A Reshuffled Roster Altered Arkansas’ Focus in Its Attack on Oklahoma

Makhi Mitchell, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Oklahoma
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

LIVE UPDATES – Arkansas vs Oklahoma

7:36, 1H – Oklahoma 30, Arkansas 23

What started out as a fun back-and-forth affair the first few minutes quickly turned in favor of Oklahoma, which made 11 of its first 13 shots, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc. Some of them were open looks, but the Sooners also made some tough shots. The lead grew to as many as 9.

It seemed like the Hogs had some momentum after a couple of buckets sandwiched around a blocked shot, but Oklahoma answered with a 3.

Arkansas isn’t playing bad on offense – shooting 52.6 percent from the floor (10 of 19) – but the Sooners just can’t miss.

HALF – Arkansas 43, Oklahoma 40

The Razorbacks trailed for nearly 14 minutes, but outscored the Sooners 10-2 over the final 2:07 to take a three-point lead into the half. Ricky Council IV had a 3-pointer and a three-point play to start that run. He’s got 17 points on 7 of 9 shooting after scoring just eight his last time out.

The Sooners are still shooting 62.1% for the game, but started 13 of 16 (81.3%) before ending the half by making just 5 of 13 (38.5%). Arkansas shot 56.7% for the half and was pretty consistent throughout.

It’s also worth noting that the Razorbacks were called for only three fouls in the first half, with the third coming with less than 2 seconds left. Oklahoma didn’t attempt a single free throw, compared to Arkansas going 7 of 9 from the stripe.

11:49, 2H – Arkansas 60, Oklahoma 51

The Razorbacks used some smothering defense to stretch their lead to 12 with 13:49 remaining. At one point early on, Makhi Mitchell used some incredible footwork to finish at the rim, then Anthony Black stole the inbounds pass and Nick Smith Jr. finished with a dunk.

Black limped off the court, but was able to check back in a couple minutes later.

Nick Smith Jr. has scored seven of Arkansas’ 17 points this half and is up to 17 points, which is tied with Council – who has yet to score this half – for the team lead.

FINAL – Arkansas 88, Oklahoma 78

Oklahoma managed to cut the deficit to single digits four times in the final five minutes as Arkansas went to its usual stall-ball tactics.

Nick Smith Jr. didn’t play the final 5:32 after getting shaken up. He jogged to the locker room, but returned to the sideline and didn’t appear to be in any pain.

Ricky Council IV led the Razorbacks with 26 points, while Smith finished with 21, Jordan Walsh had 12 and Makhi Mitchell had 10.

Starting Lineups – Arkansas vs Oklahoma

#12 – G Milos Uzan#0 – G Anthony Black
#25 – G Grant Sherfield#3 – G Nick Smith Jr.
#34 – G Jacob Groves#1 – G Ricky Council IV
#1 – F Jalen Hill#13 – G/F Jordan Walsh
#35 – F Tanner Groves#15 – F/C Makhi Mitchell

Arkansas vs Oklahoma Preview

A hard-fought win over UNC Greensboro on Tuesday did not come without a cost for Arkansas basketball.

Sophomore transfer Trevon Brazile came down awkwardly on a jump stop with 7:30 remaining in the first half of the 65-58 win, immediately grabbing his knee and requiring assistance to walk to the locker room. An MRI revealed that Brazile tore his ACL and will need season-ending surgery later this month.

“When we built the roster, (Brazile) was a big part of how we wanted to play with his versatility,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “It’s obviously a huge blow to us, but these things happen in athletics and we’ve got to figure out how we move forward.”

Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, this injury couldn’t have come at a more challenging time, as there isn’t another “cupcake” game awaiting them this weekend to offer an opportunity to get their new rotation in place.

Instead, they face a rematch with Oklahoma (7-2) — a team that embarrassed them by 22 points early last season. Musselman lost his temper in that game perhaps worse than he ever has at Arkansas, earning himself an ejection amidst the blowout loss after a foul wasn’t called in favor of his Hogs under the basket. The frustrations of a slow start and not being able to ever fully regain control of the game built up to such an outbreak — both things the Hogs will look to avoid this time around.

Even though only two current Razorbacks played in the blowout loss last season, the new-look Hogs still see this as an important game.

“We all saw what happened last year,” freshman Anthony Black said. “We had a talented team, but I think we have another talented team this year. This is a big game for us, and we’re going to come out ready to get it back.”

Tipoff of Arkansas vs Oklahoma is scheduled for noon CT Saturday at the BOK Center in Tulsa, marking the fourth neutral site game of the season for the Razorbacks.

