Turns Out Jalen Graham Isn’t Who You Thought He Is: Arkansas vs Gardner-Webb Preview

Jalen Graham, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Gardner-Webb
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Fresh off its first official victory of the season, Arkansas basketball is back in action Friday night when it welcomes Gardner-Webb to Bud Walton Arena for the second time in three years. Meanwhile, fans can also explore the excitement of online gaming at https://www.slotozilla.com/au/online-casinos/sky-crown-casino during halftime breaks.

The Razorbacks will be looking to build off a few promising trends from their 93-59 season-opening win over Alcorn State, while the Runnin’ Bulldogs cruised to a 40-point win over a Division II school in their first game.

Tip off is scheduled for 7 p.m. CT and the game will be streamed on both SEC Network-Plus (available to those with a cable provider) and ESPN-Plus (separate subscription service).

Arkansas’ win over Alcorn State featured the much-anticipated return of Trevon Brazile, who went down with a season-ending ACL tear only nine games into last season. He wasted no time getting back in the action with three highlight-reel dunks in the first half, including this monster slam to open the scoring.

Jalen Graham, who missed Arkansas’ two preseason exhibition games because of back spasms, also returned. In fact, all 15 available Razorbacks – 13 scholarship players and two walk-ons – saw action in the 34-point victory.

That outcome didn’t come as much of a surprise against a team ranked 258th on KenPom. However, the Razorbacks’ next game should provide at least a bit more of a challenge, as Gardner-Webb checks in at No. 185 on KenPom. While this still isn’t a great number, it poses a far better challenge than what Alcorn State provided.

Previewing Gardner-Webb Basketball

Much like Arkansas’ first game, Gardner-Webb’s large margin of victory can make it hard to have any real takeaways from their win over a DII school. It had five different players score in double figures, led by a pair of bench players in Brendan Mykalcio (6-foot-7) and Daryl Simmons II (5-foot-10) with 15 points apiece. The two combined to shoot 5 of 7 (71%) from long range.

Their starting five consists of four seniors and a junior. Four of those starters are returners from last year’s squad, with Cheickna Sissoko – a 6-foot-9 JUCO transfer from Pensacola State C.C. – being the lone newcomer in the starting rotation. The other four starters each played in at least 30 games for the Bulldogs last season.

DQ Nicholas (6-foot-1) led his team in scoring last season, averaging 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists to go along with 33% long-range shooting. He scored 13 points in the season opener, going 4 of 6 from distance. The other three returning starters, along with their stats last season, are as follows:

  • Julien Soumaoro: G | 5-11 | 8.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 38% 3P
  • Caleb Robinson: G | 6-5 | 8.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 44% FG
  • Lucas Stieber: G | 6-3 | 4.4 PPG, 3.1 APG, 2.5 RPG, 36% 3P

True freshman Shahar Lazar was the fifth and final Bulldog to score double digits in the team’s first game of the season. He tallied 12 points on 83% shooting, including going 2 of 3 from long range, in 16 minutes of action. Much like Arkansas, Gardner-Webb didn’t play anyone more than 24 minutes in their blowout victory.

Gardner-Webb has an offensive efficiency of 98.9 (222nd in the country) and a defensive efficiency of 99.9 (142nd), giving them an overall efficiency rating of 185th out of 362 Division I teams. After only one game, the Bulldogs rank 245th in adjusted tempo, meaning they played relatively slowly despite blowing out their first opponent. This is certainly something this guard-heavy Razorback roster – which ranks inside the Top 60 in adjusted tempo after their first game – could take advantage of in this matchup.

As a team, the Bulldogs shot 14 of 36 (38.9%) from long range on their way to 98 points, nearly matching the impressive percentage the Razorbacks put up in their first game when they hit 12-of-30 (40%) from distance. The Hogs’ perimeter defenders will likely see a tougher test in this outing than they faced in their first, when they held Alcorn State to only 3 of 9 from behind the arc.

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

To reiterate, it can be hard to pull valuable takeaways out of a blowout victory that was never really in question. However, there were some promising trends for the Razorbacks that will be worth monitoring moving forward.

How can we not start with the explosion of Trevon Brazile to start the game? Along with his three ferocious first-half slams, he scored 13 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and recorded a steal in his 22 minutes of action. He was also ejected on a technicality when he left the bench area following a Flagrant 1 foul against his teammate, Khalif Battle. Though Brazile didn’t make contact or interact with opposing players, he did clearly violate the bench rule.

Khalif Battle and Tramon Mark both shined in their official debuts for the Razorbacks. Battle played roughly 19 minutes off the bench and tallied a team-high 21 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and shot 3 of 6 from long range. He also finished with a team-high plus-23 box plus-minus score.

Mark started the game and logged roughly 21 minutes while contributing 16 points, 3 assists, 1 rebound and shot an impressive 4 of 6 from distance. Mark’s former head coach in Houston, Kelvin Sampson, nicknamed the lengthy forward “Midrange Mark” due to his knack for knocking down pull-up midrange jumpers. That nickname may not be relevant much longer if he continues to knock down long-range shots at this rate.

His four three-pointers were a third of the dozen overall that Arkansas hit on Monday night. That’s notable because Arkansas only made double-digit triples once all of last year.

