For the third straight season under Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball is struggling to begin the SEC portion of the regular season after a Wednesday night road loss at Georgia.
Because the last two seasons followed a similar script, some Razorbacks fans have faith that the Hogs will be able to turn things around in time for a deep run in March. However, this year has a very different feel to it than years past.
After all, no Arkansas team in program history has ever suffered a defeat in Bud Walton Arena as bad as they did to Auburn in last Saturday’s drubbing.
As the search for answers begins to reach a critical point, Razorback guard Khalif Battle shed some light on just how befuddling this roster’s issues are right now.
Khalif Battle Comments on Team Chemistry
In his weekly appearance on 103.7 the Buzz’s show “Morning Mayhem” with David Bazzel, Roger Scott and Justin Moore, Battle was peppered with questions about the team’s struggles in the loss to Auburn, throughout this season and their mindset going forward.
“You can kind of explain a loss maybe by 10 or 15,” Battle said about last Saturday. “But 30 is just a collective lack of everything, embarrassing and the fans didn’t deserve that at all. The people who really know what Arkansas basketball is about and spend their hard earned money on it, they don’t deserve that.”
Battle also said that the last couple of days of practice have been tough, and that guys, including himself, have to get better about having a “pro mindset” due to fluctuating minutes game-to-game. When asked about the team’s chemistry, Battle quickly dismissed that as an issue and discussed just how strong of a bond they have.
“It’s a crazy bond, actually, off-the-court and we love each other,” Battle said on Tuesday. “When I first came here, the guys embraced me, but I knew a lot of the (other) transfers because we played in the same conference. So, before we even got to Arkansas, we had a group chat with each other.”
The senior guard even joked that when he first arrived in Fayetteville he couldn’t get Jeremiah Davenport, Layden Blocker or El Ellis to leave his place and that sometimes he’d have to lock his doors or else they’d barge in unannounced. Whether it was playing video games, watching sports or just enjoying each other’s company, Battle says the team formed a bond rather quickly this offseason.
“It’s tough because I know from the outside looking in, it looks like maybe we don’t like each other,” Battle continued. “But I mean, I love the guys, I love the group. I don’t want to be anywhere else besides Arkansas.”
Given how this Razorback team has struggled this year, it’s not hard to see what Battle is talking about. The subpar ball movement on offense, miscommunications on defense and overall lack of effort at both ends of the floor aren’t really things you’d expect from a team that is so tight-knit away from the game.
Difference in Arkansas Basketball This Season
Ahead of this season, Eric Musselman shared a similar sentiment as Khalif Battle during the team’s official media day in August. He was able to get guys together and allow them to bond earlier than they had in seasons past.
That extra time to develop chemistry translated well into summer and fall practices, with Musselman mentioning how far ahead they were on the offensive end entering the season, as a result.
“We’re probably the furthest we’ve ever been advanced, from a scheme standpoint,” Musselman said at the team’s media day. “We still have a lot of stuff to clean up and get better, but right now I’ll say that scheme-wise we have as much as mid-year almost, as far as sets and things offensively.”
As the year has progressed, though, this team has failed to resemble any of Musselman’s past teams. HawgBeat contributor Jackson Collier compiled a list of key stats from this year’s team and compared them to the average of the past four seasons. The difference is stark as Arkansas is statistically worse in each category.
Out of the five Musselman-coached Razorback teams, this year’s squad ranks last in points allowed per game and turnovers forced per game. They also rank fourth in three-point percentage allowed, offensive rebounds allowed, opponent free throw attempts, turnovers per game and assists per game. Most of those fourth-place rankings are just ahead of the 2019-20 season, which was Musselman’s first year in Fayetteville.
These numbers highlight what has been somewhat obvious from a simple eye test – this team is much different than previous years, and not in a positive way.
One popular defense might be to say “this happens every year” or “they’ve done it before, they can do it again,” but it’s not that simple. Aside from the fact that Eric Musselman himself has said this team is unlike any he’s had previously, there are other signs to which one could point.
Losing in Bud Walton Arena by 32 points had never happened before this past Saturday. Losing to an average mid-major team, like UNC-Greensboro, in Fayetteville hadn’t happened in the past three seasons – years that Arkansas advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
If there was any hope for Arkansas basketball fans, it stems from the strong bond which Battle mentioned. As a team, they have enough off-court chemistry and individual talent to overcome some of the challenges we’ve seen this year. However, they’re missing some of the intangibles that were vital to the team’s success in previous years.
Maybe hitting a new, historic low, such as this past weekend’s loss to Auburn, is enough to spark something within this group of players to have yet another mid-season turnaround. On Wednesday night, Arkansas played better in a 10-point loss at Georgia. Tramon Mark showed up with a lunch pail and put up 24 points but nobody else could muster a point total even in double digits.
Overall, the Arkansas basketball team seemed less out of sync than it did against Auburn, although there were still perplexing moments like Battle pulling up early in the shot clock from 27 feet on a straightaway three-point attempt deep into the second half. He missed that attempt, along with 7 of 8 field goal attempts overall.
Arkansas will need to play at yet another level to leave Florida with a win on Saturday.
Listen to the entirety of Khalif Battle’s interview on 103.7 the Buzz below:
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…