What to Expect from Oklahoma

The Sooners return five players who faced the Hogs in their early-season matchup last year, but it’s a new transfer guard that has taken the spotlight in Norman.

Grant Sherfield, a 6-foot-2 senior, transferred to Oklahoma this offseason after stints with Wichita State (2019-20) and Nevada (2020-22). During his two years with the Wolfpack, he averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists on 35% 3-point shooting. He continued a streak of Nevada players earning All-MWC honors that stretches back to Musselman’s time with the Wolfpack when both Caleb and Cody Martin were all-conference players.

Now, in his first year with the Sooners, the crafty ball-handler has averaged 17.1 points and 4.4 assists while shooting an absurd 56% from long range. Sherfield isn’t an explosive athlete, but he has a quick first step and soft touch from virtually everywhere on the court. Considering he’s taken nearly double the shot attempts as his next closest teammate, expect the defensive game plan to be heavily focused on shutting down the senior guard.

“He’s a dynamic scorer,” Musselman said. “He can really shoot the 3 — 11 made 3s in his last two games. He’s got a really good off-the-drill pull-up, so he’s a really tough cover. He’s a really, really good offensive player.”

The next three players averaging the most minutes behind Sherfield are all returning seniors – and they all played against Arkansas last season. Brothers Tanner and Jacob Groves combined for 20 points and 5 rebounds on 3-of-6 from long range in last year’s matchup. Now, Tanner leads his team in rebounding at 6.9 per game to go along with 11.1 points per game, followed closely by 8.7 points per game from his younger brother Jacob.

Jalen Hill, a 6-foot-7 forward, rounds out the trio of returning seniors with 7.8 points and 4.6 rebounds in roughly 32.1 minutes per game. He turned in 11 points and 8 rebounds against the Razorbacks last year.

As a team, Oklahoma ranks in the top 50 in 3-point percentage this season at 38.1%, though this stat is heavily boosted by Sherfield’s 25-of-45 start to the season. The Sooners also rank in the top 25 in 3-point defense at 27%, setting a mark even lower than Arkansas’ 28.3% allowed to opposing shooters. In fact, Oklahoma is currently No. 5 in the country in fewest 3-pointers allowed at 4.6 per game – Arkansas ranks No. 37 at 5.4.

Arkansas Adjusting to New Rotation

The shockwave of losing Trevon Brazile will be felt in full force on Saturday as Musselman and his staff attempt to replace the sophomore’s production.

“He’s 6-foot-11 and can guard 3s, 4s and 5s,” Musselman said. “(Brazile) was a leader for us when we went and played the four games overseas. He’s been a go-to player and a guy that we’ve relied on… There’s going to be an adjustment, there’s no doubt about it.”

Fortunately, Musselman has previously called this team the deepest he’s ever coached, giving him several different options in the wake of losing his star forward including a potentially increased role for players like the Mitchell twins, Jalen Graham, Kamani Johnson and Jordan Walsh. Regardless of who steps up, Musselman is confident that his team can adapt and overcome its new-found situation.

“Lindsey Drew was the first player I recruited,” Musselman said about a similar situation he experienced at Nevada. “He and I couldn’t have been on more of the same wavelength as a point guard and a head coach.

“He tore his Achilles and we moved our power forward, Cody Martin, to the point guard spot… We ended up being a basket away from making an Elite Eight. When Lindsey got hurt, quite frankly, I didn’t know if we were going to win another game because we relied on him so much. I used that as an example with this team.”

What to Expect from Arkansas

Nick Smith Jr. tallied his best statistical game of the season against UNC Greensboro on Tuesday night, pouring in 22 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 1 block in 39 minutes of action.

The most important part of this game for Razorback fans was Smith’s ability to stay on the court for extended stretches – including the entirety of the second half – and still make game-changing plays down the stretch, such as his coast-to-coast finish plus the foul to give Arkansas a seven-point lead with less than 1:30 remaining.

Smith continues to show off his versatility as a scorer, whether it be off the dribble, spot up threes or navigating off-ball screens. He’ll now face his biggest test of the regular season, not only in attempting to replace a portion of Brazile’s 13.3 points per game, but also in being an efficient scorer against a Power 5 team for the first time (not counting the exhibition game versus Texas).

At 6-foot-2, Grant Sherfield will likely be matched up with Smith defensively. He is essentially an average defender judging by his defensive metrics, posting a defensive box plus/minus of 0.6, but he doesn’t gamble for steals often or generate a lot of turnovers – as is the case with most of Oklahoma’s defenders. Smith should be able to take advantage of this matchup at times offensively, though he likely won’t get many wide-open looks.

