Musselman Ceded a Battle to Win The War vs Texas A&M + More Takeaways from Aggies Upset

Jeremiah Davenport, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Texas A&M
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

The SEC office would never admit to it, but it had to be disappointed with what Arkansas did to Texas A&M on Tuesday.

Playing for virtually nothing but pride at this point, the Razorbacks went into Reed Arena and beat the Aggies 78-71 to sweep the season series and possibly knock them off the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.

“Sometimes when you’re struggling, it’s hard to have the energy and the enthusiasm,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “But I think the staff and players have done a great job of continuing to try to get better and I thought tonight was a reflection of a team that is getting better.”

It was a shocking result for Arkansas (13-13, 4-9 SEC), as it was an 11.5-point underdog on BetSaracen and had less than a 20% chance to pull off the upset, according to both KenPom and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. After all, the Razorbacks were coming off a heartbreaking loss at Mississippi State that dropped it below .500 for the season.

The Aggies (15-11, 6-7), meanwhile, entered the game needing to avoid yet another Quadrant 3 loss to preserve their position as a projected 10 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology for ESPN, not to mention seeking revenge for their last-second loss to Arkansas on Jan. 16.

Throw in the Razorbacks being down three players because of injuries, it was a recipe for disaster — which, for this team, has meant 20-point blowouts. Except that didn’t happen.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to give up,” redshirt junior Tramon Mark said. “No matter how the season has been going, we’re going to play until the final buzzer. We’re going to play every game to win. We’re not just going out there trying to keep it close or anything. We play every game to win. That’s what we did tonight.”

Despite entering the game with a .500 record in SEC play, Texas A&M was still believed to be on the right side of the bubble because of its No. 45 NET ranking, which is bolstered by a 6-5 record in Quad 1 games. Only four teams have more such wins.

However, with Tuesday’s loss, the Aggies now have five Quad 3 losses — the most in the SEC — and two were to Arkansas. That will be tough to overcome on Selection Sunday.

With five regular-season games left, the Razorbacks are nowhere near the bubble. They need a strong finish to the season just to qualify for the NIT and it’d take a miracle run in the SEC Tournament to make the big dance. The odds of that happening are still slim, but Arkansas is at least playing much better lately.

“I thought our competitiveness, our toughness, will to win, I thought it was at a high level against Mississippi State, and I thought we carried that over to another 40 minutes tonight,” Musselman said. “To think we have three players out, short turnaround, back to back road games against a team that we had beaten previously, it’s always hard in this league to win two games against the same opponent. 

“I think we played our best 80 minutes of basketball in our last two games. Hopefully, we continue to improve, continue to get better behind closed doors.”

Here are several other takeaways from Tuesday night’s Arkansas vs Texas A&M matchup in College Station…

Minimizing Damage from Offensive Boards

It was always gong to be a challenge to keep Texas A&M off the glass because it led the country in offensive boards (18.0 per game) and owned the top overall rebounding margin in the SEC (plus-9.6) coming into the day.

That became even more true when the Razorbacks learned they’d be without big men Trevon Brazile (knee soreness) and Jalen Graham (shoulder) again, so Eric Musselman used that knowledge to his advantage.

Rather than focus entirely on trying to negate that advantage, the veteran coach opted to spend some time working on what to do when the Aggies inevitably grabbed offensive rebounds.

“It was just as important to talk about defensive block outs as it was to work, drill and talk about defensive verticality off of the offensive rebounds,” Musselman said. “You normally don’t want to talk to your team about another team grabbing offensive rebounds, but we knew that it was going to be very difficult to keep them off the glass, but maybe second jumps and verticality could help us.”

Musselman was essentially ceding the battle in hopes of winning the war — and it worked beautifully. Even though Texas A&M grabbed 20 offensive rebounds, it turned those extra possessions into only seven points.

