FAYETTEVILLE — It won’t count toward Arkansas basketball’s final record, but you wouldn’t have known it the way Eric Musselman was coaching in Monday’s exhibition.
With the Razorbacks up by 15 midway through the first half of their eventual 83-49 win over Rogers State, the fourth-year coach came out to near half court to protest a charge call on Makhel Mitchell.
Although the 6-foot-10 big man finished a tough layup, one of the Hillcats’ defenders slid over at the last second and an official whistled him for an offensive foul. It was a questionable call and Musselman let the officials hear about it, prompting a technical foul.
“I thought Makhel did a great job running the floor on that possession and he’s a guy who’s trying to figure out a role,” Musselman said. “I thought we were on a big-time momentum swing and personally, I wanted him rewarded for running the floor like he did and then finishing, as well. … I’m in midseason form.”
It was the second time this preseason that Musselman has received a technical, as he also got one overseas during Arkansas’ four-game tour of Spain and Italy.
While getting them in exhibition games might be taking it to the next level, the fiery coach is no stranger to getting technicals. According to HogStats, he received 13 in his first three seasons at the helm and he’s been ejected twice, against Oklahoma last year and against Missouri two years ago.
The timing of the technicals is not strategic or intentional — “I think I just kind of blank out,” Musselman said — like some coaches, but rather a byproduct of his emotional personality. That kind of energy is something the team, and crowd, feeds off of.
“You saw the way the crowd responded and how we responded on the court and on the bench,” freshman Anthony Black said. “It gave us an extra boost. I know they got two shots and the ball, but it gave us a lot of momentum and energy at the same time.”
Arkansas’ Athleticism on Full Display
Just as they did in Europe and at the Red-White Game, the Razorbacks spent a good amount of time above the rim Monday night.
Arkansas had eight dunks, according to the UA’s official stat broadcast, and many of them were highlight-reel plays. Anthony Black, Nick Smith Jr., Trevon Brazile and Jalen Graham each had slams worthy of Sports Center’s Top 10 Plays.
“We do one-minute lob stations everyday,” Musselman said. “We do a good job of basket cutting. I thought last year we had some guys that were really good at corner cutters and 45 degree angle cutters. That’s something we talked about. I think we have the potential to be a good running team, as well, as long as we can do a little bit better job taking care of the ball.”
Black put a Rogers State defender on a poster at one point late in the first half and also served up a couple of alley oops to teammates.
Perhaps the most impressive came in the closing seconds of the first half, when it seemed like Arkansas wasted a chance to add to its lead only for Black to steal the ball back and lob up a pass to Brazile.
“I feel like you’ll see a lot of that this year,” Brazile said. “We do that all the time in practice. That was just kind of normal thing. Next play, try to do it again.”
Turnovers Remain an Issue
One of the glaring issues for Arkansas basketball during its overseas trip this summer was turnovers. The Razorbacks averaged at least 20 turnovers over that four-game stretch and Eric Musselman has harped on it every time he’s met with reporters leading up to the season.
Unfortunately for them, it was an issue once again Monday night. Arkansas turned it over on its first possession of the game and had 11 at the half — which is two more than Musselman’s usual goal for an entire game.
“It was kind of turnovers off trying to make home run plays,” Musselman said. “Pressure is not, I don’t think, going to bother us. It’s more just us understanding value of the ball. … It wasn’t anything that, per se, the defense took away from us. It was more self-inflicted turnovers.”
The Razorbacks cleaned it up in the second half, committing only five. They actually played about 7.5 minutes before committing their first one after halftime and a couple of them came in the closing minutes when the game was out of hand.
“I’d say just making better plays, safer plays, trying not to force it as much,” Black said. “It’s really on the guards. There were a lot of guard turnovers. We just said we were going to try to make simple plays and let the game come to us a little bit easier.”
That aspect should improve as the team gets more comfortable playing with each other, plus Musselman said he’ll stop playing those who continually turn the ball over as he trims the rotation.
