Devo Davis should not have been ejected Saturday against Kentucky.
There. Plain and simple. It also had only a little to do with Arkansas basketball losing the basketball game — its third straight, by the way — to end the season.
The season finale from Bud Walton Arena went largely as expected. Rather, it played out much in a similar fashion as so many Arkansas-Kentucky games before it. The two teams remain the biggest and best two programs in the SEC and have been – with occasional deference to Florida – for most of the last 30 years. In other words, since Arkansas landed there after the collapse of the Southwest Conference.
Chippiness was everywhere. Two Kentucky players fouled out and Davis, with two consecutive technical fouls, also would have been disqualified with five personals even if the two techs would not have led to an automatic ejection. Officials twice whistled Kentucky coach John Calipari for, apparently, leaving the coach’s box. Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman spent a good chunk of the game jawing at the officials for the slights suffered at their hands by his team, as well. Undoubtedly, the game was rough-and-tumble. Arguments could be made the game was even poorly officiated.
The Controversial Call on Devo Davis
The Razorbacks may have had a shot to beat Kentucky, which ultimately won 88-79 to clinch the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament next week in Nashville, had Davis not been ejected. He is perhaps the best perimeter defender in all of college basketball. Musselman was forced to change his defensive approach upon Davis’ untimely exit with 18:15 left. Antonio Reeves made all four of his subsequent free throws and a pull-up jumper on the ensuing Kentucky possession to lift the Wildcats to a nine-point lead.
From three points to nine points in a matter of nine game seconds. If you believe in momentum, that’s the moment Kentucky captured it. The visitors would ultimately never give it away, either, even with a full and hostile crowd breathing down their neck for the next hour.
Musselman, who never speaks about the officials, was loath to even comment on what they told him Davis did to pick up the two technical fouls. On the court, it appeared they were called after Davis was whistled for a foul he felt should have been on Kentucky, instead. Davis was demonstrative in his frustration and the whistle sounded shortly thereafter.
“Certainly, Devo is a guy, from a leadership standpoint, from being a veteran, we were a better team when he’s with us and not in the locker room. We certainly missed him. He’s been a defensive stopper for us all season long,” Musselman said.
What Actually Cost Arkansas vs Kentucky
There was no stopping Antonio Reeves, though. Not from Davis or anyone else on the Arkansas roster. The Kentucky senior, a transfer from Illinois State, scored a career-high 37 points. And he did so efficiently, shooting 12 of 17 from the floor, 2 of 4 from 3-point range and a perfect 11 of 11 at the free-throw line. Fifteen of those 37 points came in the first half with Davis still in the game.
To the officiating point, fans who want to throw on the rose-colored glasses could argue Kentucky should have been called for more fouls, especially at the rim. Arkansas was miserable inside, going just 2 of 20 on what StatBroadcast called “lay-ups.” Ostensibly, any shot attempt at the rim that isn’t a dunk gets labeled as a lay-up, though it’s a call made by human beings who are scoring the game using computer software. Regardless of the technicalities of what is and is not a lay-up, Musselman knew his team simply did not finish on the interior. But he didn’t argue, as per his policy, that too few fouls were called, either.
“Obviously tonight, 2 for 20 around the rim, you’re not going to win a lot of games,” he said. “I can’t remember a game where I’ve had a team have only six turnovers and not win the game.”
The two teams were actually called for the same number of personal fouls: 26 apiece. The physicality went both ways. “We understand teams are going to be aggressive with us,” Kentucky’s Jacob Toppin said afterward. “But we’re not going for any of it. They tried to punk us. And we weren’t having it. So we came back at them, and that’s when they started saying, like, ‘Oh.’ They threw their first punch, then we threw ours. And they were a little hesitant after that.”
“We just had to stand our ground. We knew we were in their house.”
Arkansas also shot itself in the foot plenty, as seen in what happened with uncontested shots. Arkansas went just 22 of 34 from the foul line. That’s a 65% clip, a mark that would place them 334th in the nation out of the 352 Division I teams. For the year, the Razorbacks haven’t been much better, carrying the 261st-ranked percentage (entering Saturday) in the country at 69.14%. Considering Arkansas had eight losses this season by single digits, including six by two possessions or fewer (aka: six points or fewer), a modest increase in free-throw percentage likely would have avoided any talk of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
What Lies Ahead for Arkansas Basketball
Instead, that’s where things stand as Arkansas prepares for the SEC Tournament. A 10-seed and Thursday 6 pm date with Auburn awaits. A win as the would set up a game against Texas A&M, a team with which the Razorbacks split the regular-season series.
The 10-seeds of the SEC don’t usually go Dancing. In fact, in the last 20 years, only four teams that finished with losing records in the Southeastern Conference made the NCAA Tournament. One of them, Georgia in 2008, won just four regular-season conference games before a miracle run through the tournament. Three of those four teams to make it were promptly bounced in the first round. Alabama made it to the second round in 2018 as such a squad.
Arkansas is likely to make it a fifth team on Selection Sunday. The Razorbacks’ NET rating will likely remain in the top 20, or, at worst, the top 25 when they’re refreshed late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. The selection committee has often weighed those rankings heavily in their decision-making process for the NCAA Tournament.
Whatever way it goes, though, if Arkansas can’t figure out its free-throw shooting woes, it won’t much matter how any group of officials call the game in any tournament.
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