Hogs Prepare to Host UNC Asheville After Almost Failing Their Last Trap Game Test

Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs UNC Asheville
photo credit: UNCA Athletics / Arkansas Athletics

LIVE UPDATES – Arkansas vs UNC Asheville

Pregame Tidbits

Nick Smith Jr. did not go through pregame warmups with the team. Not surprisingly, he is out of the starting lineup. In his place is junior guard Davonte Davis.

According to a press release from the UA, Smith is out indefinitely for “right knee management” – the same thing that caused him to miss the first six games of the season.

10:11, 1H – Arkansas 28, UNC Asheville 9

The Razorbacks are having their way with the Bulldogs so far. They have forced nine turnovers (leading to 16 points) and made 12 of their first 15 shots, including 2 of 3 from beyond the arc.

Ricky Council IV, Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham have six points apiece for Arkansas, which has made nine of its 12 shots off of assists.

The only negative so far has been Jordan Walsh picking up a pair of fouls within the game’s first four minutes, sending him to the bench.

HALF – Arkansas 44, UNC Asheville 24

The Razorbacks cooled off some and got a little bit sloppy, but still head to the locker room with a 20-point lead. They led by as much as 25.

Jalen Graham put on an offensive clinic every time he got the ball in the paint, using his excellent spin move to go 5 of 5 from the floor and score 10 points. He is tied with Ricky Council IV for the team lead in scoring.

Foul trouble limited Jordan Walsh to 4 minutes and Anthony Black to 10 minutes, leading to Derrian Ford and Joseph Pinion getting some solid minutes. Pinion even knocked down a corner 3.

It’s also worth noting that Kamani Johnson has cleaned up on the glass, grabbing six rebounds. Several of them were really tough and hard to believe he came down with.

HALFTIME STATS – Arkansas vs UNC Asheville

11:42, 2H – Arkansas 62, UNC Asheville 37

This one is all but over. The Razorbacks stretched their lead to 27 before a bucket by UNCA and are in cruise control.

Pinion knocked down another 3 and also has a couple of assists and a rebound. He’s one of seven different Razorbacks who’ve combined for 18 points so far this half, with each player between 2-4 points.

FINAL – Arkansas 85, UNC Asheville 51

At one point late in the game, Joseph Pinion threw down consecutive fast break dunks about one minute apart. That gave him 10 points to go along with 3 assists and 1 rebound.

It was Jalen Graham who led the Razorbacks in scoring, though. He utilized his spin move to perfection, finishing with 16 points on 8 of 10 shooting.

Walk-ons Cade Arbogast and Lawson Blake played the final 2:25.

FINAL STATS – Arkansas vs UNC Asheville

Starting Lineups

UNC AshevilleArkansas
#0 – G Trent Stephney#0 – G Anthony Black
#1 – G Jamon Battle#4 – G Davonte Davis
#3 – G Tajion Jones#1 – G Ricky Council IV
#4 – F Drew Pember#13 – G/F Jordan Walsh
#13 – F Nick McMullen#15 – F/C Makhi Mitchell

Arkansas vs UNC Asheville Preview

Despite a shaky record in North Little Rock over the past two decades, the Arkansas basketball team put on a show for a rowdy Simmons Bank Arena crowd Saturday afternoon.

The Razorbacks left little doubt as they cruised to a 76-57 win over Bradley and now must turn their attention to one final mid-major matchup against UNC Asheville. Before diving head-first into SEC play, they face a fast-paced Bulldogs squad that scores the ball in bunches, but doesn’t stack up with Arkansas on paper — which is exactly how every trap game in history started.

The last time the Razorbacks faced a potential trap game was a midweek matchup against UNC Greensboro. That game was sandwiched between a 40-point victory over San Jose State and a looming revenge-filled matchup against Oklahoma. They struggled all game before narrowly escaping with a 7-point victory.

Now, a similar situation presents itself against another North Carolina-based team. The Hogs are back in Fayetteville after an exciting atmosphere in central Arkansas, final exams are done, classes aren’t in session, Christmas is at the end of the week and SEC play is right around the corner. With so many potential distractions, head coach Eric Musselman and his staff have work to do in order to keep their young squad focused on the task at hand: out-playing a high-scoring UNC Asheville team.

“I’m not going to talk about anything other than (UNC Asheville) with our team,” Musselman said. “Nothing other than how do we beat Asheville? That’s really the one and only concern that we have right now as a group.”

