As a season rolls on, teams are theoretically supposed to improve. That, unfortunately for Arkansas basketball fans, hasn’t been the case this year.
The Razorbacks were ranked as high as 15th entering the season and beating Purdue in the preseason did nothing to diminish hopes of a Final Four run. Fast forward to the present and many fans wonder if this team can even make the NIT with the NCAA Tournament looking more far-fetched with each passing loss.
Coming off two double-digit setbacks to start the SEC slate, Arkansas is in danger of things spiraling in a bad way with a Saturday afternoon tilt at Florida on tap.
Specific weaknesses in most of the rotation players’ games have been a big reason the season has been so frustrating. Let’s call them “fatal flaws” for the sake of the dramatic.
Each of these shortcomings could be fixable, or at least compensated for, but time is running out.
Let’s dive in:
Player: Devo Davis
Stats this year: 7ppg, 5rpg, 3apg, 26% 3p, 72% FT
Fatal Flaw: Consistency. Davis is supposed to be the leader of this team. He’s the only player to play for Musselman for four years at Arkansas, but he has been hot and cold all season. Two games ago, he had 14 points, six rebounds, six steals and three assists in the game against UNC Wilmington. He then followed that up with two points, one rebound, one assist, two turnovers and three fouls against Auburn. This up and down nature has plagued Davis all year.
Hope for March: If Arkansas wants to be successful with Devo playing this way, it is going to have to treat him like a hot hand. When he’s on, you’ve got to play him, but when he’s having an off night, you have to pull him off the court. Musselman has certainly done this in stretches, but Davis has played more minutes than any other player this year in large part thanks to his defense.
Even there, though, he’s had cold stretches this season. Before this year, it was easy to see Davis as a lockdown defender, but this year he has been beaten off the dribble often, including on a straight line drive by Justin Hill at Georgia at a critical juncture in the second half. I don’t want to disparage Davis. It’s possible he’s nursing an undisclosed injury and he’s still likely Arkansas’ best defender, but his quickness has suffered and so has Arkansas’ defense.
Player: Khalif Battle
Stats this year: 13 ppg, 1 apg, 3rpg, 40% 3p, 82% FT,
Fatal Flaw: Defense. Battle is a phenomenal scorer, but that’s about his limit. It’s not that he doesn’t try on defense, but he’s an average defender at best. If you compare him to Davis, Davis averages about half the points that Batlle does and yet still has a similar +/- (statistic that compares points scored and points allowed when a player is on the floor).
Hope for March: Arkansas must let Battle be its only defensive deficiency on the floor. Play him on the opposition’s worst perimeter player. If Battle is guarding an opponent who is averaging four or five points a game, that’s a win. Ultimately, the goal is to keep him on the court as often as you can because of his offensive prowess. This can minimize his flaw while still allowing him to do what he does best.
If he’s shooting 1 of 8, like he did against Georgia, then Arkansas is really in a bind.
Player: Trevon Brazile
Stats this year: 10ppg, 7rpg, 2bpg, 39% 3p, 69% FT,
Fatal Flaw: Lack of Aggressiveness. Brazile is a fantastic athletic talent, but instead of being the star every night, sometimes he turns into a ghost. He’s just not aggressive enough, settling for jump shots at times instead of attacking the basket. At other times, he doesn’t look for his shot enough. Defensively, Brazile continues to struggle against bigger, stronger guys. His best defensive move seems to be blocking the ball after his man has beaten him.
Hope for March: Arkansas needs to tell Brazile to get one technical foul every game. The Razorbacks have had a problem with technical fouls this season, but Brazile should be allowed one a game. He’s gotten a tech in three games this season.
In those games, Arkansas is 2-1 with their only loss being by 4 points to a team who is now ranked 15th in the country. In those games, Brazile averaged 13 points and 12 rebounds. This is exactly the type of aggressiveness the Razorbacks need from their most talented player.
He showed some of what’s needed with two spectacular put-back dunks against Georgia. But that kind of board crashing needs to happen much more often.
