The Arkansas basketball team is like a kid who thinks one good deed is enough to get on Santa’s nice list. “But we beat Duke” is akin to “but I cleaned my room that one time!”
Unfortunately, beating Duke and storming the court in November only takes you so far. There’s no way to avoid that this season has been a disappointment so far save for that night against the Blue Devils, because the top moment aside from that took place before the season opener.
After Eric Musselman was thrown out and the team was blown out against Oklahoma, the Razorbacks sit at 6-4 a few weeks before conference play starts.
Yes, Musselman has led the Hogs to heights not seen in over a generation. He deserves every bit of benefit of the doubt that things will get better. We know Musselman will keep tinkering with the team. If history serves, he’ll trim the rotation down to 7-8 regular contributors around the beginning of conference play. It’s a good bet to think the team’s defense will improve and could carry the team down the stretch.
A New, Sad Place for Arkansas Basketball under Musselman
Musselman’s teams have dug themselves into holes before and climbed out. However, they’ve never put themselves into a hole quite this deep before.
The Razorbacks’ four losses are double the most they’ve ever suffered before conference play in the Musselman era. The UNC-Greensboro loss is the worst loss in Bud Walton Arena under his watch. The three performances in the Bahamas were lackluster at best. The win against Duke made some think the team had started to turn a corner, but the showing against Oklahoma shut that down.
Much was made last week of the the first NET rankings. This is one of the primary tools used in the NCAA Tournament selection process, and Arkansas was outside the top 100, a far cry from where they spent most of last season, and most of the entire Musselman tenure.
Arkansas remained in good standing in the NET last season despite a losing conference record, but that was mostly because of how well the team played in non-conference. Arkansas’ defensive efficiency rankings were very high after blowing out bad teams in November and December. Of that 2022-23 team’s entire pre-SEC slate, only Creighton, San Diego State and Oklahoma scored more than 61 points.
This year, everybody has scored more than that except for Alcorn State. This Arkansas basketball squad allowed Furman to score 83 points in Bud Walton right after beating Duke. Needing double OT to beat a Stanford team that lost at home to Santa Clara by double digits and lost to Northern Iowa by 22 points is a bad look. Efficiency rankings don’t measure wins and losses. They measure plays and percentages. Think of a missed basket or turnover as a loss, and making shots and getting fouled as wins. It’s debatable whether things like that should impact rankings that influence the selection committee, but for now, they do.
NET Rankings To-Do List
The Razorbacks need to not only win, but win convincingly in the next three non-conference games before SEC games begin. The Hogs will have plenty of opportunities at high-quality wins in league play, but they’ll need to improve in order to take advantage of them. They certainly won’t be favored in many of them right now.
The team’s defense has been the most disappointing aspect so far. The perimeter defense in particular has struggled, which is frustrating since that was expected be a strength with Devo Davis returning and Tramon Mark transferring in. Opponents have made 35% of their threes against Arkansas so far, which ranks 259th in the country. The team is blocking shots at a great rate, but also failing to generate steals as frequently as needed. It feels sometimes like the team is focused so much on protecting the rim and blocking shots that they’re not doing what’s needed to prevent the ball from getting to the rim in the first place.
Offensively, the team still seems to be figuring itself out. There are some obvious improvements from last season, especially the three-point shooting, but they still seem disjointed too often. Tramon Mark has not looked like himself since getting hurt at the end of the North Carolina game, and it’s fair to wonder if Trevon Brazile was 100% against Oklahoma after suffering what Musselman termed a “severe sprain” against Furman in the previous game.
Injuries were the most prominent storyline last year with Brazile and Nick Smith, Jr. missing most of the season. Hopefully, these will not be lingering issues for the Hogs this time around. So far, they’ve been an issue, but not the most serious ones. They were able to beat Duke without Mark, after all.
Musselman has been so successful in February and March at Arkansas that it partly feels weak to even be concerned about them before Christmas. It seems every year there is a fear that his team might not even make the NCAA Tournament, much less make a run to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight, but we all know how they ended up the last three seasons.
I would argue they didn’t actually figure it out last year. The team was great the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in beating Illinois and the win over Kansas was an all-timer. But that team also lost six of their last nine games before the NCAA Tournament. They had the strong efficiency rankings from the preseason to keep them comfortably in the tournament as an 8-seed despite going 8-10 in the SEC. Arkansas likely won’t have that cushion this season. There is still plenty of time left to improve their status and achieve their goals, but that has to begin quickly.
Beating Duke at home by itself isn’t enough to get the Hogs off the selection committee’s naughty list.
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