What to Expect from UNC Asheville

The Bulldogs bring yet another experienced group of veterans to Bud Walton Arena, as is often the case with mid-major programs. Of the six players averaging more than 20 minutes, four are seniors and the other two are juniors. As a team, they rank No. 28 in the country in scoring at 81.8 points per game through 12 games this season. For reference, Arkansas is averaging 78.9 points in its 11 contests so far.

Drew Pember, one of the Bulldogs’ returning seniors, leads the team in three categories with 19.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game. He started his career at Tennessee from 2019-21. The 6-foot-10 forward played against the Hogs only once in his SEC career, going scoreless in two minutes of action as a freshman. Now, however, he’s leading his team on both sides of the ball, including shooting over 42% from long range in his second year with UNCA. He relies on his speed and shooting touch to take advantage of mismatches – both against slower big men on the perimeter and shorter wings in the post.

“Pember, especially offensively, is just having an absolutely phenomenal year,” Musselman said. “He’s averaging a double-double. He presents a lot of problems – obviously the 17 made threes at 41%, he’s an excellent free-throw shooter at 85%.

“He’s done a good job as an assist player, as well, from the center spot. It’s not often you see somebody (at that position) second or third on a team in assists with 23. He is definitely a guy  that can (hurt us) in multiple ways.”

Pember weighs just 190 pounds and plays alongside Nick McMullen – a 6-foot-8, 235 lbs junior – who acts as the center at times for the Bulldogs. It will be interesting to see which player draws the defensive matchups of Makhi Mitchell and Jordan Walsh to start the game. Mitchell’s impressive defense may be necessary against Pember’s versatile offensive attack, but Walsh’s thinner stature and quickness could make him better suited to pester Pember rather than fighting for position down low against McMullen.

Caleb Burgess, a 6-foot-3 senior, leads UNC Asheville in assists with 2.9 per game in only 16.1 minutes. The Hofstra transfer isn’t a scoring threat, averaging 1.9 points on 22% FG shooting, but joins Pember as the only players on the roster who have faced Arkansas in their careers. Burgess scored 3 points in only 5 minutes of action in Hofstra’s infamous victory over Arkansas in North Little Rock last season. 

Tajion Jones paces UNC Asheville in 3-point shooting, hitting upwards of 48% on nearly 7 attempts per game. The 6-foot-5 wing is currently playing in his fifth season with the Bulldogs and ranks 16th nationally in 3-point percentage – and is second among players who have at least 80 attempts.

As a team, UNC Asheville shoots the ball extremely well from the perimeter. They rank No. 22 in the nation in 3-point percentage and boast five players hitting at least 37% from deep on over 3 attempts per game. Three of those players are hitting over 42% of their long-range attempts.

Notable long-range threats for UNC Asheville:

  • Taijon Jones shoots 48% on 6.8 attempts
  • Alex Caldwell shoots 44% on 3.1 attempts
  • Drew Pember shoots 42% on 3.8 attempts
  • Fletcher Abee shoots 39% on 4.6 attempts
  • Dean Gabrelcik shoots 37% on 4.5 attempts

What to Expect from Arkansas

The Hogs put on a show in their 10th victory of the season Saturday, taking down Bradley. As a team, Arkansas forced 27 turnovers – falling three short of its season high 30 against Fordham – and capitalized on several fast break opportunities, including a few ferocious slams from Jordan Walsh.

Walsh turned in easily his best game as a Razorback thus far. He poured in 18 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 4 steals while shooting a perfect 7 of 7 from the field (including 1 of 1 from deep) and hitting 3 of 4 free-throw attempts. He was the focal point of the following sequence that happened in less than 20 seconds of game time:

  • Jordan Walsh steal
  • Jordan Walsh dunk (Anthony Black assist)
  • Devo Davis steal
  • Jordan Walsh dunk (Anthony Black alley-oop assist)

Walsh is now averaging 15 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals and 1 assist with shooting splits of 75/50/75 from the field, 3-point line and free throw line, respectively, in his last two games – also his first two games since Trevon Brazile went down with a season-ending torn ACL.

“I think you look at a player that’s really stepped up since Brazile’s injury, it’s Jordan Walsh,” Musselman said. “I think everybody kind of assumed that another big would kind of eat up some of the minutes and the role that Brazile had, but Jordan Walsh has been the one that’s stepped up and taken those minutes and helped us from a scoring aspect and defensive standpoint.”

