Despite entering SEC play with only one loss and a top-10 ranking, the Arkansas basketball team fell just short in a 60-57 heartbreaker at LSU on Wednesday.
Not only was it the first true road game for all of the freshmen on the roster, but it was also the first SEC road experience for everyone on the team not named Davonte Davis or Kamani Johnson. Add in the fact that the game was played in front of a rowdy LSU crowd, and it was truly trial by fire for the Razorbacks.
The Tigers were one of the few teams in the offseason that rivaled Arkansas’ roster turnover, though head coach Eric Musselman filled out his roster with the No. 2 recruiting class and high-profile transfers while new LSU head coach Matt McMahon brought in a few impact players from his previous team in Murray State to anchor a seemingly rag-tag group of transfers. That hastily-put-together group is now 12-1 with a top-10 victory under their belt.
Losing to the Tigers always stings for Arkansas fans, but more than that, a few things unfolded in the loss that could potentially be cause for concern if they’re not addressed and turn into trends.
Luckily for the Razorbacks, perhaps no coach in the country has a better track record of adjustments after early-season struggles than Eric Musselman during his time in Fayetteville.
Settling Against the Zone
LSU settled into a pack-the-paint style zone early in the first half that practically begged Arkansas to shoot from the perimeter. The Razorbacks obliged, but couldn’t convert on several open looks, missing their first 13 attempts from beyond the arc and not making a single 3-pointer in the first half.
Davonte Davis finally took the lid off the basket in the second half, but the Hogs still finished 4 of 25 from long range. Davis carried the load offensively with 16 points and several of his signature mid-range jump shots, though he was only 2 of 8 from beyond the arc.
As a team, Arkansas has had some decent shooting games this season, including hitting over 36% in each of its last two games, but by no means is it a good 3-point shooting team – especially not without two of their best 3-point shooters in Nick Smith Jr. and Trevon Brazile.
“When you shoot 4-for-25 from three, that’s not normal,” Musselman said afterward. “Obviously, you have to give LSU and their coaching staff and their players a lot of credit because 25 threes for us is a lot of attempts.”
Arkansas has a plethora of lengthy slashers who are much better suited to attack the paint rather than hoist up 20-plus threes in a game. The 25 attempts against LSU are the most in a game for Arkansas this season, when it had surpasses 20 attempts just three times — all before Thanksgiving.
Coming out of the halftime break, Arkansas seemed more intent on finding openings in the zone and attacking it rather than swinging the ball around the perimeter and settling for jumpers. The Razorbacks still looked for open 3s, but as a team, they did a better job of finding gaps and putting pressure on the zone, forcing LSU to adjust defensively.
“I thought for a stretch there it hurt us,” Musselman said when asked about the zone defense. “But once we spaced the floor and got into our zone attack a little, they didn’t play it down the stretch for a reason because I thought at one point that’s when we went on a little bit of a scoring run.
“I think that’s the time when we had our largest lead of six points right around the 10-minute mark. So, I thought at times we looked stagnant, but as we faced it a little longer we got much better at finding some gaps and attacking it.”
Defending the “Other” Players
Eric Musselman has been known to put together defensive gameplans that have a high success rate of shutting down opposing star players and forcing role players to carry more responsibility than they’re perhaps used to.
This was exactly the case against LSU, as Arkansas held KJ Williams (19.3 PPG prior to playing Arkansas) and Adam Miller (13.5 PPG) to only 8 and 7 points, respectively, on a combined 32% shooting.
The problem, however, arose in defending the other players who maybe weren’t as big of a focal point in the defensive gameplan. Take Derek Fountain, for instance. The transfer from Mississippi State scored well over his season average of 7.3 PPG as he went for 14 points and 10 rebounds on 5-of-9 (56%) shooting.
It was Trae Hannibal who especially torched the Hogs with 19 points and 6 rebounds while shooting 9-for-14 (64%) from the field, though. Prior to his matchup with Arkansas, the 6-foot-2 guard was averaging only 4.5 points this season. The senior transfer’s 19-point outing fell just one point shy of his career high when he went for 20 against Southeast Missouri State during his time at Murray State.
It was Hannibal’s ability to attack the rim consistently down the stretch that stomped out any late-game comeback attempts from Arkansas. The Hogs tried a few different defenders on Hannibal in the final minutes, including arguably their two best perimeter defenders in Anthony Black and Devo Davis. But it didn’t matter who was in front of the muscular guard; he scored tough layup after tough layup in the Tigers’ three-point victory.
Five-star freshman Nick Smith Jr. missed his eighth game of the season Wednesday night with a lingering knee issue. He’s still listed as “out indefinitely” for “right knee management” and minimal updates have been provided since he exited the Bradley game in North Little Rock early in the second half. Along with the season-ending injury to Trevon Brazile, a major opportunity has opened for the fringe rotation players on the Razorback bench.
Against LSU, however, none of the three bench players who got into the game produced much in their limited minutes. Jalen Graham was one of the first role players to see an opportunity, but he threw a bad post-entry pass to Kamani Johnson that sailed out of bounds and then committed an offensive foul resulting in another turnover in only three minutes of play.
Joseph Pinion then saw roughly two minutes of action toward the end of the first half. He played with a lot of energy and effort defensively, though it was evident that he was a bit rattled in his first SEC road environment. He missed his only 3-point attempt and recorded no other stats.
Even Kamani Johnson – a relatively consistent contributor even before the injury bug bit the Razorbacks – didn’t provide much in his seven minutes off the bench. He didn’t tally a single point or rebound and exited the game with two fouls as his only marks on the box score.
Anthony Black, Ricky Council IV and Devo Davis played all 40 minutes against the Tigers. With the deepest college team he’s ever coached, Musselman seems to be reverting to what has worked for him in the last two years with the Hogs – riding his five best players for every possible second.
This rotation obviously adjusts with Nick Smith Jr. available, but the five starters from Wednesday night will likely see upwards of 35 minutes per night unless one of them gets in foul trouble or someone else takes a big step forward.
The Good for Arkansas Basketball
Despite shooting splits of 37% from the floor, 16% from 3-point range and 50% from the free throw line, Arkansas had two good looks to tie or take the lead with less than 20 seconds left in its first true road game of the season against a rival LSU squad.
The loss hurts, but it was an impressive feat on its own that the Razorbacks even had a chance in this game with how poorly they shot the ball from all three levels.
Arkansas’ defense kept them alive through most of the game. Despite a season-low 19 points in the first half, the Hogs trailed by just five because they held LSU to only 24 points. As a team, Arkansas forced LSU into 10 turnovers on its home court and tallied eight steals compared to LSU’s six takeaways. The Tigers shot only marginally better than Arkansas in their narrow victory, finishing with shooting splits of 40/24/50 percent.
Makhi Mitchell had a quietly efficient night on both ends of the court, contributing 8 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks on 60% shooting while acting as the primary defender on the Tigers’ leading scorer, KJ Williams. Mitchell held the LSU big man to only 8 points and 5 rebounds on 43% FG shooting. He was averaging 19.3 points and 8.3 rebounds on 56% shooting prior to facing Mitchell and the Hogs.
The Hogs get another week-long break for New Years before returning home to face the red-hot Missouri Tigers, who are coming off of back-to-back double-digit wins against No. 16 Illinois and No. 19 Kentucky.
This game is scheduled to tip at 7:30 p.m. CT Wednesday and will be nationally televised on the SEC Network.
Here are the highlights from Arkansas’ loss at LSU:
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