Arkansas Can’t Indulge in the Same Luxury Kentucky Got After Being Upset by UNC-Wilmington

Trevon Brazile, John Calipari, Arkansas basketball, Kentucky basketball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Kentucky Athletics

The odds of Arkansas making the NCAA Tournament, let alone making a fourth straight Sweet 16, are long. Not obscenely so, mind you, but considering the way the rest of the Southeastern Conference has played so far in 2023-24 suggests the Razorbacks’ path to the Big Dance is dotted with other suitors Arkansas will need to not only overcome, but outright defeat. It’s a real Scott Pilgrim vs. The World kind of journey.

The Hogs’ final non conference game of the regular season is Saturday at Bud Walton Arena against UNC-Wilmington. With students still away on break and families across Northwest Arkansas in the midst of their post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s hangover – literal and figurative – it’s hard to imagine a raucous Bud will be there to greet the Seahawks. 

Arkansas could use such a crowd as often as it can get it from here on out. Nine SEC teams are projected to make the NCAA Tournament in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology update for ESPN. The Razorbacks’ resume isn’t good enough right now, nor will it be after the UNCW game regardless of whether it’s a win for Arkansas or not.

Arkansas Basketball in Different Situation than Kentucky

The Seahawks are hardly an automatic ‘W,’ either. Wilmington beat Kentucky in early December and are the same team that was projected to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association in the preseason. Arkansas has already lost to one mid-major from North Carolina on top of things, even if it did later take care of business against Duke. 

Still, that loss at the hands of UNC-Greensboro on Nov. 17 was the start of the team’s current cold skid. Even if you want to say “Yes, but Arkansas has won their last two games,” neither Lipscomb (an Arkansas win by three points) nor Abilene Christian (an Arkansas win by 10 points) are the stuff of legend.

Meanwhile, Kentucky – Arkansas’ biggest basketball rival – followed its loss against UNC-Wilmington with wins over Penn, North Carolina (the Chapel Hill variety), Louisville and Illinois State. Arkansas, by the way, lost to the Tar Heels rather handily days after falling to little brother Greensboro. In other words, Arkansas has a long way to go to reach Blue Blood status.

Kentucky was without one of its better players that game against the Seahawks. DJ Wagner, on the shortlist for SEC Freshman of the Year, did not play because of an ankle injury he suffered earlier in the week against Miami (Fla.). Two games later, Wagner scored 14 points, grabbed six boards and doled out five assists in the Wildcats’ defeat of UNC.

On Friday night, he chipped in another 14 points in the Wildcats’ 26-point demolition of Illinois State and served up the latest evidence that this UK team will be load for the Hogs to slow down once conference play hits:

That’s the national title-winning 34-2 Kentucky basketball team, mind you. Here in 2023-24, Arkansas can afford no such injury like the one that befell DJ Wagner, nor another such dip against a weaker opponent. Kentucky has the pieces to overcome. The Razorbacks, for all the talk about good depth coming into this season, do not. 

Say, though, Arkansas basketball fans are accepting the premise the Hogs need not be as good as Kentucky in the regular season. Eric Musselman has, after all, made his hay in the NCAA Tournament, where the Razorbacks have made three straight Sweet 16s, the first two of which were Elite 8s. You’d be absolutely right in that. The problem, however, is not just the hole that has already been dug, it’s the climbing out.

Arkansas has to play those nine projected NCAA Tournament teams a total of 11 times in its 18 SEC games. Six of those 11 games are on the road. The Hogs went 2-7 on the road in SEC play last year with that aforementioned Sweet 16 team. What exactly has the 2023-24 version of the Razorbacks done to suggest this year’s team is better than last year’s?

A Boost from Keyon Menifield

That isn’t to say Arkansas can’t or won’t do it. It’s just that too many Razorbacks faithful are ignorant of the depth of the hole. Changes won’t come with personnel. Arkansas already had one fortunate turn when guard Keyon Menifield was granted eligibility at winter break

But the rest of the roster will stand pat. Musselman has tried various combinations and found little consistency. Besides, Arkansas has been healthy all year. Kentucky basketball fans could say “Well, we didn’t have Wagner.” The Hogs aren’t missing anyone. Rather, they aren’t missing anyone with injury.

Perhaps Menifield, whose return could have been the sliver of “well, but…” the excuse-making fans would have clung to, will continue to be the spark. Yes, he’s only averaging 6.5 points per game in his two games so far, but points aren’t what Arkansas needs necessarily. Musselman has said outright that his team needs rebounding from the guard spot, a heady ball-handler who won’t commit turnovers and better defense, especially on the perimeter. Menifield actually checks every single one of those boxes.

If the Washington transfer can take over primary ball-handling duties from Devo Davis (though Menifield’s turnover rate is tied for highest on the team through two games), it frees Davis’ energy, both mental and physical, for defense. And remember, he is, in this author’s estimation, maybe the best defensive guard in the country. It also might help the Jacksonville native rediscover his offensive touch. Davis is scoring just 6.8 points per game this year on 35% shooting. Both are the worst marks of his four years in Fayetteville.

The Trevon Brazile Conundrum

More heavy lifting from Trevon Brazile would help, too. The 6-foot-10 forward looked as though he was going to break through to superstardom last year before his knee injury knocked him out before SEC play. The 2023-24 season, one that’s healthy, according to Musselman, hasn’t been as good. Brazile is averaging just 9.7 points despite shooting 44% from 3-point range. In the NBA, a metric called USAGE is tabulated to determine a percentage of possessions that end in which a particular player shot a field goal or free throw or committed a turnover.” 

Per 100 possessions, it’s boiled into that percentage. It’s used in college, too, though it’s not quite as en vogue as the sport at that level has been slower to embrace advanced statistics. Brazile’s usage is simply not high enough for someone who’s projected to be a first-round NBA Draft pick.

In some ways, that’s to be expected considering all the new faces on the Arkansas roster. Khalif Battle and Tramon Mark are the Razorbacks’ offensive stalwarts, averaging 15.3 and 16.9 points, respectively. Mark has been outstanding, shooting 59% from the floor, while Battle has been good from 3-point range (44%), but less so inside the arc (40%). Battle’s usage rate is 28% and Mark’s 24%. Or, put another way, when the two are on the floor together, the odds that one of them is shooting the ball or giving it away are greater than half. Brazile, for comparison, is at 17.7%. That ranks 12th on the team. Doesn’t seem ideal for the most talented player on the team.

Arkansas’ season will almost assuredly be determined by January. The Hogs have eight games, all in SEC play, during the month and six of those eight come against teams currently projected to make the Dance. They can ill-afford any more stumbles and, in fact, will have to pull what at this point is considered an upset or two if they want to find themselves with even a chance at making it four straight Sweet 16s.

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