Walsh was joined by Ricky Council IV (16 points) and Anthony Black (15) in double-digit scoring against Bradley. Both players are accustomed to big scoring outputs, though this was the first time in four games that Black scored more than 11 points. He could come face-to-face with another tough defensive matchup on Wednesday night in Trent Stephney.

Black has a 5-inch height advantage over the 6-foot-2 guard, but Stephney is a disruptive on-ball defender averaging nearly 2 steals per game – including a 7-steal game on the road against Dayton earlier this season.

Black’s scoring hasn’t been as crucial for the Hogs since the return of Nick Smith Jr., but Smith left the game early in the second half with what appeared to be something bothering his leg. He had a slight limp and reportedly had his knee re-taped at halftime. Some discomfort combined with the double-digit Razorback lead led to Smith remaining on the bench for the final 17-plus minutes of game time.

This is the second consecutive game Smith has had to take a spot on the bench before the final buzzer due to an issue with his lower body. Musselman has not indicated anything of concern regarding Smith’s injury, but it’s worth monitoring the star freshman’s health as Arkansas approaches SEC play, especially after a vague answer from Musselman in Monday’s press conference.

“I was meeting with the staff, and we practice in 15 minutes and 48 seconds and once I get down there around the team… Obviously we’re starting our prep today on the court,” Musselman said when asked about Smith. “So don’t have any updates other than the fact that we’re going to go down there and get ready for UNCA.”

Makhi Mitchell turned in another well-rounded performance despite fouling out in 17 minutes. He still contributed 6 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 1 block during his time on the court.

It’s hard to take away much from a rotation standpoint in a 20-point victory, but it’s worth noting that Kamani Johnson and Jalen Graham virtually split the backup center role, playing 12 and 11 minutes respectively. With the absence of Brazile, these two are the clear-cut favorites to soak up minutes at center should Makhi Mitchell find himself in foul trouble again.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs UNC Asheville

UNC Asheville likes to play fast and get up a lot of shots, which isn’t surprising considering its head coach Mike Morrell is a Shaka Smart disciple. It’s been noted that they rank in the top 30 in scoring, but they also rank 54th in KenPom’s adjusted pace of play – an estimate of the number of possessions per 40 minutes. By comparison, Arkansas is No. 26 in the same metric.

With the versatile Pember (6-foot-10) and athletic McMullen (6-foot-8) as their main big men, the Bulldogs like to run in transition. They find open looks both on the perimeter and in cutters on fast breaks, leading to an efficient 50% team field goal percentage (20th in the country).

Arkansas, however, has seemingly found – or rather been forced into – their new identity after the departure of Trevon Brazile. With a center-by-committee approach, Musselman has given the keys to the team to his five wing players that eat up a lions’ share of the available minutes.

Nearly every lineup over the last two games for the Razorbacks has featured four of the following five players: Nick Smith Jr, Anthony Black, Devo Davis, Ricky Council IV and Jordan Walsh. In fact, for a small stretch in the game against Bradley, Musselman ran these five players onto the court with no true big man.

This “small ball” group that still features multiple 6-foot-7 or taller players in nearly every lineup gives the Hogs an immense amount of versatility and speed. This lineup allows them to switch virtually everything defensively and become lethal in transition when they force turnovers thanks to the combination of size and guard skills of everyone on the court.

In other words, the Hogs might just beat the Bulldogs at their own game Wednesday night.

Game Prediction

Back on their home court, the Hogs will find an added boost of energy and effort on the defensive side of the ball as they stifle an efficient offensive attack from UNC Asheville. However, the combination of many factors will lead to an occasionally stagnant half-court offense that prevents this game from becoming a shootout.

Coming off of back-to-back tweaks, Smith probably won’t see his usual 30-plus minutes unless absolutely necessary. Instead, Black, Council and Walsh will again lead the way offensively. Some players just outside of the usual rotation like Ford, Dunning and Pinion will see some extra minutes as the Hogs pull away late and narrowly miss covering the 21-point margin set by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

Arkansas, 80-61

How to Watch Arkansas vs UNC Asheville

Date: Wednesday, Dec. 21

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)

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

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 95% chance of victory, favored by 21.1 points.


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