were actually scoring at a decent clip, shooting 40% from the floor. Had they simply got “shots on goal” as Musselman likes to say, borrowing a term from hockey and soccer, and maintained that shooting percentage, they would have scored another four points.
Later in the half, the Razorbacks took better care of the ball, but went ice cold from the floor. After starting the game 8 of 19 (42.1%), they went just 1 of 12 over the final 7-plus minutes of the half, including five misses at the basket and four 3-pointers.
Had Arkansas just shot close to its SEC average of 36.4% from the floor and 26.9% from beyond the arc, which still aren’t great, it would have been 4 of 12 and 1 of 4, resulting in another seven points.
Then there’s the struggles at the free throw line. In the final five minutes of the half, Makhi Mitchell missed the front end of a 1 and 1 and both Tramon Mark and Jeremiah Davenport went 1 of 2 at the stripe. Had Mitchell (a 75% free throw shooter) just made the front end and missed the second attempt and either Mark (79.6%) or Davenport (73.9%) made both of their attempts, Arkansas would have had another two points.
Add all of that up and its 13 points, conservatively, that Arkansas failed to capitalize on — which would have turned the 2-point halftime lead into a 15-point lead.
However, when asked a follow-up question about his “flawless” comment, Musselman indicated he was essentially grading on a curve because he knows his team struggles offensively.
“All year long, finishing at the rim has been a problem,” Musselman said. “When you get to this point of the season, if a team or a player struggles at the rim, it’s probably going to be the same at Missouri. And then you just have to figure out your shortcomings. Figure out what you do well, and then try to guide in those directions.”
Point Guard Issues
Eric Musselman never mentioned specific names, but he did call out the play of his point guards multiple times in Saturday’s postgame press conference.
He was likely referring to El Ellis, in particular, as he started at the position and played 32 minutes. He also struggled mightily, not only going just 3 of 10 from the floor, but also committing a season-high five turnovers.
When Ellis wasn’t handling the ball, those duties typically fell to Tramon Mark, but Musselman admitted that it probably wasn’t his best role, as he’s more of a scoring guard. He had three turnovers to go along with his 11 points on 5 of 17 shooting.
As a team, the Razorbacks committed 13 turnovers that led to 12 points for Kentucky — with 11 of those points coming in the second half. The turnovers came in bunches, as well.
After the early flurry of five in the first 8-plus minutes, the Razorbacks went nearly 19 minutes in which they committed only one. Then they had another five over a five-minute stretch in which Kentucky took the lead, including the aforementioned bad pass by Ellis that resulted in the go-ahead dunk.
The D.J. Wagner dunk and Reed Sheppard 3 that finally put the game away for the Wildcats in the final 2.5 minutes were also the result of turnovers.
When asked about potential solutions at the point guard spot, Musselman said that was a good question.
“We’ll just keep searching,” Musselman said. “As the leader of the program, my job is to continue to tinker. I don’t have an answer right now on that or I would tell you.”
Aside from Ellis, the only other true point guard on the roster is Keyon Menifield Jr., who didn’t play at all because of a coach’s decision. Once viewed as the key to salvaging the season when he initially got cleared midseason, his playing time has fallen off dramatically. Even before Saturday, Menifield had played 3 or fewer minutes in two of the previous four games.
Another option would be freshman Layden Blocker. He played a combined 35 minutes over the previous two games and notched four assists with no turnovers — albeit while shooting 0 of 7 — but played only five minutes against Kentucky. He was just 1 of 3 from the floor and committed three fouls, but Arkansas was plus-7 in his minutes.
Perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from the Kentucky loss was how well the Razorbacks played defensively. They have not been nearly as strong on that end of the floor as the last few seasons, but took strides in that area Saturday.
Arkansas’ defense was particularly good early on, granted it also helped that the Wildcats missed some decent looks. Still, they started only 1 of 16 from the floor and were 3 of 21 when the under-8 media timeout rolled around.
