Eric Musselman has owned the month of February the last two seasons. It’s been FebruEric, if you will. Whether or not Arkansas basketball can peak at the end of the season again may determine not just what seed it earns in the NCAA Tournament, but whether it earns a bid at all.
Over the last two seasons, the Razorbacks went 13-1 in February with the lone loss being a 1-point decision at Alabama last year. Those runs propelled them to their 3- and 4-seeds in March Madness, and deservedly helped earn Musselman the benefit of the doubt as the Hogs started 1-5 in SEC play this season.
It would be awesome for Arkansas basketball fans if the Muss Buss can find a way to kick into high gear in February one more time. There is reason for optimism. The Hogs won their last two SEC games easily and largely outplayed Baylor in Waco despite ultimately losing the game by three points. It feels like the team is playing better than it was in early January. It’s just enough to keep hope alive that Arkansas can make another run in March.
But should that be the expectation? Probably not. At least, not to the extent that the Hogs go undefeated or only lose once over the coming weeks. The Hogs have been playing better over the last few games, and are in great position to continue winning several games, but right now it feels unlikely this team reaches the same heights as the last couple of seasons. This is a different group with different challenges.
Nick Smith Jr Speculation
The biggest challenge obviously is the injury situation with losing Trevon Brazile in early December and the ongoing saga of Nick Smith Jr. Uncertainty regarding Smith’s eventual availability has loomed over Arkansas’ season since literally the opening day of the year. The team has said all the right things throughout the season about focusing on the players available, but they’ve been asked about it extensively on the record, and who knows what it’s been like for them off camera. It’s hard to say how much of a distraction it’s been, but it’s been a lingering issue for the program since November.
Since the public has never been informed of what exactly the issue is with Smith’s knee, it’s led to nonstop speculation regarding when or if he’ll return to the lineup. ESPN broadcast analyst Fran Fraschilla gave his opinion during the Baylor game by saying, “Hog fans won’t want to hear this – I don’t think he’s coming back (this season). I think he’s going to get ready for the NBA.”
It remains to be seen whether or not Fraschila is right. Musselman said a few weeks ago that he didn’t expect Smith back in January and that he’d be re-evaluated at the end of the month. Now we’re at the end of the month. If that re-evaluation is still on schedule, hopefully we’re about to find out one way or the other for sure and we can all proceed accordingly.
Tom Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette isn’t dousing Arkansas basketball fans’ hopes with cold water like Fraschilla did. “This is a critical time for Arkansas to win a few more games before we can get Nick Smith back as we expect,” he said on Thursday. “Sometime in the first week of February or after that.”
Musselman hasn’t been so forthcoming lately. When asked following the Baylor loss — a game neither Smith nor Brazile traveled to — if there was any update on Smith’s status, though, Musselman gave a one-word response: “No.”
If the electrifying, skilled combo guard does return, it would instantly boost the program’s momentum.
How Arkansas Basketball Can Right the Ship
Back in Musselman’s first Razorback season, there was no February magic. Like this year, the team lost one of its best players for a while, and there was a major impact to the team’s success. Isaiah Joe went out due to a knee injury for a few weeks, and the team promptly lost five straight games without him, placing them squarely on the NCAA bubble when the SEC Tournament started. Most bracketologists this year don’t seem to have Arkansas on the bubble yet, but the team’s lack of road wins so far means that nothing in the postseason is guaranteed.
Injuries aside, despite showing improvement in recent games, this team hasn’t played as cleanly as its predecessors. They turn the ball over too much. In SEC play, they’ve turned over more than 1 of every 5 possessions, according to KenPom. They get whistled for fouls too much. The Hogs’ defensive free throw rate is among the worst in the country, meaning Arkansas’ opponents are shooting more free throws than most other teams’ opponents.
I’m happy to join the chorus of complaints that officials often call too many fouls during a game. The 56 whistles in the second Missouri game were particularly egregious. That being said, this is not a new development in college basketball, and it played into Arkansas’ hands the last couple of seasons so much that getting to the free throw line was a key part of the team’s strategy. There were times it looked like JD Notae was more interested in drawing a whistle than making the layup. Most of the time, it worked. This year, only Devo Davis and Ricky Council IV are making more than 75% of their shots from the stripe. Arkansas so far this season has made only 66.5% of their free throws in conference play – next to last in the league.
No doubt, if Nick Smith Jr had been playing more, that percentage would be higher. He shot 84.2% from the line in his five college games so far and, if healthy, would likely be battling it out with Council and Anthony Black for the team lead in free throw attempts.
Four of Arkansas’ seven losses have been by three points. A few points here or a turnover there can be the difference. These were games Arkansas was winning the last couple of years. They haven’t played cleanly enough to win those games this season. That’s part of having a younger team than Musselman typically has, but we’re at the point of the year when those younger players should have enough experience that they can start to reduce those errors. If they can, there’s reason to believe this team will win some big games coming down the stretch.
As of now, this is the biggest what-if season in recent Arkansas basketball history, but there are still a few chapters left to write. There are some things out of the team’s control, but playing more disciplined basketball would take them a long way. Maybe not all the way to the Elite Eight, but then again, if this team plays up to its ability, they’ll be tough to knock out.
UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, Nick Smith Jr.’s sent out a Tweet stating he means to come back or otherwise wouldn’t still attend classes, practices and home games:
Of course, there’s also a distinction between one’s intent and what unfolds in reality.
ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes, for his part, isn’t on board with Fraschilla here. On Tuesday night’s Texas A&M broadcast, Dykes shared that he believes Nick Smith Jr.’s return is assured because “Every time I see him, ‘he tells me he’s coming back.” No question, such a return would significant boost the odds for an Arkansas basketball championship in 2023, something you can check out more at The Game Day.
See highlights of Nick Smith Jr in his limited action with Arkansas basketball:
Mike Irwin on Fouls Called vs Hogs
As always, the venerable Arkansas sportscaster had a lot to say about the trend in recent road games where many more fouls have been called against the Razorbacks than the other way around.
He points to the loss at Baylor as the latest case in point: “It was fairly evenly called in the first half. So when it’s around 10 fouls to 11 fouls in the first half, and then you end up with a seven to one disadvantage for Arkansas five minutes into the second half, you start wondering, ‘Okay. Both teams are playing aggressive defense. Why is one being called for a foul and the other not?'”
“I challenge anybody to go back and take a look at the video, the second half of that Baylor game, and tell me it was called the same way on both ends. It was not,” Irwin said on his Pig Trail Nation “Ask Mike” segment.
He adds that his theory is that college referees are more susceptible to crowd pressure than at lower levels simply because they get more blowback from attending fans if they make calls against the home team. He doesn’t see this as an issue at the lower youth levels, like the one in which his fifth-grade grandson plays.
High major college referees are more prone to “make emotional decisions instead of logical decisions,” he added. “It’s just the pressure that you put on these guys. Because I saw right up clear, right in front of my face, what happens when you don’t put pressure on referees. You just let them do their job. They do the job correctly.”
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