FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman did not sound like a man whose team just won in blowout fashion when he spoke to reporters Friday night.
Despite the No. 14 Razorbacks coasting to an 86-68 win over Gardner-Webb inside Bud Walton Arena to improve to 2-0 on the season, their play was certainly not up to his standard.
Even when asked about encouraging aspects of the game, Musselman always found a way to circle back to the various things — and there were several — he wasn’t pleased about.
“Defensively, we’ve got to guard the ball better and we’ve got to guard the rim better,” Musselman said. “We were 25 passes short of our goal, so the ball didn’t move as much as we wanted it to tonight as well.
“I give Gardner-Webb a lot of credit. I thought they were really well coached, I thought they cut hard, I thought they ran the floor really hard in their transition offense. I thought they ran harder than we did, for sure. To only win the battle of the boards by six, it’s not enough, and to give up 11 offensive rebounds is not going to cut it.”
It took all of six seconds for Musselman’s frustrations to start, as Gardner-Webb won the game’s opening tip and got a quick layup. About four minutes in, the Bulldogs actually led 13-5.
Arkansas eventually flipped the switch and pulled away as it was expected to, but it had to overcome a pretty shaky start.
“They came out and they punched us in the mouth,” redshirt sophomore Trevon Brazile said. “They played harder than we expected they were going to play. That’s on us. We’ve got to come out and perform how we perform. Whether it’s in the second half or late first half, that’s how we’ve got to play the whole game. We paid for it in the beginning of the half.”
Beyond the apparent lack of energy early on, Musselman also did not like some the shots the Razorbacks were taking and would have liked to see more cutting to the basket because it worked when they did it.
The exception seems to be Khalif Battle, who “saved us offensively” with a team-high 21 points and received a “10 out of 10” grade from his head coach when it came to his shot selection.
“Other guys need to improve their shot selection,” Musselman said. “We don’t need heat check shots when you’re not hot. It’s called heat check because when you’re hot, then you can take an ill-advised shot.”
Holy Cow, What a Block Party
Defensively, Arkansas blocked 15 shots. That’s tied for third-most in a single game in UA history and the most since 1995. It’s also the most ever by a Musselman-coached college team.
That stat didn’t change how he felt about their physicality and struggles in limiting Gardner-Webb’s traditional three-point plays, though.
“We’re not physical enough at the rim across the board, the entire team,” Musselman said. “I mean, I don’t know how many and-1s there were tonight against undersized players. You’ve got to hold your ground, and right now we’re just not doing that at the level we need to.”
It wasn’t like the Bulldogs did anything special, either. Musselman said they got about what they expected based on film study, including a steady dose of dribble-drives by Caleb Robinson, who led them in scoring with 18 points on 6 of 16 shooting.
“Maybe the thing that’s a little bit frustrating is I thought tonight we were really prepared and we didn’t take away enough of their stuff,” Musselman said. “Sometimes you get surprised by some things or some matchups, but Gardner-Webb played it traditional like we had seen them in the past.”
The Razorbacks also gave up 11 offensive rebounds that led to 14 second-chance points and the reserves failed to build on their lead.
It was a 26-point game after Chandler Lawson’s 3-pointer fell with 4:30 remaining, but those would be Arkansas’ final points. Gardner-Webb ended the game on an 8-0 run, covering the 25.5-point spread set by BetSaracen.
“Disappointed with our defensive rebounding for sure,” Musselman said. “And then we gave guys an opportunity tonight, and we did not play very well the last nine minutes of the game — at all. … I thought our depth took a huge step back tonight, I really did, with the minutes that they were given.”
**check back later for even more analysis, stats and takeaways from the Arkansas vs Gardner-Webb game**
Khalif Battle Leads the Charge Again
The game was still tied 31-31 with about five minutes left in the first half when Khalif Battle took things into his own hands.
The Temple transfer had only three points when he knocked down a fadeaway corner 3 to put the Razorbacks up for good at the 5:05 mark and proceeded to score seven more points before halftime. That includes a 3 just before the buzzer, as well.
