Arkansas vs Tennessee: Key Lies in Cutting Off Barnes’ Head of the Snake

Rick Barnes, Eric Musselman, Tennessee basketball, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Tennessee
photo credit: Tennessee Athletics / Arkansas Athletics

LIVE UPDATES – Arkansas vs Tennessee

Pregame Tidbits

The Volunteers got Josiah-Jordan James back from injury Saturday, but are still waiting on two others who Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes classified as game-time decisions when he met with reporters Monday: freshman forward Julian Phillips (hip flexor) and senior guard Tyreke Key (ankle).

9:49, 1H – Tennessee 13, Arkansas 10

Arkansas threw up four straight ugly bricks to start the game, including a pair of long 2s and a deep 3. It wasn’t until four minutes in that the Razorbacks finally scored on a 3 by Smith. Tennessee jumped out to a 7-0 lead.

Tennessee point guard Zakai Zeigler went down with a non-contact injury less than three minutes into the game. He was grasping his left knee and in obvious pain. He had to be helped off the court. It didn’t look good.

The Vols have played some aggressive defense early and the Hogs have been a big sloppy, leading to six turnovers so far.

As expected, it’s been a low-scoring slugfest. All but one of Tennessee’s points has come in the paint.

HALF – Tennessee 34, Arkansas 25

Arkansas settled for 3s and long 2s way too many times in the first half, resulting in a 9 of 24 (37.5%) shooting performance. That was when it wasn’t turning the ball over, which it did 10 times.

The Razorbacks also couldn’t keep Tennessee off the glass, giving up nine offensive rebounds that led to 12 second-chance points.

They’re fouling a ton, too, with both Ricky Council IV and Makhel Mitchell picking up three fouls and Nick Smith Jr. picking up two.

Anthony Black has a team-high 9 points for Arkansas, but he’s also got four of those turnovers – a couple of which were lazy passes right to the Volunteers.

HALFTIME STATS – Arkansas vs Tennessee

11:44, 2H – Tennessee 53, Arkansas 39

Anthony Black committed another couple of turnovers in the first 73 seconds of the second half, with the second directly leading to a dunk by Tennessee. That led to a quick timeout by Musselman.

The Razorbacks managed to get back within seven after the lead grew to 13, but Tennessee has since stretched it back out to 14.

Arkansas is up to 14 turnovers for the game, leading to 15 points for the Volunteers. It is also getting whipped inside, getting outscored 34-10 in the paint.

FINAL – Tennessee 75, Arkansas 57

It was never particularly close down the stretch. Davonte Davis hit a 3 and then came up with a steal and fast break layup just a few seconds apart with about 8 minutes left, cutting the lead to 12, but Tennessee answered with a 10-0 run and that was all she wrote. The Vols led by as many as 24.

FINAL STATS – Arkansas vs Tennessee

Starting Lineups

Tennessee BasketballArkansas Basketball
#5 – G Zakai Zeigler#0 – G Anthony Black
#23 – G Santiago Vescovi#4 – G Davonte Davis
#15 – G Jahmai Mashack#3 – G Nick Smith Jr.
#13 – F Olivier Nkamhoua#13 – G/F Jordan Walsh
#0 – F Jonas Aidoo#15 – F/C Makhi Mitchell

Arkansas vs Tennessee Preview

Like so many times this season, Arkansas basketball was agonizingly close to picking up a big road win Saturday afternoon, only to come up just short.

The Razorbacks nearly erased a 12-point deficit with about three minutes left, cutting Alabama’s lead to two in the closing seconds, but a game-tying 3 at the buzzer from Ricky Council IV was off the mark. It was an impressive rally against the No. 2 team in the nation, but still resulted in yet another three-point road loss.

Poor free throw shooting — Arkansas shot 20 of 29 from the stripe compared to Alabama’s 25 of 30 — along with a 27-9 run from the Tide to start the second half ultimately cost Arkansas a game in which it won several other small battles within the war. The Hogs forced more turnovers, recorded more steals and blocks, and shot far better from beyond the 3-point arc against a notably good 3-point shooting team.

“This Alabama team is obviously ranked second in the country,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “And playing at home it hadn’t lost a game. I thought our effort was tremendous… Unfortunately for us, we came up three points shy. We’ve had a lot of close road games that could have gone either way, and we’re some free throws away.”

If there was a silver lining in the loss, it’s that Arkansas actually rose one spot to No. 14 in the NET rankings. Of course, the narrow margin alone didn’t cause the Hogs to move up — Creighton (previously No. 14) losing to Villanova (No. 83) allowed both Arkansas and San Diego State to rise in the rankings.

