FAYETTEVILLE — This is not unfamiliar territory for Arkansas basketball.
After back-to-back losses to No. 22 Auburn on the road and No. 4 Alabama at home by a combined 28 points, the Razorbacks find themselves near the bottom of the SEC standings with a 1-3 conference record.
Recent history shows that it’s too early to hit the panic button, though, as Arkansas turned 2-4 and 0-3 starts to SEC play into trips to the Elite Eight the last two years. That said, head coach Eric Musselman did somewhat sound the alarm following the 84-69 loss to the Crimson Tide.
“We have a much more uphill battle than we did the last two years, I know that for sure,” Musselman said exasperatedly. “Much, much more uphill battle. There’s no doubt about it.”
Last year, things looked particularly grim because the Razorbacks were also blown out by Oklahoma and lost to Hofstra in two of their final three non-conference games, making the three straight SEC losses part of a 1-5 stretch. They bounced back by winning nine straight and going 13-2 the rest of the way in conference play.
The year before that, Arkansas followed its 2-4 start with an 11-game SEC winning streak, not including a win in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. The only blemish during that stretch was a close loss at Oklahoma State in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
What makes this 1-3 start more daunting, though, are the injuries the Razorbacks are currently dealing with. Musselman has encountered key injuries before, including to Isaiah Joe his first year at Arkansas and Justin Smith his second year, but this year is different.
Big man Trevon Brazile was in the midst of a breakout season and garnering first-round talk when he went down with a torn ACL, a season-ending injury. That happened just as heralded freshman and projected lottery pick Nick Smith Jr. returned to the court, but he has since been shut down again with what the UA is describing as “right knee management.”
Smith is out indefinitely, with Musselman telling reporters he’s expected to miss at least the rest of January, and there’s speculation — from fans and at the NBA level — that he might not play again for Arkansas. However, Jeff Goodman has reported the plan is for him to return in February, “as long as he’s 100 percent,” and his dad messaged The Buzz 103.7 FM radio station in Little Rock on Thursday to say he will play again.
For now, though, the Razorbacks must figure out how to win without two of their best players for at least six more games.
“I want to be perfectly clear: there is no excuse,” Musselman said. “Again, I’ve been around the game way too long and injuries are a part of the game. But we’re missing two guys that we had projected to play right around 60 minutes for us. We’ve got to keep searching and trying to figure it out.”
What’s Wrong With Arkansas Basketball
Simply put, the Razorbacks are not a good offensive team right now. They are 10th in the SEC in scoring, averaging just 64.8 points through four conference games, and are — statistically speaking — arguably the worst shooting team in the league.
“As a coach, the first thing you want to know is: Is your team playing hard?” Musselman said. “I do think this team is playing hard, but we’re offensively challenged. That’s a fact. That’s not an opinion.”
Arkansas has made only 28.4% of its 3-point shots this year, which ranks 351st out of 363 Division I teams, and has been even worse against SEC competition, shooting just 19.4% from beyond the arc. That is easily the worst mark in the league, nearly six full percentage points lower than Ole Miss (25.3%).
Even an area of strength has suddenly disappeared, as the Razorbacks are shooting just 62.5% (13th in the SEC) from the free throw line in conference play. They shot 72.4% during non-conference play and have generally thrived at the charity strip during Musselman’s tenure.
Then there’s the turnovers. Arkansas ranks ahead of only South Carolina in turnovers committed per game (14.0) and assist-to-turnover ratio (0.68) in SEC play.
All of those issues flared up in Wednesday’s loss to No. 4 Alabama.
“We’ve got to take better care of the ball,” Musselman said. “I mean, we didn’t shoot the ball well and we had 15 turnovers and gave up 9 threes, so you add those factors in and you’re not going to win many basketball games.
“It’s hard to win right now when you’re not making 3s, which I don’t know if we will. And then our free throw percentage has got to improve, as well.”
One way the Razorbacks have been able to generate offense under Musselman, especially earlier this the season, has been through their defense by turning turnovers into transition points.
In its last two non-conference tune-up games, Arkansas outscored Bradley and UNC-Asheville by a combined 69-14 in points off turnovers and 36-12 in fast break points. Granted, the level of competition has increased dramatically, but that has completely flipped since the start of SEC play. The Razorbacks have been outscored 83-25 in points off turnovers and 48-34 in fast break points.
Not surprisingly, their steals have dropped considerably. They’re averaging just 6.3 through the first four games after averaging 8.2 and 7.7 in SEC play the last two seasons.
“To be honest with you, I’m extremely disappointed in our lack of steals,” Musselman said. “But I haven’t changed the game plan or the scheme. You get into conference play and I do think people take better care of the basketball.
“Like I said, we can talk about the last two years, (but) we are in a completely and utterly different state and in a way more uphill battle than we’ve been since I’ve been here, to be quite honest.”
Not to state the obvious, but the status of Nick Smith Jr. could be a major factor in how this year’s Arkansas basketball team adjusts after the slow start to SEC play. Regardless of whether or not he played another minute for the Razorbacks, though, Musselman is constantly trying to find a solution to their offensive woes.
“There would be a lot of other teams offensively challenged, too, if two players you built your roster around aren’t here,” Musselman said. “But nobody cares and there’s other injuries throughout athletics in all different sports in the professional ranks and the college ranks. Right now we’re still trying to figure out who we are.”
The good news is that Arkansas is still in a relatively good spot. It fell just four spots to No. 20 in the NET rankings following the loss to Alabama, so it’s nowhere close to where it was last year, when it bottomed out at No. 98.
KenPom and ESPN’s BPI have the Razorbacks at No. 15 and No. 16, respectively, and still project them to win 21 or 22 games in the regular season with a 10-8 conference mark. That isn’t great, but would still be fourth in the league and safely in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s also encouraging that, as Musselman said, the team is still playing hard. The 15-point loss to Alabama was a two-point game with just under 5 minutes remaining and they had a chance to beat LSU on the road despite playing as poorly as they did.
“There’s just a few things that we’ve got to fix and then I feel like we’re going to be right there, so I feel like our confidence level is still high,” Makhel Mitchell said. “We’ve just got to do everything for coach the way he wants and stuff like that and we should be fine.”
Arkansas also has the advantage of its head coach. The son of a basketball coach and someone who has worked at every level of the sport, Musselman is an ultra-competitive person who might hate losing more than he enjoys winning.
He’s proven the last few years that he is one of the best coaches in the game when it comes to in-game adjustments — his .391 winning percentage in games Arkansas trailed at halftime is just behind Eddie Sutton (.397) and ahead of Nolan Richardson (.349), according to HogStats — and in-season adjustments.
He may not know what that will look like yet, but it’s safe to assume Musselman won’t rest until he figures it out — even if he sounds a bit pessimistic about this team’s ability to turn things around.
“What we’ll do at Vanderbilt I have no idea right now,” Musselman said. “I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that I’m still trying to solve and search, if there’s something there, to try to figure out. We’re trying.”
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