Junior guard Devo Davis had one of his better games of the season against UNCG, as well. He recorded his first career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds to go along with 3 steals and a perfect 4 of 4 from the charity stripe. He did, however, shoot 3 of 13 from the field and took a couple of ill-advised shots.

Musselman and Arkansas basketball fans alike would probably prefer to see better shot selection from the veteran, but the Razorbacks have to live with some of those misses that come with a “homerun hitter” like Davis because the big plays that he does connect on down the stretch can change the outcome of a game.

Makhi Mitchell stepped up in a big way after the injury to Trevon Brazile, recording his first double-double of the season with 13 points and 14 rebounds – the second-highest rebounding total of his career. The 6-foot-9 transfer is averaging 18.9 minutes per game as a starter, but expect his role to increase even further moving forward.

As a team, Arkansas has shot 27% or worse from beyond the arc in three of its last four games: 18% against San Diego State in Maui and then 27% against Troy and 17% against UNCG at home. The lone exception during that stretch was an 8-of-13 (61.5%) performance against San Jose State.

Anthony Black leads the team in 3-point percentage at 40.7%, which has been bolstered by him making 5 of 9 attempts over the last three games. The freshman was quick to credit his coaches and teammates for giving him confidence to keep shooting after he shot just 25% over the first three games of the season.

“My teammates and coaches have been telling me to be more confident since the Fordham game when I didn’t really shoot it well (1 of 6 from long range),” Black said. “I was second-guessing myself shooting it. They told me, ‘Shoot it with confidence. We’ve seen you make a lot of shots every day and we trust you to make shots.’ After that, it’s just my teammates getting me good, open looks.”

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Oklahoma

As a team, the Sooners rank 328th nationally in turnovers forced at only 10.7 per game while turning it over 12.3 times themselves. This provides the Hogs a prime opportunity to win the turnover battle and potentially turn the tide of the game in their favor early.

It also means Oklahoma’s defense isn’t overly aggressive in trying to create steals. This might seem like a positive for Arkansas, but the Sooners’ willingness to play defense without their hands has also allowed them to rank in the top 70 in fewest fouls committed at only 15.6 per game (Arkansas commits 18.4). Oklahoma allows just 13.3 free throw attempts per game, a stark contrast from the 23 free throw attempts the Razorbacks have averaged in their nine outings this season.

Without the added 3-point shooting of Brazile, Arkansas could potentially lean further into its size and ability to attack the paint from every position, but it won’t be an easy task if they aren’t able to draw the fouls they’re accustomed to. Musselman described Oklahoma as a “very, very solid, really disciplined defensive team.”

The Sooners will provide the most disciplined defensive matchup the Hogs have seen since their loss to Creighton – the Bluejays rank No. 30 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings while the Sooners check in only a few spots lower at No. 34. For reference, Arkansas ranks No. 9 in this metric.

Finishing at the rim will be imperative for the Hogs in this game, especially if they experience another poor shooting night like they’ve seen in three of their last four games. The turnover and free throw battles – along with the Razorbacks’ ability to slow down Sherfield’s offensive onslaught – will likely be the primary factors that determine the outcome of this early-season test.

Game Prediction – Arkansas vs Oklahoma

Arkansas will come out slow, as it has the last two games, and the team will surely feel the absence of its breakout big man as Eric Musselman tinkers with the new rotation. Don’t be surprised if he leans heavily on the “small-ball” group of Smith, Black, Davis, Council and Makhi that closed out the UNCG win as much as possible for this first major test without Brazile until he has more time to figure out the rotation.

Despite a subpar shooting performance in a neutral site, the Razorbacks’ defensive gameplan will be focused and efficient as they slow down Sherfield enough to stay alive in a low-scoring affair. Arkansas picks up another hard-fought, resume-building win in front of a near-even-split crowd of Sooner and Razorback fans in Tulsa before returning home for their final non-conference tune-up game.

Arkansas, 69-63

How to Watch Arkansas vs Oklahoma

Date: Saturday, Dec. 10

Location: BOK Center (Tulsa, Okla.)

Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: Noon CT (ESPN2)

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 62.7% chance of winning, favored by 3.3 points

Watch Eric Musselman and Anthony Black preview the Arkansas vs Oklahoma matchup:

Here are highlights from last year’s Arkansas vs Oklahoma matchup:


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