For the third time in four years under head coach Eric Musselman, Arkansas enters SEC play with one or fewer losses. It does so this season with the lone blemish coming against then-No. 10 Creighton at the Maui Invitational.
There’s no shame in that, though, because the Bluejays are No. 34 in the NET, so the loss — for now — falls into Quadrant 1. The four quadrants, which are set by the NET rankings, are a tool used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee to determine the quality of wins and losses throughout the season.
The fact that the Razorbacks’ only loss is in one of their three Q1 games so far is the best-case scenario at this point of the season. Throw in one Q2 win and Arkansas is already up to No. 10 in the NET rankings.
Of course, Arkansas basketball fans — and Musselman — have a love-hate relationship with the NET, which ranked the Razorbacks lower than LSU on Selection Sunday despite three head-to-head victories.
Even though they have matching 11-1 records heading into Wednesday’s SEC opener in Baton Rouge, La., Arkansas has flipped the script and is much higher than the Tigers because they have played a much weaker schedule. LSU’s non-conference foes have an average NET ranking of 219.3, compared to the 149.8 average of Arkansas’ non-conference opponents.
The Tigers have played only two teams inside the NET top 100, defeating Wake Forest (No. 89) and falling at the hands of Kansas State (No. 32), while playing only one other team inside the NET top 175, beating Akron (No. 137) in a neutral site game. LSU’s 61-59 loss to Kansas State is its only Q1 game right now, making it 0-1 in that category heading into conference play.
These rankings don’t inherently give Arkansas the upper hand over LSU — especially not on the Tigers’ home court – but they certainly paint a different picture than a quick glance at the teams’ identical records might portray.
What to Expect from LSU
As a team, LSU shoots the ball efficiently, but at a relatively low volume. The Tigers’ 21.4 three-point attempts per game ranks 211th in the country, but they knock them down at a 36% clip. By comparison, Arkansas shoots 32% from long range on 15.4 attempts per game — both among the lowest marks in the country.
The Tigers’ 3-point attack is led by grad transfer KJ Williams. The 6-foot-10 forward spent four years at Murray State, playing alongside Ja Morant as a freshman in 2018-19, before following coach Matt McMahon to LSU this season. He shot a respectable 36% from long range as a Racer before exploding onto the scene for the Tigers, hitting at 50% from downtown on 3.8 attempts per game this season.
Williams is averaging 19.3 points and 8.3 rebounds to go along with his impressive shooting. This will be a major conference matchup right out of the gate for Arkansas center Makhi Mitchell, who has continually proven his defensive versatility so far this season.
Sophomore guard Adam Miller and former Razorback guard Justice “Juice” Hill round out the full-time starters for the Tigers. Miller is second on the team in scoring at 13.5 points per game while shooting 30% on nearly eight long range attempts per game, ranking him in the top 50 in the country in total 3-point attempts this season.
Hill, whose father is a former Arkansas football coach, signed with the Hogs while in high school in 2018 before joining the team a semester early in January 2019 when Mike Anderson was still the coach. Shortly after Musselman took over, Hill transferred to Salt Lake C.C., where he was named a NJCAA first-team All-American and the Region 18 Player of the Year. The next year he transferred to Murray State after providing some un-glowing comments about Arkansas’ new head coach on his Snapchat story in the spring of 2020:
In his second year with the Racers, Hill blossomed, tallying 13.4 points and 5.1 assists per game for a Murray State team that went 31-3 (18-0) and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a 7 seed. Now, after also following McMahon to LSU, the 6-foot-0 guard leads the team with 4.2 assists per game to go along with 8.7 points and 1.3 steals per game.
It’s unfortunate that Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr. is out indefinitely managing a knee injury, because this would’ve been a fun matchup to watch. Instead, watch for Davonte Davis — a member of the class of 2020 Hill referenced in his Snapchat stories — to draw this defensive matchup.
Junior guard Cam Hayes has moved into the Tigers’ starting lineup over the last three games and is averaging 13.7 points, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals, while shooting 63% from the field and 46% from beyond the arc. The N.C. State transfer seems to be finding his role in the offense after averaging only 7.3 points in his first two collegiate seasons. Limiting his open looks will likely be a big key in the Arkansas defensive game plan.
What to Expect from Arkansas
Arkansas put together perhaps its best defensive performance of the season in its final tune-up game versus UNC Asheville, holding the Bulldogs to a season-low 51 points. This was also the second-lowest point total allowed by Arkansas all season, falling just shy of the 48 points allowed to Fordham back in November.
Freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. was ruled out “indefinitely” per a university release mere minutes before tipoff due to managing an injury in his knee. On Monday, Eric Musselman said that his status “has not changed at all” and confirmed he would not play Monday. It sounds as though he’ll likely miss the next couple of games, at least.
Luckily, the Arkansas basketball team is 6-1 in games without Smith this year, and Ricky Council is confident in the team’s ability to adjust without the future lottery pick.
