Arkansas vs Alabama: Hogs’ Bogeyman Part of Two Blasts from the Past

Eric Musselman, Aaron Estrada, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Alabama
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / Alabama Athletics

Arkansas basketball is coming off of one of its most enjoyable games of the season, a 94-83 victory over the LSU Tigers. There were several storylines that played into the home win for the Razorbacks, including it being senior night, a revenge factor after LSU beat them earlier and the season, and perhaps most notably, Khalif Battle’s recent scoring streak.

All of these factors – combined with the Hogs’ continuously improving level of play – made for an impressive win late in an overall disappointing season. The team genuinely looked like they were having fun on the court, something that has been too rare of an occurrence.

The ball was flying around the court offensively and the defensive effort was the best it’s been all season.

“I thought offensively we’re playing at a high level,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “The 18 assists (on 31 made shots), we’re doing a great job… This basketball team is playing as good if not better than at any time all season. And that’s what you want a team to do, is improve.”

Arkansas has certainly looked like a different team over its last 10 games or so, despite losing some close matchups on the road. After starting 1-6 in SEC play, the Hogs have gone 5-5 with close losses in winnable games against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

Of course, close losses don’t mean much of anything for the course of the season, but they provide more evidence of how Arkansas has improved lately.

Up next for the Razorbacks is their regular-season finale: a road game against one of the best teams in the SEC, Alabama. The Crimson Tide are the top scoring team in the country and play with a very fast pace, ranking among the Top 10 fastest teams in the country.

This will be the ultimate final test of Arkansas’ improved play before it dives head first into what it hope ls will be a prolonged SEC Tournament run starting on Wednesday. Arkansas vs Alabama is scheduled to tipoff at 11 a.m. CT Saturday and will be televised on ESPN.

Previewing Alabama Basketball

One major reason for Alabama basketball being so successful with such a high pace of play is its senior leader and starting point guard, Mark Sears. The 6-foot-1 guard is widely considered among the best point guards in the country with averages of 21.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.7 steals per game.

He’s also shooting a career high 34% form long range, contributing to Alabama being among the Top 35 teams in the country in 3-point percentage – trailing only Kentucky and Ole Miss among SEC squads.

In two career games against Arkansas, Sears is averaging 19.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 steals, though he has only shot 39% from the field and 25% from long range. Going 19-of-20 from the free throw line across the two games has been the biggest catalyst of his big performances.

Arguably the second biggest reason for Alabama’s success this season is transfer senior Aaron Estrada. The 6-foot-4 guard is currently on his fourth collegiate team in five years – his first with Alabama – but his name might still ring a bell for Razorback fans. If it does, that’s because Estrada put up a devastatingly impressive stat line against Arkansas when Hofstra beat the Hogs in North Little Rock. The veritable Razorback bogeyman tallied 22 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and shot over 58% from the field in the upset victory.

There’s no doubt that Musselman will have Estrada at the forefront of his scouting report and gameplan come Saturday. Perhaps we’ll see a mixture of Devo Davis and Tramon Mark on this particular assignment, though don’t be surprised if Davis spends his fair share of time on Sears.

Grant Nelson (6-10, Sr.) is another familiar name for Razorback fans after he played against Arkansas at his previous stop before becoming a target out of the transfer portal this past summer. He comes in third on the Tide in terms of points per game with 11.9 to go along with 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. He’s been relatively inefficient as a scorer since choosing Alabama over Arkansas in the offseason, hitting 49% of his field goal attempts and 27% of his long-range attempts.

His versatility makes him a very unique player and prospect, and he’s certainly still been a positive factor on the offensive side of the ball for Alabama, but he’s perhaps not the superstar he was slated to be as the top transfer in the portal over the offseason. Still, his likely matchup with Trevon Brazile should be entertaining nonetheless.

Other notable players in Alabama’s core rotation:

  • Rylan Griffen (6-5, So.) | 11.1 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 38% 3P
  • Latrell Wrightsell (6-3, Sr.) | 8.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 44% 3P
  • Nick Pringle (6-9, Sr.) | 6.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 66% FG
  • Sam Walters (6-10, Fr.) | 5.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 41% 3P
  • Jerin Stevenson (6-11, Fr.) | 5.2 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 60% 2P

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

In its third win over the last five games, Arkansas set a season high for team field goal percentage at 60.8%. The Hogs also hit over 31% of their 3-pointers as a team for the fourth consecutive game – the first time all season they’ve accomplished that feat, as well.