Surprise Leading Scorer for Arkansas Basketball
A flurry of 3-pointers down the stretch led to freshman Joseph Pinion leading the team with 15 points against Rogers State. He knocked down 4 of 6 attempts from beyond the arc, with three of those makes coming during a four-minute span in the second half.
Pinion’s first bucket came just 17 seconds after he checked into the game and included in that late barrage was a deep, heat-check 3 that he drilled.
“He spaced it out,” Musselman said. “We probably ran more plays for Joseph tonight than we did anybody that checked into the game, including our starters. We ran him off red screens at least six times, maybe seven, so we called plays for him, which is a good things.”
The Morrilton native has always been known for his shooting ability, which is a major reason he was a four-star recruit, but the key to him earning playing time will be getting loose balls and improving defensively.
He accomplished the latter of those two things in the exhibition. Musselman praised him for his defense on Sherwyn Devonish-Prince Jr., who had a team-high 13 points on 5 of 14 shooting for Rogers State, and Pinion forced a shot clock violation when he played tight defense before blocking Isaac Johnson’s 3-point attempt.
“He works on his defense a lot,” Black said. “We get onto him a lot about his defense in practice. … He had 15 points, but he was really sitting down locking up today. Him doing that helped us keep him on the court.”
Black Stuffs the Stat Sheet Again
Much like he did in the Red-White Game a week earlier, freshman Anthony Black did a little bit of everything for the Razorbacks on Monday.
In addition to catching an alley oop for the aforementioned posterization, the five-star point guard drove to the basket for a thunderous dunk and made another layup to finish with 6 points on 3 of 4 shooting.
He also dished out a game-high 5 assists, grabbed 3 rebounds, notched 2 steals and blocked a shot, all in just 22 minutes of action. The only negative part of Black’s performance was his three turnovers.
“I think the biggest thing with Anthony is just that he’s going to keep getting better,” Musselman said. “He’s just scratching the surface. So because of his ceiling, I mean, he’s a really, really special player. Just because of the size and length.”
Graham Flashes in Red-White Encore
Fresh off a surprising 25-point outburst in Arkansas’ annual Red-White Game, big man Jalen Graham got the starting nod against Rogers State.
He played only 12 minutes, by far the fewest of any starter, but still finished with 7 points on 2 of 3 shooting, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block. Both of his buckets came at the start of the second half.
For the first, the Razorbacks fed him the ball down low and he put a spin move on his defender, blowing past him for an easy and-one dunk. On the very next possession, he caught a pass at the top of the key, drove down the middle of the lane, used another spin move and laid it in with a finger roll.
“Graham’s got as good of footwork as anybody in college basketball with his spin moves and stuff,” Musselman said. “He’s gotta be more physical, for sure, defensively, and mix it up a little more from a physical standpoint on the defensive backboards. But from an offensive standpoint — footwork, being able to create angles out of the post — he’s really good.”
Arkansas Plays Suffocating Defense
The Razorbacks’ starting lineup was, on average, 3.6 inches taller than the starting unit for Rogers State. The size difference, even when both teams went to the bench, was evident on some of the aforementioned highlight plays, but also on defense.
As a team, Arkansas blocked eight shots — including four by Trevon Brazile — and affected several others. The Razorbacks also forced at least three shot clock violations.
“I thought we really bothered them with our length,” Brazile said. “We always do hand in the eye, which we saw tonight, I think it really bothered them when we had our hands up bothering the ball.”
Last season, Division II exhibition foe East Central University managed to score 74 points while shooting 44.1 percent from the floor and 34.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Rogers State didn’t have near the same level of success, managing only 49 points on 30.2 percent overall shooting and 25.0 percent 3-point shooting. That includes just 20 first-half points, which is the fewest Arkansas has allowed in the opening half of an exhibition game since 2016, according to HogStats.
“If you want to play, if you want to get on the floor, you’re going to have to play defense with us,” Musselman said. “We’re going to demand it.”
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…