Through 13 minutes, Kentucky had just 8 points — about a 25-point pace — and was averaging just 0.364 points per possession. It was a stunning start considering the Wildcats entered the day with the top scoring offense in the country at 89.9 points per game and were 10th nationally in field goal percentage at 49.8%.
However, immediately after that media timeout, Kentucky got back-to-back easy buckets and ended up going 6 of 10 and scoring 16 points over the final seven minutes of the half — about a 91-point pace and 1.231 points per possession.
Even though the Wildcats got hot down the stretch, they still scored only 63 points. That was their second-lowest total of the season, ahead of only the 62 they scored earlier in the week at South Carolina.
“I didn’t think we had guys just going off and doing whatever they wanted defensively,” Musselman said. “I thought we were extremely disciplined. … I’m going to assume it’s our best defensive game of the year.”
Devo Steps Away
It appears that the Arkansas basketball career of Davonte Davis is over.
After being limited to only 8 minutes and not playing at all in the second half against Ole Miss earlier in the week, the senior guard was not spotted at Bud Walton Arena during pregame warmups before the Kentucky game.
About 15 minutes before tipoff, the UA sent out a press release that stated he had “stepped away from the program.” Eric Musselman declined to elaborate any further after the game, referring back to the statement when asked if Davis could potentially rejoin the team like he did last season when he missed one game for personal reasons.
“I’m just going to stick with (the press release),” Musselman said when pressed for more details. “I appreciate the job you’ve got, and that’s what it is.”
Although he was a vital piece to the Razorbacks’ three straight runs to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, including two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16, Davis has mostly had an up-and-down year.
One of two Arkansas players who started 18 of the first 19 games, he was averaging just 6.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 0.5 steals in 29.0 minutes this season. Each of those figures, aside from his minutes, are career lows.
Despite this year’s struggles, Davis still had some huge moments during his career. He made the game-winning shot to beat Oral Roberts and send the Razorbacks to the Elite Eight his freshman year. Last year, he had a huge 25-point effort that led to an upset of No. 1 seed Kansas. That sent Arkansas to the Sweet 16 and led to a memorable, tearful postgame interview.
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
The Razorbacks hit the road for their next matchup, traveling to Columbia, Mo., for a battle between two of the worst teams in the SEC.
Missouri is 0-7 in conference play (8-12 overall) after losing to South Carolina on Saturday. The only other team winless in the SEC is Vanderbilt, which is 0-6.
Tipoff against the Tigers is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. CT Wednesday and the game will be televised on the SEC Network.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- Another positive from the loss was the play of Arkansas’ big men. After drawing the ire of Eric Musselman for combining to grab zero defensive rebounds against Ole Miss, the trio of Makhi Mitchell, Chander Lawson and Jalen Graham combined for 25 points, 22 rebounds, 3 assists, 7 blocks and 2 steals in 75 minutes.
- Mitchell, in particular, turned in his best game of the season. He notched a double-double with 12 points and a season-high 13 rebounds, plus matched his season high with four blocks.
- The play of those big men, plus the rebounding effort by guards Tramon Mark (8) and Khalif Battle (5), helped Arkansas win the battle on the boards 44-39. The Razorbacks came into the game averaging minus-11.8 rebounding in SEC play, compared to Kentucky’s plus-0.5 average.
- Speaking of Mark, he returned to action after missing the Ole Miss game because of migraines. Musselman said he was able to practice the last few days, but he still appeared a little rusty, leading to his poor shooting performance (5 of 17).
- The Wildcats came into the game as one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, but made only two of their first 10 attempts, including a stretch of seven straight misses in the first half. However, they caught fire in the second half and made seven of their last 10 attempts.
- Antonio Reeves led the way for Kentucky, scoring 24 points on 9 of 20 shooting, including 4 of 8 from deep. He dropped 37 points on the Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena last year, meaning he’s averaging 30.5 points in the building.
- Legendary Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson was in the house and received a nice ovation from the crowd when showed on the video board during the under-8 media timeout. Former player Kamani Johnson was also in attendance, sitting courtside.
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