At least for one night, Arkansas looked like the team many expected it to be this year.
The Razorbacks controlled their game against Missouri nearly from the jump Wednesday night in Columbia, Mo., and cruised to a 91-84 win that wasn’t really as close as the seven-point margin indicates.
It was against one of the two teams still winless in SEC play, but the victory snapped another three-game skid and helped Arkansas (11-10, 2-6 SEC) avoid dipping below .500 for the first time under head coach Eric Musselman.
There’s still a long way to go before the Razorbacks even get back on the bubble for the NIT — much less the NCAA Tournament — and a win over a team ranked No. 122 in the NET won’t move the needle much, but Makhi Mitchell’s message to the fans during his postgame interview on the SEC Network shows the players still have hope.
“It’s not over yet, man,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to continue to fight each and every game and play our heart out for the fans, for Bud (Walton Arena), for everybody. Just don’t give up on us.”
Missouri (8-13, 0-8 SEC) led for only 19 seconds early in the game and, much like Arkansas has several times in SEC play, found itself in a double-digit hole for much of the game.
The Razorbacks went into halftime with a commanding 19-point lead and stretched it to 23 before the Tigers finally found their offensive rhythm and started to chip away. Musselman went to his typical stall-ball approach to the final stretch, which made it get closer than it should have, but Missouri still didn’t cut the deficit to single digits until the final 19 seconds.
“I thought we played great basketball,” Musselman said. “There was a renewed sense of urgency, a focus, a disposition pregame. It was a team that was ready to play. I’m proud of their toughness tonight.”
Again, the level of competition is worth noting, but the Tigers were 6.5-point favorites on BetSaracen and projected to win by both KenPom and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index — which may be more telling about the way this season has gone for an Arkansas team that was once ranked in the top 15 nationally.
What could give the performance a little more credence, though, is the fact it came on the heels of the Razorbacks putting forth great energy and effort in a loss to No. 6 Kentucky last Saturday. Instead of playing down to the level of competition, they replicated that energy and effort against a team it should beat.
“Two really good steps in the right direction,” Musselman said. “You want your basketball team to be improving. I thought the last 80 minutes we’ve improved as much as any two games that we’ve had this year.”
Big Day for the Birthday Boy
It would be easy to dismiss Makhi Mitchell’s comment asking fans not to “give up on us” as a cliche, but he certainly backed up his assertion it’s “not over yet.”
Playing on his 24th birthday, he turned in arguably the best performance of his five-year collegiate career, finishing with 19 points and 14 rebounds in 34 minutes off the bench.
It was reminiscent of last year, which Mitchell’s twin brother, Makhel, had a surprising performance on their 23rd birthday with 9 points, 13 rebounds and 7 blocks in a win over Texas A&M. Makhi also played well that day, but was on the court for only 15 minutes and notched 6 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks.
“My birthday comes around one time a year,” Mitchell said. “Having a game on my birthday is pretty special to me, so I just go out there and play hard as I do every game and try to do what I can to help the team.”
Helping the team would be an understatement about his impact the last two games. With projected NBA Draft pick Trevon Brazile out with knee soreness, Mitchell has posted back-to-back double-doubles for the first time in his career.
Against Kentucky, he had 12 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks in 32 minutes. In the 19 games before that, though, Mitchell was averaging just 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds in 13.5 minutes.
“I think he’s been very focused, especially the last 80 minutes of basketball,” Musselman said. “He’s had great practices, he’s had really good pre-practices, he’s had good post-practices. I think the last two games he’s had a different renewed focus. Which, when he plays like that, he’s as good as any center in the country.”
Mitchell nearly set a career high in scoring, but had a putback dunk wiped out because teammate Layden Blocker also had his hands on the rim, resulting in a goal tending call. Instead, his 19 points matched his total against American International — a Division II team — two years ago at Rhode Island.
The 14 rebounds are tied for the most he’s had an an Arkansas uniform, matching his total against UNC Greensboro last year. It’s also the second-most in his career, behind only an 18-rebound effort two years ago against Bryant.