The Aggies were actually abysmal in those situations, shooting just 2 of 15 after grabbing one of their own misses. Included in that total were three blocked shots and four misses from beyond the arc. Despite drawing six fouls, it made just 3 of 6 free throws following offensive rebounds, plus turned it over once.

It was a stark contrast to Arkansas, which turned its 11 offensive rebounds into 19 points.

Slowing Down Texas A&M’s Studs

The last time Arkansas played Texas A&M, Wade Taylor IV turned in one of the best individual performances by an opponent in Bud Walton Arena history, dropping 41 points and nearly leading the Aggies to an improbable comeback victory.

He’s done that to a lot of teams this year, as he entered the day as the SEC’s fourth-leading scorer at 19.4 points per game. This time, though, the Razorbacks held him in check.

Taylor finished with 11 points — 10 under his average during conference play (21.4) — on an inefficient 3 of 12 shooting and missed all four of his 3-point attempts. He did match a career high with 9 assists, but he also had four turnovers.

“Coming into the game, the game plan was to try to make Taylor a passer,” Musselman said. “Obviously, he did a good job with his nine assists, but we did not want him aggressively (shooting) from 3. In 37 minutes to hold him to not make a 3-point shot is impressive.”

Arkansas also did a good job of containing Tyrece Radford again. He was arguably the Aggies’ hottest scorer, averaging 22.8 points on 57.3% shooting from the field and 37.5% shooting from deep over the last five games, but made only 5 of 16 shots and scored 12 points on Tuesday. That includes a pair of misses from deep.

Two of Radford’s four worst scoring outputs in SEC play this year have come against the Razorbacks, as he had only 6 points on 2 of 15 shooting in the first matchup.

“From a preparation standpoint, we watched a lot of film yesterday in short segments,” Musselman said. “Obviously the game plan was to try to limit both of their touches. I thought we did not a good job, but a phenomenal job of that.”

Tramon Mark Owns the Aggies

Playing just a couple hours away from his hometown of Dickinson, Texas, Tramon Mark put on a show for his parents, sister and girlfriend watching from the stands — albeit a delayed one.

The Houston transfer had a pretty quiet first half, scoring only 4 points on 1 of 4 shooting, but exploded after halftime. He scored 22 of his 26 points in the second half, shooting 7 of 12 from the floor and making both of his 3-pointers while also going 6 of 7 at the charity stripe.

“We went to a lot of isolations with him at the top of the key,” Musselman said. “I played him at the point guard position entirely the second half where he was the primary ball-handler and we had other point guards running ghost screens or in the corner to try to space the floor out and let him go to work.”

It would have been an impressive performance regardless of the circumstances, but it was even more so because he’s been nursing a shoulder injury.

Unfortunately, Mark landed on his injured right shoulder late in the first half and went straight to the locker room. He wasn’t sure if he’d get back in, but he ultimately re-entered the game with 2:48 remaining and never came off the floor again, displaying a level of toughness fans are accustomed to seeing under Musselman.

“Quite honestly, we didn‘t know if he would practice past couple days, or play,” Musselman said. “He’s playing through pain. He’s doing it for the betterment of the team, but it’s been bothering him for quite some time.”

No shot was bigger than the 3-pointer he knocked down with a little over two minutes left. Texas A&M had cut its deficit to three and seemed to have all of the momentum on its side.

Wade Taylor IV missed a free throw that would have completed a three-point play and made it a two-point game and then Tyrece Radford missed a potential game-tying 3 following an offensive rebound on the free throw. Just a few seconds later, Mark made his shot and was fouled. Unlike Taylor, he made the free throw to complete a rare four-point play that ensured Arkansas would lead by at least two possessions the rest of the way.

“I feel like in that possession, he was just sagging off me,” Mark said. “I just had to give him a little step back and rise up and shoot over him. I got the result I was looking for. I got fouled. I made my free throws. It was just a good possession.”