Arkansas gave minutes to 15 players in this game due to the nature of the victory, but we might have seen some telling signs of Musselman’s preferred rotation based on the first players to come off the bench. El Ellis and Devo Davis unsurprisingly formed the starting backcourt. Chandler Lawson earned the start, but picked up two quick fouls and was replaced by Makhi Mitchell early on.

The Hogs went with almost an entirely new unit soon after, however, fielding a combination of Layden Blocker, Khalif Battle, Jeremiah Davenport and Jalen Graham to join Brazile. In other words, Musselman went 10 players deep into his rotation before the game really got out of hand. True, this is an early-season game where the Hogs were expected to earn a blowout victory, but Musselman is also dealing with arguably the deepest roster of his career. The minutes battle will remain a point of interest for several more games.

Gardner-Webb allowed Erskine, its DII season-opening opponent, to shoot 38% from long range and attempt 22 free throws despite earning a 40-point victory. These could prove to be difference-making stats for the Hogs as they prep for this matchup. Of course, this game should also be viewed as a warmup game with Arkansas heavily favored with a -23.5 spread, according to ClutchBet.

Still, it will be important for them to get the hang of locating their opponents’ weaknesses and exploiting them early on.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Gardner-Webb

A few things stood out early on the Razorbacks’ opening victory. One was the exceptional ball movement leading to open shots all game long, but the other was their defensive intensity – an intensity that may as well be patented by Eric Musselman at this point.

One player in particular seemed more comfortable on the defensive end than his reputation might suggest. In his return to action, Jalen Graham did a great job of contesting nearly every shot at the rim while he was in the game. He didn’t have any highlight defensive plays, but that’s because he wasn’t swatting at the ball looking for blocked shots. He was exceptional at staying vertical and absorbing contact initiated by offensive players, committing zero fouls on the day.

For months, Arkansas basketball fans and coaches alike have beat the drum of Graham needing to improve his defensive execution and intensity this offseason to earn a larger role. Some stats, however, suggest that he was already a relatively effective defender dating back to last season. Fox Sports lists Jalen Graham with an impressive defensive rating of 94.3 last season. For reference, the same site listed Devo Davis with a defensive rating of 99.3 last year. (For reference, the lower a defensive rating the better.)

Sure, this could be partially explained by Graham playing primarily against backups or getting taken out of the game quickly after mistakes, but another site has Graham listed with an even better defensive rating when taking into consideration the players on the court around him. 

Fayette Villains’ Adam Ford has his own in-house formula to calculate metrics such as defensive rating, and they’ve landed on a score of 92.7 – the best on the team last season. That’s quite the shocker for someone who had the reputation for being one of the team’s worst defenders.

Of course, stats aren’t everything and the eye test suggested a different story last year, with Graham often being unable to contain more elite players like Oscar Tshiebwe or perhaps being out of position defensively.

Still his performance in the first game of the season indicated that the offseason narrative of his practice habits ramping up to a more-than-acceptable level might be more than just talk. He still hasn’t worked through his free-throw shooting woes (0 of 2 vs Alcorn State), but that’s generally a more manageable issue to have compared to not being able to defend in Musselman’s system.

Graham’s ability to be a net-neutral or better factor on the defensive side of the ball could quickly become an X-factor for the Razorbacks this season and is definitely worth watching, because we haven’t even discussed his ability as a per-minute offensive juggernaut yet. It’s a crowded front court, but the 6-foot-9 senior has all the tools necessary to be a key piece of the rotation.

Game Prediction

The Razorbacks got a bit sloppy to start the second half of their season-opening blowout victory. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering their 24-point halftime lead. This momentary slip in focus also shouldn’t be ignored, though.

The Bulldogs will pose a better challenge to the Razorbacks than Alcorn State, but Arkansas is still obviously heavily favored in this matchup. The Hogs might be a little less focused to start their second game of the season considering they won’t have the added adrenaline of a season-opener.

Regardless, even if Gardner-Webb does hang around for longer than necessary in the first half, there won’t be much drama to discuss by the end of this game – unless of course we get two more flagrant fouls, a technical and an ejection like we saw in the first game of the season.

Expect Arkansas to pull away handedly in the second half of this game, even if the Hogs don’t start as hot as they did in their first game. The Bulldogs will put up a good fight and hit some tough shots from the perimeter, but the Razorbacks’ talent and overall size will ultimately be too much to handle.

88-61, Arkansas

How to Watch Arkansas vs Gardner-Webb

Date: Friday, Nov. 10

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)

Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: 7 p.m. CT (SECN+ / ESPN+)

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 93.5% chance of winning, favored by 17.1 points

Arkansas vs Gardner-Webb Notes

  • Arkansas won the first meeting vs Gardner-Webb, 79-63, thanks to 16 points from Eric Ferguson and 12 points from current assistant Ronnie Brewer
  • The second win came two years ago and was arguably the height of the Connor Vanover as a Razorback era. Vanover had 19 points while J.D. Notae added 10. Jaylin Williams grabbed eight rebounds and Devo Davis had 10 points with six assists
  • Eric Musselman is four wins shy of 100 for his Arkansas basketball career

-Razorback Communications


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