Arkansas vs Furman: Yet Another Group of Bonafide Giant Killers from the Carolinas 

Eric Musselman, Bob Richey, Arkansas basketball, Furman basketball, Arkansas vs Furman
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Furman Athletics

The last time it took the court, Arkansas basketball picked up one of the biggest regular-season wins in program history when it defeated No. 7 Duke 80-75 on Wednesday. This was only the fifth time the two programs had ever met and the first in an on-campus regular-season contest.

The victory put Arkansas ahead of Duke 3-2 in the all-time series and came in the 30th anniversary season of the 1994 National Championship season in which the Hogs defeated the Blue Devils in the championship game. It was also Eric Musselman’s 100th career win as the Head Hog and came in front of a 20,344 fans – the largest recorded crowd in the history of Bud Walton Arena.

“I haven’t had that experience in college basketball,” Razorback guard El Ellis said of the home crowd. “The crowd played a big part… I feel like that home court advantage is different when it’s packed out like that.”

Razorback forward Trevon Brazile added, “I can’t imagine going somewhere else and playing against something like that. That’s the best fans in the country… You’re probably not getting that anywhere else in the country.”

The win couldn’t get much sweeter for the sold-out crowd.

The next challenge on Arkansas’ plate, however, is overcoming the emotional high of ending their losing spell in the biggest game of the regular season and focusing on the next opponent, the Furman Paladins. Sitting at 4-3 on the season, the Paladins arrive at Bud Walton Arena from Greenville, S.C., for a 7 p.m. CT tip Monday. The game will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus and ESPN-Plus.

Previewing Furman Basketball

In the preseason, the Paladins were picked to win the Southern Conference – just ahead of UNC Greensboro, which upset Arkansas in Fayetteville last month. The mid-majors of that whole region have been spelling trouble for big-time teams lately, given future Arkansas opponent UNC Wilmington recently knocked off Kentucky. 

“We’ve pointed it out for sure,” Musselman said when asked about playing another Southern Conference team. “(Upsets) happen every single night. I think by the end of non-conference time, you’re going to see as many upsets… we talk every day about how it’s happening across college basketball, so you’ve got to really, really be ready to play every single night.”

That’s especially true for a team that proved its giant killer bona fides just this past March Madness, when as a No. 13 seed Furman upset No. 4 seed Virginia after a thrilling sequence of events:

Fifth-year senior Marcus Foster, who hit 4 of 9 threes in that upset, leads Furman on offense. The 6-foot-5 guard has spent all five seasons with the Paladins under head coach Bob Richey. After averaging 10.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last year on a team that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a 13-seed, Foster is now averaging career highs virtually across the board with 19.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists on nearly 50% from the field across 27 minutes per game.

He started the season hot with a pair of 30-point games in his first four games, though he has since cooled off – especially from beyond the arc. After starting 8 of 22 (36%) from long range through three games, he has since hit only 7 of 30 attempts (23%) from distance in his last four outings.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the Razorbacks can forget about him in their perimeter game plan, but perhaps guards like Devo Davis and Layden Blocker can more easily frustrate Foster in the midst of his cold shooting streak.

A pair of junior guards, JP Pegues (6-1) and PJay Smith (6-0), are also averaging double-digit scoring on the young season with 16.0 and 11.0 points per game, respectively. As a team, the Paladins rank in the top 50 with 27.9 three-point attempts per game, with Smith leading the long-range barrage at 40% on 5.0 attempts. Both Pegues and Foster average more than six attempts per game, though both shoot worse than 33% from distance. Pegues does have a knack for hitting them when they count, though, as he nailed the game-winner against Virginia.

The Paladins have fielded a different starting lineup in nearly every game, but the one player with the most starts aside from Foster, Pegues and Smith is 6-foot-9 forward Garrett Hien. The senior big man averages only 7.0 points to go along with 4.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and roughly one steal per game.

The combination of Chandler Lawson and Makhi Mitchell has proven extremely effective against star big men this season, but it’s always worth paying attention to how Musselman deals with a smaller, perhaps more versatile center on the other side of the ball. He could opt to keep his rotation as is, or could turn to more small ball with Brazile and Graham soaking up center minutes in this game.

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

After averaging 6.5 assists (no, that’s not a typo) on 24.8 made field goals per game as a team over its last four games in which they lost three out of four, Arkansas recorded 17 assists on 26 made field goals against the Blue Devils. The ball movement was visibly better and players seemed more confident in their motions and deliberate in their shot attempts, leading to higher quality looks with less hesitation and isolation dribbling.

Of course, Arkansas also played similarly well against Purdue in their final preseason exhibition game, which begs the question of whether the team is capable of putting together this type of performance when the lights aren’t at their brightest. This is exactly what they’ll have to figure out how to do a few more times before SEC play begins, starting with Furman on Monday.

Despite an injury that required use of a wheelchair to travel home from the Bahamas, Tramon Mark was present on the sidelines throughout warmups and was cheering on the bench during the Duke victory. Musselman noted that his presence in practice all week played a big factor in team chemistry and confidence.

“We show up Monday and he’s in full uniform,” Musselman said. “I mean, there was no chance he was going to be able to do anything but gingerly walk around, but he put his uniform on. I’ve never seen it, either. He did it again today (Wednesday), he did it (Tuesday). That helped our chemistry, believe it or not. That’s a player being all-in.”

He went on to say that Mark’s back is feeling better, but that he’s still dealing with “some hip and groin stuff” that could linger. Musselman said there’s no way they’ll play Mark until he’s fully cleared, making his status for Monday’s game against a mid-major opponent questionable at best.