In addition to his scoring, Mark was also second on the team with 6 rebounds and had a team-high 5 assists to go along with 1 steal and 1 block in 36 minutes. He has now scored 61 points in two matchups against the Aggies.

Makhi Mitchell Continues Strong Play

Even though he didn’t start either half, Makhi Mitchell played starter minutes for the Razorbacks on Tuesday. He played the final 15:32 of the first half and final 17:24 of the second half, giving him about 33 minutes against Texas A&M.

The fifth-year senior was once again extremely effective in the paint, setting a career high in scoring for the second straight game. After dropping 21 against the Bulldogs, he had 22 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the floor and 10 of 12 from the line.

“He’s just being aggressive,” Mark said. “He’s recognizing his matchups. He’s recognizing that he can score in his matchups at any time he wants. He’s just being aggressive. He’s getting rebounds, he’s getting blocks. He’s just doing it all for us tonight. I’m very proud of him.”

With 13 rebounds, Mitchell also notched a double-double while blocking four shots, as well, making it arguably the best game of his career.

The last seven games have probably been the best stretch of his career, too. Over that span, he’s averaging 14.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks — and that includes a 1-point, 1-rebound effort against Tennessee.

“We certainly hope he can sustain it,” Musselman said. “We need him to sustain it. He’s playing as well as any center in the SEC. He’s been extremely focused. There’s no distraction with his minutes out there. We’re really relying on him.”

Up Next for Arkansas Basketball

The Razorbacks will try to win consecutive SEC games for the first time this season when they host Missouri on Saturday. Tipoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN2.

It’ll be a rematch of Arkansas’ second conference win, as it went into Columbia, Mo., and beat the Tigers on Jan. 31. The final score was 91-84, but it wasn’t really that close.

Missouri will be coming off a near upset of No. 5 Tennessee. It actually led until about midway through the second half before losing 72-67 to drop to 8-18 overall and 0-13 in SEC play.

Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits

  • Trevon Brazile missed his seventh straight contest because of knee soreness, while Jalen Graham missed his second straight game because of a shoulder injury suffered against Tennessee. Keyon Menifield Jr., meanwhile, missed his first full game after sitting out the second half of the Mississippi State loss with a groin injury.
  • Free throws were huge for Arkansas, which went 28 of 34 (82.4%) from the charity stripe, compared to only 25 of 39 (64.1%) by the Aggies. It was the Razorbacks’ second-best free throw percentage of the season, behind only 83.9% (26 of 31) in a loss to Oklahoma on Dec. 9. In two games against Texas A&M, Arkansas shot 59 of 74 (79.7%) on free throws.
  • There was a 10-minute, 32-second stretch in the second half during which Texas A&M missed 15 consecutive shots. It did make nine free throws, though.
  • Khalif Battle followed up his 18-point effort against Mississippi State by scoring 15 points. He wasn’t very efficient, making only 3 of 15 shots, but he drew six fouls and went 9 of 10 from the free throw line. His 33 points in the last two games are nearly as many points as he scored in Arkansas’ first 11 SEC games combined (38).
  • Arkansas entered the game leading the SEC and ranked second nationally with 6.3 blocks per game. It exceeded that against the Aggies, finishing with eight. Half of those were courtesy of Makhi Mitchell. Chandler Lawson had two, while Tramon Mark and Layden Blocker added one apiece.

What’s At Stake?

Outside of a miracle finish, Arkansas is very unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament at this point. However, the Hogs could still make postseason noise by getting a berth in the NIT, which no Arkansas team has ever won (Nolan Richardson’s ’97 team made the finals).

“They’re at 500 now. I think even one game below 500 and they’re in,” Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin said below. “So if they go two and two, which is very doable, even if they lost their first SEC tournament game… then they’d still be one below [.500]. So I think they’re in, unless they just collapse.”

See more on Arkansas basketball starting at :30 here:

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Arkansas vs Texas A&M Highlights

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Postgame Interviews

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Arkansas vs Texas A&M Box Score


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