Player: Tramon Mark
Stats this year: 17 ppg, 2 apg, 4 prg, 1 spg, 39% 3p, 79% FT, +43
Fatal Flaw: Playing out of Position. Mark is likely this team’s best all around player, but running the point is not his strong suit. This is not his fault. Arkansas came into the year believing they had gotten two strong point guard commitments, but El Eillis has struggled and Keyon Menifield was not allowed to play in a game until Dec. 16. This meant Mark and Davis were heavily relied upon to initiate the offense, something that neither are well suited to do.
Many times with Mark leading the point, the ball doesn’t ever leave his hands. Now, don’t get me wrong, Mark is an excellent one-on-one scorer, but you can’t win games by just going one-on-one every time down the floor.
Hope for March: So long as the opposing point guard isn’t too strong, Keyon Menifield needs to play the point. If you can get El Ellis going, he could play the point as well, but Mark and Davis need to play the point sparingly at most. If Arkansas’ offense has a hope, it’s with Menifield orchestrating the offense.
Player: Mahki Mitchell
Stats this year: 6 ppg, 3 rpg, 1 apg, 1 bpg, 69% 2P, 70% FT, -3
Fatal Flaw: Role. Makhi Mitchell is a pretty decent scorer, blocker, defender and rebounder, but he’s great at none of these. Mitchell’s best attribute is his ability to play against physical competition, although that was seemingly lacking in the Hogs matchup with Auburn. The biggest problem is that, yes, Mitchell is a big body against other true centers, but beyond that he does not seem to have a distinct role with this team.
Hope for March: Arkansas needs to start deploying Mitchell as their enforcer. Think Kamani Johnson in a bigger package. Mitchell is the Hogs’ most physical big and if they start deploying him to handle Arkansas’ dirty business, it will solidify Mitchell’s identity on the court.
Mitchell tends to foul a lot, so that might get worse in this role, but that is something Arkansas should embrace. Arkansas needs to stop worrying about when Mitchell gets his second foul and let him go all out, playing a role just like Johnson did last year.
Player: El Ellis
Stats this year: 5 ppg, 24% 3P, 2 apg, 77% FT
Fatal Flaws: Off ball movement, defense. In the Razorbacks’ game against Abilene Christian, I watched in person as Ellis was pulled midway through the first half. Musselman was irate, “You can’t just facilitate, you have to move without the ball,” he cursed at Ellis with a few expletives thrown in there. Ellis did not play another minute in that game.
Now that’s just one game, but based on Musselman’s reaction, this was clearly something they’ve worked on with Eilis. In addition, Ellis has not been good enough defensively. The college basketball analytics website EvanMiya.com rates Ellis as the worst defender for the Razorbacks with a minus-.46 rating. To get an idea of how poor that is, Ellis ranks 125th out of 128 qualifying players in the SEC. The crazy part is this is actually an improvement for Ellis as his rating last year at Louisville was minus-1.37. (A negative rating means that he is worse than the average player in college basketball for defense.)
Hope for March: El Ellis seems to be improving defensively and that is a good thing. He has to continue to get better on that side of the ball, but the biggest thing Ellis can do is whatever he needs to to get himself on the court. The Razorbacks need Eilis to be good enough to see regular playing time.
The reality is the Razorbacks have two point guards who can initiate offense.That’s Keyon Menifield, who averages 4.4 assists per 40 minutes and El Ellis, who averages 4.5. Whatever Musselman’s hang up with Ellis is, Ellis needs to fix it so he can get back on the court. This team needs guards who can grease the wheels on offense and Ellis is exactly that.
Player: Chandler Lawson
Stats this year: 5 ppg, 4 rpg, 1 bpg, 40% 3P, 57% FT
Fatal Flaw: Thickness. Lawson does a lot of things well. He’s first in rebounds per 40 minutes and first in blocks. The biggest problem with Lawson is his size. He’s listed at 6-foot-8, 210 pounds, but he’s clearly undersized when matching up against bigger center type players. Early on, he did well against bigs for Purdue, North Carolina and Duke, but not so much lately. His lack of girth allows him to be pushed around a lot in the post area, which was seen against Georgia. He makes up for some of this with quickness and his incredible wingspan, but if the Hogs are forced to play him at center, it creates a favorable mismatch for their opponents.