Arkansas doesn’t have much time to dwell on the loss because it has a quick turnaround before hitting the road again to face Tennessee. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. CT Tuesday in Knoxville, Tenn., and the game will be aired on ESPN2.

Fortunately for the Razorbacks, the Arkansas vs Tennessee matchup is another Quadrant 1 opportunity — essentially making it a no-loss situation from a resume standpoint. A win would go a long way for the team’s confidence and resume, but a loss shouldn’t hurt them much at all come Selection Sunday.

What to Expect from Tennessee

Arkansas should be no stranger to Tennessee’s core. A pair of seniors – Santiago Vescovi and Uros Plavsic – are set to play their sixth career game against Eric Musselman and the Hogs, while Josiah-Jordan James will make his fifth appearance against Arkansas on Tuesday night.

James has averaged 9.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.5 steals in four matchups against Arkansas and is now putting up 10.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.0 steals for Tennessee this season.

Though his floor-spacing versatility has been vital for Tennessee, the senior forward has only played in 16 of his team’s 28 games due to battling injuries all season. He returned to the court on Saturday against South Carolina for the first time since Feb. 8 against Vanderbilt.

“His presence has such a major impact on our team,” Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes said. “He’s been in so many big opportunities, big-game situations. I think his presence takes a lot of pressure off of guys. He gives his teammates a comfort.”

Plavsic – a true 7-foot center – has averaged only 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds on 63% shooting in his five previous games against the Hogs. Now a senior, he’s averaging career-highs in points (5.3) and field goal percentage (66%) to go along with 3.7 rebounds and only 0.3 blocks in 27 games this season. Though he’s always a potential threat due to sheer size, the big man shouldn’t provide any more of a challenge than other SEC big men have given the Mitchell twins.

Vescovi is a feisty, 6-foot-3 guard who has averaged 10.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.2 steals against Arkansas – though he’s shot only 34% from the field and 28% from long range. This season, the senior guard is contributing 12.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.0 steals per game on 35% 3-point shooting.

Though he’s arguably Tennessee’s best player, don’t be surprised if Musselman deploys Anthony Black’s length against Vescovi since he is also the Volunteers’ best shooter. Devo Davis is typically the Hogs’ go-to lockdown defender, but his lateral quickness and high defensive IQ might be better-served against Tennessee’s point guard: Zakai Zeigler.

Standing at 5-foot-9, Zeigler is one of the best point guards in the SEC thanks to his own quickness and all-around basketball IQ. The sophomore guard is averaging 11.0 points, 5.5 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals.

His ability to attack his primary defender and create plays for others – as well as hitting 83% of his 2.5 free-throw attempts per game – could cause major problems for Arkansas. If they’re able to slow him down, though, it could throw off the rest of the Tennessee offense. Smith could also be a good matchup for the shifty point guard, freeing up Davis to take responsibility for Vescovi instead.

Other notable players in the Volunteers’ rotation:

  • Olivier Nkamhuoa: 6-foot-8 senior | 10.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 0.7 BPG, 51% FG
  • Julian Phillips: 6-foot-6 freshman | 9.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.6 APG, 41% FG
  • Tyreke Key: 6-foot-3 senior | 8.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 34% 3P
  • Jonas Aidoo: 6-foot-11 sophomore | 4.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 49% FG
  • Jahmai Mashack: 6-foot-4 sophomore | 4.2 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 31% 3P

Now in his seventh season with the Volunteers, Barnes has been known for having a stellar offense, but his team has leaned heavily on their defensive prowess this season. They currently rank No. 1 in the adjusted defensive efficiency, but only No. 62 in offensive efficiency.

As a team, Tennessee is averaging 8.6 steals and 14.6 turnovers forced this season – though those numbers drop to 7.2 steals and 13.0 turnovers forced against SEC teams. It will be vital for the Hogs to put forward their best foot offensively to stand a chance against this stingy Volunteer defense. Thankfully, Nick Smith Jr has helped the Razorbacks turn over a new leaf in the offensive department over the last several games.

What to Expect from Arkansas

Since Nick Smith Jr returned to the starting lineup against Florida, the Hogs have put together their best offensive stretch of the season. In this three-game span, the Razorbacks are averaging 88.0 points on 54% shooting overall and 45% shooting from beyond the arc.

Of course, Smith has directly played a role in this uptick in offensive production with his 20.0 points per game on 45% – 47% – 82% shooting splits. However, simply being present on the court has also led to more spacing for shooters, better driving and passing lanes for his teammates, and a general higher energy level to the team as a whole.