“I would say that we feel very confident that he would play in the game after Monday based on progress,” Musselman said. “Monday is still up in the air.”

On Wednesday night, Chandler Lawson put on yet another masterful defensive performance against Kyle Filipowski – CBS Sports’ No. 3 player in college basketball. Along with tallying 7 points and 8 rebounds, Lawson made Filipowski work for everything offensively.

Though Duke’s preseason All-American still ended the game with 26 points, it took him 20 shots to get there. He shot only 45% from the field (he was 56 through his first six games), and he got his shot blocked five different times, nearly all of them by Lawson who finished with six (!!!) total blocked shots.

“Against a 7-foot player, he does a great job of walling up,” Musselman said postgame. “I think he’s a really deceptive shot blocker. He’s done a good job for us going vertical… The great thing is we’re going to run into a lot of real big guys in our league who can score with their back to the basket and around the rim.”

Lawson has now been the driving factor in limiting the performances of each of CBS Sports’ top 3 players so far this season.

Trevon Brazile and Khalif Battle put the team on their backs offensively, combining for 40 points and seven 3-pointers on 50% shooting from the field. Each hit a huge, timely 3-pointer to extend the Hogs’ lead late in the second half and send Bud Walton Arena into a frenzy.

Layden Blocker, El Ellis and Jeremiah Davenport each also stepped up their game in Mark’s absence. Blocker continued to show his hard-nosed style of play with a pair of steals and nine points on 100% shooting from the field, though he did struggle some against Duke’s full-court press late in the game. That shouldn’t be too surprising or concerning from a true freshman eight games into his college career.

Ellis tallied six assists without turning the ball over once and finally broke his dry spell after going scoreless in all three games in the Bahamas. Davenport also found some much-needed offense late in the first half, hitting two triples with under two minutes until the halftime break – each giving Arkansas the lead.

“It was really funny,” Musselman said, “I don’t know if I can remember a player, walking out of the huddle before the jump ball, he said ‘Do you want me to let it fly?’ I mean he literally was serious. I’m like ‘Well yeah, I guess if you’re open and if you have confidence, we want you to quote, unquote ‘let it fly.’”

“He waited until the end of the half obviously to let it fly. But yeah, we want to see (Davenport) shoot the ball with confidence. It really opens up our spacing for dibble drives when he’s knocking down shots.”

It’s clear to see that the Hogs have all the right pieces to be an elite team this season as they’ve yet to put it all together with game-to-game consistency. It’s worth paying attention to how well they play against another mid-major opponent after struggling with three in a row prior to leaving for the Bahamas, as well as how all of their guards play together once Mark is able to return.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Furman

The Paladins are a relatively up-tempo team, averaging roughly 15.2 seconds per offensive possession (No. 21 in the country) compared to Arkansas’ 17.0 seconds (No. 162). As a result of this, they’re taking almost four more field goal attempts per game than the Razorbacks, including nearly eight more 3-point attempts per game.

The Razorbacks’ struggles to defend in transition have been well-documented this season. Although they seemingly improved all aspects of their game against Duke, they still allowed 24 fast break points to the Blue Devils.

Yes, several of those came in the closing moments when Duke forced multiple turnovers with their full court press while the Hogs were attempting to run out the clock, but Arkansas still struggled to get back in transition on a few occasions. That’s been the case in virtually every game this season. Arkansas’ ability to slow down Furman and not give up easy fast break points will be a major key in this game.

The Hogs can beat themselves by not being mentally prepared for this game, but there shouldn’t be anything that the Furman basketball team puts on the court Monday night that Arkansas is incapable of handling, especially if their newfound sense of ball movement and defense carry over from the Duke game.

“I don’t think we should be satisfied at all,” Musselman said. “(The players) had fun, which you want, but when they came in the locker room, Furman’s depth chart was already up on our dry erase board as they came in and were celebrating the Duke win. So you’ve got to turn the page as quickly as possible.”

“We understand we have two big games this week leading with a Monday game against a team that’s really confident and well-coached.”

Furman is currently No. 146 in KenPom’s rankings, including an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking of No. 285. Neither number should strike fear into the hearts of the Razorbacks, but their first loss of the season came to UNC Greensboro, a team that ranks No. 97 in KenPom.

That home loss came mere days before the Hogs left for their tournament in the Bahamas – perhaps the upcoming trip weighing on their minds played a part in their lackadaisical effort. Arkansas vs Furman offers a similar test with distractions on either side of the contest.

The Razorbacks will have to master their emotions to focus on what they did well against Duke, but they’ll also have to be careful to not look beyond Furman to the looming matchup with Oklahoma at the BOK Center in Tulsa the following Saturday. The Hogs and Sooners will be facing each other for the third straight season looking to break a 1-1 tie, making it clearly a much bigger game on the schedule than Furman coming to town.

Game Prediction

Arkansas may not come out with the same level of intensity and focus as they did against Duke, but the fundamental changes to the offensive game plan that led to much-improved ball movement will carry over as the Hogs try to build momentum.

This game will never be in doubt, and Musselman will be able to utilize more of his bench depth than he has over the last five games. The Razorbacks learned their lesson about overlooking opponents in the loss to UNC Greensboro, so there won’t be many fireworks in this one.

Arkansas takes care of business and wins handedly before heading to the BOK Center for their final non-mid-major non-conference matchup with a major conference opponent.

Arkansas wins, 87-73

How to Watch Arkansas vs Furman

Date: Monday, Dec. 4.

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)

Tipoff Time/TV: 7 p.m. CT (SEC Network+ / ESPN+)

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has an 89.2% chance of winning, favored by 15.2 points.

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Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman previews the Arkansas vs Furman matchup:

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