By defeating Ole Miss 69-57 on Saturday, the Hogs won their first “Super Bowl” game of the season, according to Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman. As far as I can tell, a “Super Bowl” game is a must-win game on steroids. Unfortunately, because they sit at 2-5 in SEC play, there will be quite a few more “Super Bowl” games for this team — like, for instance, Tuesday night’s home tilt vs LSU.
As an aside, you have to feel a bit for Kermit Davis and Ole Miss. The Rebels lost their top player, Matthew Murrell, in the second half to a knee injury. Hopefully, he will not be out for the season. Despite the fact I enjoy poking fun at Davis’ fishing shirt/windbreaker combo, he seems like a nice guy when he’s not illegally encroaching on opposing players’ space on the court (more on that in a minute) and he gets the most out of his team.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Ole Miss basketball program. There was a time in the 1990s when Ole Miss was a destination for scrappy, but talented Arkansas prep players like Keith Carter, Jason Harrison and current UCA coach Anthony Boone.
A Glass-Half-Full View of Arkansas Basketball
The Razorbacks, meanwhile, have fallen out of the AP top 25 for the first time this season. In a glass-half-full way, I am choosing to look at this as a good thing. Frankly, I was shocked the Razorbacks were still in last week’s rankings. Not that I don’t think Hogs can be a top-25 team. They just haven’t been as of late.
I think Eric Musselman is a great underdog coach. Arkansas is a still talented team, despite the huge losses to injury this season. However, the Razorbacks cannot win playing undisciplined, uninspired games — or games where the officiating causes my father to float a point-shaving conspiracy theory that causes my brother and I to look at each other and say, “It’s possible.”
Musselman is having to make a lot of changes on the fly. The Hogs spent all summer and preseason expecting to have a much different team. Injuries to key players means different players have to step into larger roles. Arkansas needs three guys to step up and make shots from downtown: Devo Davis, Jordan Walsh and Joseph Pinion.
Jordan Walsh is starting to come on as a player after being plagued by foul trouble this season. To give the refs the benefit of the doubt, which they obviously don’t deserve, maybe Walsh was playing a little too much with his hands earlier in the season. I am not sure. Maybe it’s just a freshman not getting calls. But Arkansas needs him on the floor continuing to improve. Just based on what I’ve seen, it appears he shoots 3s better from the wings than the corner.
Fellow freshman Joseph Pinion, meanwhile, is deadly in the corner on the left side of the basket. Even when opposing coaches like Kermit Davis somehow get away with standing on the court right beside him on multiple occasions:
If Pinion can keep playing this well when it’s 6-on-5, as well as contributing on the boards and staying in front of his man on defense, he really opens up the floor for the other players.
Eric Musselman highlighted Devo’s work in the gym on his own after the game Saturday. It was great to hear. And it has shown up in his shooting the last four games, as he’s shot 44.4% from deep. He also continues to rebound and guard the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer.
Musselman ran some plays for Anthony Black in the post against Ole Miss on Saturday. I would love to see Black continue to use his size advantage on the block against smaller defenders, as he’s great at finishing over smaller players and getting open looks for his teammates when the defense collapses. Black has struggled keeping smaller guards out of the paint at times this season, but he continues to be the player I trust most with the ball.
Winning the game against Ole Miss going away with Ricky Council IV only scoring 2 points is another rose-colored glasses kind of situation. It is a good sign the team can win a game despite the rare off day from its leading scorer, but Arkansas needs the human highlight reel at full strength if it is going to get back to being a top-25 type team.
The Mitchell brothers are providing a ton of interior defense and rebounding for this team. Both finish with authority around the basket and Makhi has had some nifty interior passes for assists. Saturday’s game made clear the Hogs’ best lineups will include one or both moving forward. So naturally Mahkel Mitchell ended the game in a boot. I can’t remember a season so marred by injuries and officiating. Let’s hope the injury proves less serious and he can return to play soon.
I have loved the Kamani Johnson Experience at the University of Arkansas. He started Saturday and then spent the rest of the game engaged and hyping up his teammates from the bench. He leaves everything on the floor when he plays and is the first guy up off the bench to congratulate teammates. Simply put, this man is a great teammate. He just isn’t the finisher or shot blocker around the basket either of the Mitchell twins is.
Jalen Graham has played a grand total of nine minutes since his best game of the season against Alabama, including none against Ole Miss. He had 16 points on a scintillating 8 of 10 shooting. He was the best offensive option on the floor for long stretches against the top team in the conference. And a defensive lapse was what Musselman chose to focus on in the post game press conference.
It wasn’t even a lack-of-effort play. Graham over helped on defense and left his guy open for a three. Unfortunately, that led to an Alabama run that ended the chance of victory. It has been that kind of year for Graham. Despite his undeniable talent on the offensive end, Musselman refuses to play guys he doesn’t trust to defend and rebound at a high level. I’m afraid the chances of Graham making an impact this year for the Hogs may just slip away. Especially if both Michell brothers continue to play well.
Arkansas absolutely took care of business on a frigid Tuesday night as the Hogs put the spotlight on a foolish prediction by an LSU basketball player and knocked out the Tigers by 20 points. It was almost over by the end of the first half, yet after LSU made an attempt to come back early in the second half, it was promptly made to sit back down into place.
Eric Musselman doesn’t seem like the type of guy who looks forward, so I will. It seems clear that Arkansas will be in dog-fights with Texas A&M, Kentucky and Missouri to make the NCAA Tournament. It’s also not unthinkable one of Georgia, Florida and Mississippi State will make a push for a bid.
As much as I hate to say it, I find it hard to believe a team as talented as Kentucky will miss the tournament. The Wildcats handed Texas A&M its first conference loss of the season on Saturday, granted it was in Lexington. John Calipari stumbled onto a better lineup when point guard Sahvir Wheeler went out with an injury. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.
I think Arkansas has more talent than all the other teams mentioned. The Razorbacks will need to take care of business at home against LSU and Texas A&M and on the road against South Carolina leading up to the Feb. 7 game at Kentucky. If they do, that game may be a chance to start climbing back up the rankings.
The February road game against Kentucky is similar to the SEC-Big12 challenge game against Baylor on Saturday. These won’t be “Super Bowl” games, but may very well be the difference in a seedline or two this March — not that I am taking a tournament bid for granted. Baylor is going to be another team that plays some zone and will require Arkansas to make some 3s. The Bears play a three-guard lineup and, as a clear tournament team that just beat the defending national champion Jayhawks, presents Arkansas with another chance for a Quad 1 win on the road.
So where are the Hogs coming into the homestretch of the season? Still walking a tightrope. Arkansas basketball still has some winnable games at home. A good run here and it is right back in the thick of things. But the Razorbacks are also a bad loss away from being on the bubble. Undoubtedly, it’s not where Musselman’s charges expected to be at the beginning of the season, but this is the hand they have been dealt.
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…