How Arkansas Would Match Up vs Contenders Like Kansas, Houston on Way to 2024 NCAA Championship

LJ Cryer, Khalif Battle, Hunter Dickinson, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Houston Athletics / Arkansas Athletics / Kansas Athletics

Arkansas basketball is headed into the 2023-24 season with one of the deepest, most experienced rosters in the country – and arguably the best, top-to-bottom, that head coach Eric Musselman has ever had.

Most rankings have listed the Razorbacks in the 12-18 range to start the season, which is fair considering eight of the 13 scholarship players are brand new to the Arkansas basketball program regardless of their previous track record.

Most of those outlets, though, likely wouldn’t have predicted the final outcome of Saturday’s charity exhibition between No. 14 Arkansas and No. 3 Purdue in front of a sold-out Bud Walton Arena crowd. The Hogs pulled ahead late in an overtime thriller to secure an 81-77 victory over the Boilermakers..

Though the game was labeled as a simple exhibition, the overall environment and intensity from both teams suggested otherwise. It felt more like a tournament game with the season on the line than a final pre-Halloween preseason tune-up.

“I thought both teams treated the game like a mid-season game,” Musselman told media post game. “It felt like an NCAA Tournament vibe, to be honest.

“What an incredible performance by both teams for our crowd. Who gets to watch that in October? It just doesn’t happen. That game was incredible for anybody that got to witness it. Almost as good as any game I’ve participated in and it’s an exhibition game.”

Purdue head coach Matt Painter also commented on the tough environment being a good learning experience for his squad, comparing the crowd to a “hornet’s nest.”

The unusually large exhibition game crowd, of course, can’t change the fact that this ultimately doesn’t end up on anyone’s final resume. Still, the takeaways – both good and bad – shouldn’t be ignored. The Razorbacks executed an excellent game plan against Zach Edey, one of the toughest players to defend in the country, holding him to below his averages last season. They found a way to beat an impressive, top-ranked team in their first real game as a team.

The final score of this preseason exhibition may not translate to anybody’s final record or tournament seeding, but the experience and execution should open some eyes nationally. If Arkansas has already taken down a title contender in its first game as a team, it begs the question, ‘How close are they to being legitimate contenders this season?’

Predictive Rankings for Arkansas Basketball

While preseason rankings are fun and usually place teams loosely in order of where they could finish, they’re largely pointless until each team has taken the court a few times. This season is no different, though it is encouraging to see Arkansas – a team once again loaded with new faces – ranked in the top 15 of the AP Poll and top 20 virtually everywhere else (except in Bart Torvik’s rankings).

However, there has been a distinct trend developing among national championship winners and a few ranking services – especially KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive rankings. Typically, by around January, KenPom has pinpointed the top few teams with the best odds of winning the title.

Eight of the nine NCAA Division I champions from 2012-21 were ranked inside the Top 10 by KenPom on Jan. 1 – the only exception being the 2013-14 UConn squad that was No. 40 by that time in their championship season. Excluding the Huskies’ anomaly, the other eight champions averaged a ranking of 2.9 in KenPom. Those same teams averaged a 5.4 rank in the Jan. 1 AP Poll.

Arkansas is currently No. 14 in both KenPom and the AP Poll, but given its impressive performance against Purdue, it has a chance to quickly climb those rankings thanks to a loaded non-conference schedule including the likes of Oklahoma, Duke, Stanford and Michigan or Memphis.

KenPom’s adjusted offensive (AOE) and defensive (ADE) efficiencies have also both been relatively accurate in predicting the eventual champion. Seven of the nine winners from 2012-2021 were ranked in the Top 10 in AOE, while six were in the Top 10 in ADE. Five of the nine winners during the 2012-21 time frame were ranked in the Top 10 in both metrics.

KenPom has already released rankings for 2023-24 based on the preseason and Arkansas holds the No. 9 ranking in ADE, and they’re not far from cracking the Top 10 offensively with a current ranking of No. 19. That latter ranking could actually be viewed as generous given the Razorbacks’ offensive struggles last season along with their eight brand new players. If the Hogs are able to improve their continuity and offensive attack, this could easily be one of the highest-rated offensive teams of the Musselman era.

Again, it’s hard to put too much stake in these rankings before regular-season games tip off, but it’s worth noting there are only three teams set to begin the season with a Top 10 ranking in both AOE and ADE: Kansas (No. 9 & No. 1, respectively), Houston (No. 3 & No. 5) and UConn (No. 8 & No. 4).

Of the teams that are Top 10 in only one of the two metrics, Arkansas (No. 19 in AOE) joins Michigan State (No. 17 in AOE) and Purdue (No. 14 in ADE) as the closest teams to being in the Top 10 in both. Below is a more comprehensive list of the teams ranking highest in the studied metrics.

Why Arkansas Basketball Could Contend with Anyone

While there’s some obvious jumping of the gun here, it’s not unreasonable to predict that this year’s national champion could come from that list of 18 teams. True, those at the bottom are far less likely considering their poor ranking on either offense or defense, but the first 10-12 teams should be viewed as legitimate contenders at this point in the season.

That includes the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Musselman the Mastermind

The biggest reason the Hogs can compete with any team they face, especially in a tournament setting, is the mind of Eric Musselman. Of course, players have to execute his gameplan, hit shots and make good decisions on the fly, but it’s his game plan that has consistently bothered opposing teams’ best players for the past four seasons.