Prior to the matchup with Alabama, Musselman noted that self-inflicted turnovers were one of the biggest areas he wanted to see his team improve. In its last two games, Arkansas has turned the ball over a total of 16 times – easily its best mark for a two-game stretch all season. Smith has played a major part in this turnaround as well. Obviously, having only one total turnover in two games is excellent, but his ability to push the pace and draw defensive attention has helped the entire team with ball security.

“The one area we’ve wanted to improve on is our turnovers and our self-inflicted turnovers,” Musselman said before the matchup with Alabama. “Nick being out there changes our spacing offensively, which has an effect on turnovers.”

This is perhaps even more impressive considering the Razorbacks’ best playmaker in Anthony Black played only 16 total minutes against the Tide. He picked up two fouls early and never got into a rhythm in the second half. He will likely be looking to have a big game against the Volunteers, though he may have to deal with considerable length and physicality from Tennessee defensively.

Devo Davis and Ricky Council IV joined Smith in Arkansas’ improved offensive attack against Alabama as well, scoring 21 and 20 points, respectively. Davis also did an exceptional job at keeping Brandon Miller off of the 3-point line – a major focal point for the Hogs coming into the game – though Alabama’s star forward still managed a team-high 24 points. As a team, Alabama shot only 3 of 22 from long range after shooting 41% from long range in its previous seven games.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Tennessee

Only one time this season has Arkansas played a team that ranks outside the top-60 in offensive efficiency and inside the top-10 in defensive efficiency – Tennessee ranks No. 62 and No. 1, respectively. The Hogs lost that game to Mississippi State, which ranks No. 175 on offense and No. 4 on defense.

However, that game came against what projected to be a subpar opponent on paper sandwiched between a massive win over Kentucky and a looming rematch with Texas A&M – both top-5 teams in the SEC.

It was also Smith’s first game back in action. He played a total of 17 minutes and scored 5 points on 2 of 7 shooting. In the following game against Texas A&M, Smith went scoreless in only 4 minutes of game time. It wasn’t until his first start against Florida that the star guard started to find his footing offensively.

Arkansas is a different team than it was even just two weeks ago when it suffered the disappointing loss to Mississippi State — largely due to Smith’s presence, but also because of the confidence the Razorbacks gained as a team offensively in their last three games.

Their ability to get quality looks on the road against the Volunteers – and knock down a higher percentage of their free throws – will be the difference in the ballgame.

Game Prediction – Arkansas vs Tennessee

The Razorbacks trail the all-time Arkansas vs Tennessee series 24-22, which includes an abysmal 4-15 mark in Knoxville. They’re 2-3 against the Volunteers under Eric Musselman, with all three losses coming on the road. It has been more than six years since Arkansas beat Tennessee on its home court.

However, the loss in Knoxville last season came after a valiant effort from the Hogs. Without Au’Diese Toney (ankle sprain), Arkansas rallied from a 23-point deficit to cut Tennessee’s lead to 75-73 with less than a minute to play. The Razorbacks ultimately came up short, but the impressive rally on the road helped slingshot them into their second consecutive Elite Eight run.

Now, with essentially an entirely new team, Arkansas needs a similar boost heading into tournament season. Naturally, a Quad 1 win on the road would elevate the Hogs greatly – both on paper and in their own confidence levels – but even a close, well-fought loss could provide a bit of momentum.

Smith’s presence will make the difference for the Razorbacks in this heavyweight SEC showdown, as he leads the way offensively with another 20-plus points. Black will bounce back from his struggles in Tuscaloosa and Davis and Council will provide enough of a secondary scoring punch for the Hogs. Jalen Graham might even see extended minutes against an elite defensive squad thanks to his offensive prowess.

Arkansas puts a statement win on their resume less than a week before the regular season ends.

Arkansas, 71-66

How to Watch Arkansas vs Tennessee

Date: Tuesday, Feb. 28

Location: Thompson-Boling Arena (Knoxville, Tenn.)

Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: 8 p.m. CT (ESPN2)

ESPN BPI: Tennessee has an 88.7% chance of winning

KenPom: Tennessee has a 73% chance of winning

SEC Basketball Standings

TeamSEC RecordOverall Record
1. Alabama15-125-4
2. Texas A&M13-321-8
3. Kentucky11-520-9
4. Tennessee10-621-8
t-5. Missouri9-721-8
t-5. Auburn9-719-10
t-5. Vanderbilt9-716-13
8. Arkansas8-819-10
t-9. Mississippi State7-919-10
t-9. Florida7-914-15
11. Georgia6-1016-13
t-12. Ole Miss3-1311-18
t-12. South Carolina3-1310-19
14. LSU2-1413-16

Check out highlights from last year’s Arkansas vs Tennessee game at Bud Walton Arena:


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