He ended up adding another eight points in the second half to finish with a game-high 21 on an efficient 5-of-9 shooting, which included going 3 of 4 from deep. He also did a great job of drawing fouls, as he went 8 of 10 at the charity stripe, and he grabbed four rebounds in his 26 minutes off the bench.
“Battle is a starter, he’s just not hearing his name called right away,” Musselman said. “He’s been our most efficient offensive player. He stretches the floor, he can play one-on-one, he can draw free throws. He’s a good foul shooter. He did a decent job on the defensive backboards tonight. Really happy with how he played.”
It was the second straight game Battle has led Arkansas in scoring with 21 points. He now has 42 points in his first 44 minutes with the Razorbacks, knocking down 6 of 10 attempts from beyond the arc and going 16 of 19 at the free throw line.
That kind of scoring barrage hasn’t exactly been a surprise because that’s the reputation he had coming out of the transfer portal. In three seasons with the Owls, he averaged 17.8 points and shot 36.0% from deep, but averaged only 4.3 free throw attempts per game.
“We all know that he can really score the ball,” teammate El Ellis said. “That’s his game. He scores the ball at a high level, and it doesn’t matter if he comes off the bench or not. That’s what he’s going to do.”
Bounce Back Game for Mitchell
Despite being a rare returning starter for Eric Musselman, Makhi Mitchell was virtually a non-factor in Arkansas’ season-opener against Alcorn State.
He came off the bench and played only 3 minutes and 40 seconds in the blowout win. The only reason he showed up in the box score at all, aside from stepping on the court, was a foul he committed.
Four days later, it was a completely different story. Mitchell didn’t have the sexiest of stat lines, but he did finish with 5 points, 5 rebounds, 4 blocks and 2 assists. The do-everything effort resulted in him posting a plus-23 in his 17 minutes — by far the best mark on the team. That means Arkansas was actually outscored by five in the 23 minutes he was on the bench.
“He impacts our team in many ways,” Ellis said. “He really gets guys involved. He rebounds it hard. He runs the floor. He sets ball screens for us really well, so he played really well tonight.”
It was the kind of performance Trevon Brazile came to expect of the former Rhode Island transfer while watching him last season, when he started 31 games and averaged 7.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks.
“He’s going to go out there and do the same thing every time,” Brazile said. “It’s just a matter of how much he’s out there. I don’t feel like it wavered that much. He’s pretty consistent.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
The Razorbacks won’t have much time to get ready for their next matchup, as they’re back in action Monday night. Old Dominion will be in town for a 7 p.m. CT tip off that will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus and ESPN-Plus.
Hailing from the Sun Belt, where they’re projected to finish third out of 14 teams, the Monarchs won their opener on Monday 71-57, but that was against Division III foe Virginia Wesleyan.
Their first game against another Division I program is Saturday at Ball State. Tipoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. CT and will be streamed on ESPN-Plus.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
~Freshman guard Layden Blocker did not dress out and was not at the arena because of an illness. He had played 10 minutes before fouling out in the opener against Alcorn State.
~It was on a much smaller volume than in the first game, but the Razorbacks still shot a solid 38.9% (7 of 18) from 3-point range Friday night. Arkansas is now 19 of 48 (39.6%) from deep this season — a drastic improvement from the 6 of 26 (23.1%) clip it shot through two games last year.
~The 15 blocks by Arkansas were its most under Eric Musselman, with the previous high being 13 against Texas A&M last season. “The games that we’ve had so far, I felt like we didn’t do a good enough job going vertical,” Brazile said. “In practice, we’ve been drilling it all week just going vertical. So we’re getting better at it each game.”
~At the top of Arkansas’ scouting report was senior DQ Nicholas, who earned second-team all-conference honors after averaging 12.5 points last year. The Razorbacks limited him to just 3 points on 1 of 9 shooting. “Really just pressure and make him uncomfortable,” Ellis said about the plan to slow him down. “Don’t give him any easy looks. Every time he comes off a ball screen, keep him in coverage. Every time he comes off a pin down, we’re chasing him. Trying to be physical with him.”
~Even though he didn’t score, missing both of his free throws, freshman Baye Fall was still pretty active in his 10 minutes of playing time. He finished with 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal, 1 turnover and 3 fouls.
Arkansas vs Gardner-Webb Highlights
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