His coaching prowess was on full display once again when Arkansas limited Zach Edey to only 15 points and 9 rebounds – which isn’t a lot considering his averages of 22.3 PPG and 12.9 RPG last season. The Hogs also focused on attacking the paint offensively while continuously rebounding as a team. Both areas contributed to Edey picking up fouls and growing frustrated as the game progressed.

Teams have generally found success against Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament when they have three or more viable scoring options that make it nearly impossible to game plan against them. That’s been a big part of the common denominator among teams that have beaten Arkansas in March Madness lately. Baylor in 2021 had five high-level guards capable of scoring in bunches. Duke in 2022 had two NBA starters in the front court and a flamethrower in AJ Griffin on the wing. UConn’s entire team in 2023 seemed to be on fire as it destroyed everyone it came across.

What makes this year different for the Hogs?

Numerous Defensive Studs

For starters, the Hogs have loaded up defensively. In the last three years, Devo Davis was viewed as the defensive stopper matched up against opposing teams’ best perimeter players. He was often surrounded with good defenders like Jalen Tate, Moses Moody, and Stanley Umude, but he’s never had someone like Tramon Mark at his side.

Mark and Davis project to be among the best defensive duos in the country, and that goes without considering the length Arkansas will surround them with on the court. Trevon Brazile and Chandler Lawson make up one of the lengthiest frontcourts in the country to go alongside the interior presence of Makhi Mitchell.

Before fans at the national level really get a chance to see this team in action, these are just names on a page that should theoretically come together to form a formidable defense. However, the execution of the game plan against Purdue should be a good indication that this Razorback defense is the real deal, even if they were propelled by a sold-out home crowd.

Roster Versatility

The next, and arguably biggest, reason Arkansas should be more prepared to contend this year is its depth. Musselman has fallen into a trend of playing only 7-8 players on any given night – sometimes out of necessity due to injuries like last season.

Should they meet a team like No. 1 Kansas with Hunter Dickinson on the interior and Kevin McCullar on the perimeter – who showed up with 25 points in the Jayhawks’ exhibition loss to Illinois – Musselman might deploy a similar game strategy to the one he used against Purdue, obviously with adjustments to account for the differences between the 7-foot-2 Dickinson and Edey.

The presence of lengthy forwards like Lawson, Mitchell and Brazile – combined with the high IQ of all of the guards playing helpside defense to flash in for steals – looks like it could be a potent enough formula to bother virtually any opposing big man in the country. Even with a focus on the interior, Musselman now has a plethora of guards to throw at secondary options like McCullar such as Davis, Mark or one of the other guards who showed their willingness to work hard defensively in the Purdue exhibition like Layden Blocker, Khalif Battle and El Ellis.

The same can be said when Arkansas faces a team like Illinois, who took down the Jayhawks in their preseason exhibition. Terrence Shannon Jr. stole the show with 28 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-9 from long range, in 34 minutes. This matchup would likely see a more perimeter-oriented defensive game plan – which, again, the Hogs look well equipped to execute with defenders like Mark and Davis.

In a matchup with someone like No. 7 Houston, who regularly fielded smaller, faster, defensive-oriented lineups last season, Arkansas could be forced into more small-ball lineups with only Brazile or Lawson or Jalen Graham on the court with four other wings. The good news: they’re equipped to handle that as well. Perhaps they can call on one of Joseph Pinion or Jeremiah Davenport to supply a bit more size along with their offensive punch. Or field Blocker and Ellis side by side in the back court with Davis and Mark (who would have plenty of intel against his old team) taking up the forward positions.

The possibilities for this loaded roster are virtually endless.

Increased Offensive Efficiency

The Razorbacks fielded several exceptional defenders at a time last season as well, but it wasn’t enough to overcome injuries to two of their most dynamic offensive players early in the season. The remaining players typically did a good job of disrupting their opponents, but an inability to score consistently and efficiently often limited any runs the Razorbacks tried to make.

That doesn’t project to be a problem this season. Along with the return of Brazile, who shot 39% from long range in the eight games prior to his injury, Arkansas added numerous transfers capable of creating their own offense off the dribble.

Khalif Battle averaged 18.6 points over 34 games the last two seasons at Temple. El Ellis averaged 17.7 points per game as basically the only scoring option for Louisville last season. Both already seem to be adjusting nicely to their new roles at Arkansas and project to be electric scorers for the Hogs.

Mark and Davis, though viewed as defensive stoppers, are capable of scoring bursts of their own. This goes without even mentioning arguably the two best shooters on the team in Pinion (38% 3P last season) and Davenport (35% 3P last three seasons).

What it Means for Arkansas Basketball

Again, it’s understood that before the season starts, these are essentially names on paper that project to be able to do all of these things. The win over Purdue was obviously a good feeling for the Arkansas players and fans alike, but the more important takeaway was all of the little things that the Hogs did well to suggest projections of a deep postseason run are reasonable if everybody stays healthy. 

The Hogs’ ability to almost eliminate Edey’s production for over half of the game. Davis, Mark and Blocker taking turns hounding and bothering the opposing point guard for 94 feet all game long. Numerous players hitting timely shots from different spots on the court. All of these would’ve been incredibly encouraging signs for the Razorbacks even if they hadn’t pulled off the win.

The fact that they held their composure and beat a Top 3 team in overtime simply adds a cherry on top of the exhibition that didn’t feel like an exhibition. It could even be a foreshadowing of what’s to come this season for what looks to be a very special Arkansas basketball squad.


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