“(Smith) is a really good player and added to our team in a majority of ways, but we’ve just got to adjust,” Council said. “People have got to step up. I think we’ll be ready to go.”
The Hogs didn’t seem to feel Smith’s absence against UNC Asheville, as they jumped out to a double-digit lead less than five minutes into the game and never looked back. No one played more than 28 minutes and every healthy player on the roster, including both walk-ons, played at least 2 minutes in the 34-point blowout.
As a team, Arkansas showed off its ability to force turnovers as eight different players recorded a steal and big men Makhi Mitchell and Kamani Johnson finished with 3 steals each. The Bulldogs were forced into 20 total turnovers that allowed the Hogs to run in transition and add a few dunks to their highlight reel, including this somewhat unexpected cradle dunk from Joseph Pinion:
In the absence of Smith, Pinion made his case for extra playing time moving forward with his 10-point performance. The former four-star recruit shot 2 of 4 from beyond the arc and contributed 3 assists, 1 rebound and 1 steal in his 19 minutes of action. Pinion isn’t a shot creator like the other guards ahead of him in the rotation, but his smooth, efficient 3-point stroke could come in handy for the Hogs in certain situations should Smith miss extended time.
Jalen Graham again showed his affinity for scoring in the paint. The 6-foot-9 transfer put up an impressive 16 points on 80% shooting to go along with 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 assist and 1 block during his 19 minutes of action Wednesday night. With 6-foot-10 forward Trevon Brazile out for the season, Graham has been arguably the most popular candidate amongst the fanbase to soak up minutes in the frontcourt rotation.
“Somebody has to step up, for sure,” Musselman said. “Different guys have stepped up at different moments, whether you go back to the San Diego State game in Maui when Kamani really stepped up, or Jalen Graham last game really stepped up.”
Graham has definitely shown his ability to score against non-conference opponents, particularly in blowouts, but he might soon get his chance to show out on a bigger stage as the Hogs enter SEC play. LSU, for example, utilizes three players standing at least 6-foot-9 for more than 17 minutes per game.
Since losing Brazile, Musselman has established a center rotation around Makhi Mtichell (6-foot-9) and Kamani Johnson (6-foot-7) that worked well against non-conference opponents. It’s worth watching the minutes of Graham and Makhel Mitchell as the Hogs face bigger, stronger forwards in the SEC.
What to Watch in Arkansas vs LSU
It’s worth noting that the players leading the Hogs in minutes played, such as Anthony Black and Ricky Council, got extended rest in their most recent game. The week-long break between contests should give Arkansas fresh legs coming into its first SEC matchup — especially on the defensive side of the ball, where it has excelled this season.
Arkansas ranks No. 9 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, trailing only Tennessee and Mississippi State among SEC teams. the Razorbacks also rank No. 9 in the country in steals per game and No. 11 in total turnovers forced, according to NCAA.com. This all bodes well for the Hogs in their first true road game of the season, since defense often travels better than offense.
“I think for sure the fact we played the three games in Maui helps,” Musselman said of his team’s experience on the road. “We certainly feel like that game in Tulsa, even leaving Bud Walton and playing in North Little Rock, we’ve got a pretty good sample size of five games where we are out of our own element, so to speak…Certainly a league game is different than a non-conference game, and a league road game is much, much different than a normal road game.”
The Razorbacks’ elite defensive presence should serve them well against an LSU squad that only scores 73 points per game, which puts them at No. 162 in the country. By comparison, Arkansas ranks No. 52 at 79.4 PPG, including 83.3 PPG in games not played in Arkansas – the Hogs are 3-1 in such games.
Of course, playing a true SEC road game will be a different beast altogether for the Razorback defense.
“I think once you get into SEC play, people take a little bit better care of the ball and their structure and the way they play,” Musselman said. “And (Justice) Hill has such a comfortability within the system.”
The Razorbacks will likely have to flex their defensive muscles early and often against the Tigers to come home with a win in what will be the first true road game of all of the Arkansas freshmen’s career. Pay attention to LSU’s shooting splits – it currently averages 46% FG, 36% 3P, and 70% FT – along with the turnover battle as key deciding factors in this one.
LSU will put up a good fight on their homecourt, testing the young Razorbacks in their first road environment. Eric Musselman will center his game plan around slowing down senior forward KJ Williams, but his lower-scoring teammates will play better on their homecourt to keep the Tigers alive late into the game.
However, Arkansas’ defense and length will ultimately be too much for an LSU squad that has only faced a couple of true tests so far this season, their only loss coming to a Kansas State team that ranks No. 40 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. Ricky Council IV will lead the scoring charge as the Hogs win a low-scoring, tough-earned battle in Baton Rouge.
How to Watch Arkansas vs LSU
Date: Wednesday, Dec. 28
Location: Pete Maravich Assembly Center (Baton Rouge, La.)
Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: 8 p.m. CT (ESPN2)ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 65.4% chance to win, favored by 4.3 points.
Watch Eric Musselman and Ricky Council IV preview the Arkansas vs LSU matchup:
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