Hope for March: Lawson is an important player for the Hogs and a mismatch in his own right, so he needs to continue to see plenty of playing time. He just needs help. If Arkansas is going to expect him to play against bigger post players, it needs to make sure its guards are going to dig down when Lawson’s man gets the ball. That means harassing them and trying to steal, as was the strategy against Purdue and Duke.
In some circumstances, it makes sense for Lawson to front the post. With his athleticism and wingspan, Lawson has a better chance to be an effective defender by keeping the ball from getting to his man or blocking it from behind if they do. It’s also not a bad idea to keep letting him shoot 3-pointers. He hasn’t taken many in his career, but he’s 40% from that area of the floor and it’s just another way that he becomes a mismatch.
Player: Jalen Graham
Stats this year: 7ppg, 3rpg, 1bpg, 57% FG, 41% FT
Fatal Flaw: Playing time. In terms of getting consistent minutes, Jalen Graham just can’t get it going. Some of that may be due to a lingering back injury. Some may involve a reputation for lack of defense or rebounding, but he’s been the second-best rebounder on the team with an average of 10.1 rebounds per 40 minutes. His defensive efficiency according to EvanMiya is 2.11. That’s the best on the team. Graham isn’t the biggest post player, but even when he’s outsized, that usually gives him an advantage on the offensive side of the floor. Missing 5 of 6 from the charity stripe against Georgia is a reminder of his very poor free throw percentage, but even if he’s missing free throws, the other parts of Graham’s game make up for it.
Hope for March: Play Graham more. I know Graham hasn’t always been the most complete player and Eric Musselman values defense more than anything else, but by every tangible metric and statistic, he is your most complete player on the court. He needs to play regardless of the matchup. Graham is first in plus/minus on the team despite being 10th in minutes played. Going forward, Jalen Graham deserves to be No. 1 in minutes played for Arkansas’ forwards.
Player: Keyon Menifield
Stats this year: 12 ppg, 32% 3P, 3 apg, 3 rpg, 67%nFT
Fatal Flaw: Size. Menifield has added a lot of positives to Arkansas since being able to play, but his biggest deficiency is not something he can fix this season. The electric 6-foot-1ish guard is listed at 150 pounds. Musselman has bragged that he’s stronger than Menifield. Now, Musselman works out every day, but when a 59-year-old man is stronger than you that’s a problem and it is a problem on the court.
Menifield has big issues with bigger guards. Consider the average weight of the six guards Auburn players was 193 pounds. Such a discrepancy allows guys to just back Menifield down and push him around. This is why Menifield’s EvanMiya defensive rating is minus-0.18, the second-worst on the team.
Hope for March: You’ve got to let Menifield guard the smallest guy on the court. Even then this is still likely a mismatch, but at this point Menifield is Arkansas’ only effective point guard, so he has to stay on the court. Arkansas also has to work with Menifield on taking charges. He’s definitely quick enough to get in front of offensive players and because he’s smaller he’s more likely to get the call. It is unfortunate that they’ve made the rules harder to take charges this year, but it still has a place especially for smaller guards like Menifield.
It’s also a problem Menifield is dead last on the team in steals per 40 minutes. For an undersized guard who utilizes athleticism and quickness, this is a non-starter. Arkansas has got to help Menifield use his quickness to become a better ball stealer. Think JD Notae. Notae increased his steals per game throughout his time with the Razorbacks to help equalize his lack of size. Last year, Menifield averaged only one steal per game for Washington and that will not be good enough for Arkansas.
Is There Hope for Arkansas Basketball?
There is always hope, but it is obvious with this team more than others that have played for Musselman that each of these players have definitive weaknesses that can be exploited. There is no doubt that there is still much talent on this team. It’s just about how to maximize that talent while minimizing the weaknesses.
Can Musselman figure that out? Absolutely. Can they get better as a team? No doubt. Will that be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament? It’s not going to be easy. If they stay together as a team and don’t fall apart as the football team did, it’s possible. However, I see them as a team that doesn’t have a great record, but can come up with a big upset or two. Maybe they can find a successful identity by the end of the season and be a dangerous team in the conference tournament with a chance to win it and get into the Big Dance. That feels like the best-case scenario right now.
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