According to HogStats, the last time an Arkansas basketball player had at least 19 points and 14 rebounds off the bench was Nov. 25, 1991, when Oliver Miller had 23 and 17 against Minnesota at the Maui Invitational.
The Razorbacks have been hard to watch on offense at times this season, especially during SEC play. In fact, they came into the day as the lowest-scoring team in league play at 62.1 points per game.
It had been even worse than that over the three-game skid. Arkansas averaged just 57.3 points on 34.7% shooting from the floor, including 23.7% from deep, against South Carolina, Ole Miss and Kentucky. It also averaged a paltry 0.860 points per possession.
That all changed Wednesday night. The Razorbacks shot 54.1% — including 4 of 6 (66.7%) from 3-point range — on their way to putting up 91 points against Missouri. They averaged 1.247 points per possession.
Making the offensive explosion even more impressive is Arkansas did it in both halves, which wasn’t the case against Texas A&M in its only other SEC win.
“Really proud of us offensively scoring 47 and 44 in the two halves,” Musselman said. “I thought we did a phenomenal job sharing the basketball.”
The Razorbacks did most of their damage the same way other teams have done it against them — by constantly getting to the basket for easy buckets and finishing in traffic. Even though they still missed some makable shots, they went 20 of 32 at the rim — a total that includes nine dunks.
That led to Arkansas scoring a whopping 56 points in the paint, its most in an SEC game in at least the past 10 years. The Razorbacks outscored the Tigers in that area 56-30 and actually had more paint points than they had total points until midway through the second half. Had they not resorted to stall ball, that number likely would have been higher.
On the flip side of that, the six 3-point attempts by Arkansas were easily a season low. The fewest it took before Wednesday was 15 against Lipscomb, Abilene Christian and Florida. Not only is it also the lowest 3-point attempt total of the Musselman era, but it’s been nearly 19 years since the Razorbacks took that few. (They went 1 of 6 in a win over Georgia on Feb. 9, 2005.)
“It was a mandate to score in what we call Zone 1,” Musselman said. “If you settled for 3s tonight, you probably were going to come out and not go back in. We did not want to take a lot of 3-point shots tonight.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
The Razorbacks are still on the road Saturday, heading to Baton Rouge, La., for a matchup with LSU.
It’s another potentially winnable game for Arkansas, as the Tigers are just 11-9 overall and 3-4 in SEC play. They’ve lost three straight games, getting blown out 109-88 by Alabama on Saturday after two close losses to Georgia and Texas A&M.
One advantage for LSU is that it did not have a midweek game this week, while Arkansas had a late Wednesday game and will now have to play early Saturday. Tipoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. CT and the game will be televised on ESPN2.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- The Razorbacks used their 12th different starting lineup on Wednesday, with Layden Blocker replacing El Ellis from the previous game’s starting group. He joined Khalif Battle, Tramon Mark, Chandler Lawson and Jalen Graham.
- Tramon Mark led the team in scoring with 22 points on 8 of 13 shooting. He didn’t take a single 3, but did go 6 of 8 at the charity stripe.
- Even though it gave up 84 points, Arkansas still had a solid defensive performance. The Razorbacks matched a season high with 10 steals, which were part of Missouri’s 18 turnovers. That also matched a season high for the Tigers.
- Little Rock native and former Arkansas basketball player Connor Vanover knocked down an early 3, but finished with only 7 points and 4 rebounds in 14 minutes. Those were still above his season averages of 4.0 points and 2.6 rebounds in 12.1 minutes.
- They’re officially credited with zero minutes, but lightly used reserve Denijay Harris and walk-ons Cade Arbogast and Lawson Blake got in the game for 0.2 seconds at the end of the first half. Musselman, wanting to avoid any of his regulars picking up a cheap foul, subbed them in with Layden Blocker at the free throw line.
SEC Basketball Standings
|2. South Carolina
|5. Ole Miss
|9. Texas A&M
|11. Mississippi State
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