Obviously, it’s a bit too little too late for this turnaround to matter much in regular season games, but the improved play of the Razorbacks has been a breath of fresh air for Arkansas fans and inspires at least some level of hope that the Hogs can stay alive for a few days in the SEC Tournament.

Khalif Battle delivered yet another masterful performance against LSU. With his 29-point outing against the Tigers, Battle is now averaging 35.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 steals along with 57% shooting from the field, 43% from long range and an eye-popping 92% from the free throw line. He’s missed only five free throws in his last 63 attempts, including going 13 of 14 against LSU.

“There’s not many players in the history of the SEC that have gone on a scoring spurt like K.B. has,” Musselman said. “And he’s defending better, he’s defensive rebounding better. And I think all of those things factor into why we’re playing really well offensively.”

In fact, Battle’s 141 points over his last four games are the most by any SEC player in a four-game stretch over the last 20 years. He surpassed Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks (134 points), Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht (132) and Arkansas’ own Mason Jones (129) for this impressive scoring record.

Battle narrowly missed out on having four consecutive 30-point games, but his focus during the post-game interview – as it always has been – was fully on the final scoreboard rather than his personal box score.

“I ain’t going to show up the team when we already had them (beat),” Battle said when asked if he considered trying to get his 30th point late in the game. “We already won and 30 points don’t mean nothing, you know? The win is more important. Years from now, nobody’s gonna remember ‘KB only had 29 against LSU on senior night.’ They’re going to remember we won.”

Battle’s focus on winning seems to be a consensus feeling among the entire team. It was further demonstrated by Tramon Mark’s diminished scoring role in this game. He took only 8 shot attempts on his way to 9 points, but he still contributed 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks in the win.

“I think Mark’s development, (point guard) is probably a position he can evolve into,” Musselman said. “He’s got advantages because he can see over the defense with his length and his size. I thought he did a good job of taking what the defense gave him. He didn’t force any shots.”

Makhi Mitchell and Jeremiah Davenport also had solid outings. Mitchell returned to the scoring fans had grown used to seeing for a few games in February with 19 points on 8-of-10 from the field to go along with 8 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1 assist and 1 steal.

Davenport wasn’t a huge scoring factor with only five points on four shot attempts, but Musselman deployed him in the middle of LSU’s zone defense, trusting him to make decisions as a playmaker rather than only being a spot-up shooter and hustle player. He responded with a season-high 4 assists to go along with 5 rebounds and 1 block.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Alabama

There are two basic questions the Hogs will need to answer early on in the game against Alabama: Can Arkansas slow down the Tide’s roaring offense? And can the Hogs score enough points for it to matter?

The answer to the second question seems more likely to be a ‘yes’ than the first. Arkansas has scored 91.5 points per game over its last four games. Sure, two of those contests were against Missouri and Vanderbilt, but Arkansas’ highest scoring SEC game of the season came against Kentucky – a team with a similar build as Alabama in terms of its high 3-point volume and relatively lower defensive rating.

The Tide rank No. 101 in the country (one spot below Arkansas) in adjusted defensive efficiency on the season, have allowed at least 80 points in five straight outings and have lost three of their last four games. On top of that, the status of Alabama’s best perimeter defender is up in the air. Rylan Griffen got an MRI after Alabama’s Tuesday loss to Florida to check on a calf injury.

The Hogs have played four teams with a better defensive efficiency than Alabama in their last six games. Against those four teams, Arkansas is averaging 85.3 points and 13.3 assists per game as a team – both above their season and SEC averages – while shooting nearly 50% from the field and just under 30% from long range.

Conversely, Arkansas has also been a much-improved defensive team over its recent stretch of games. The Hogs have held seven of their last eight opponents below 30% 3-point shooting for a combined average of 27% from long range.

They’ve also held four of their last eight opponents to 75 points or less, which has been a telling threshold in the Musselman era. Since he became the head coach in 2019, Arkansas is only 19-44 (.302 win percentage) when allowing teams to score more than 75 points. They’re 91-13 (.875) when limiting their opponents to 75 points or less.

While it would be a tall order for Arkansas to hold Alabama to 75 points, something that has only happened to the Tide four times in 30 games this season, it is easier to imagine the Hogs’ improved defense stemming the Tide enough to keep themselves in the game.

It’ll certainly be a tall task, but not impossible. After all, the Hogs did hold Kentucky to only 63 points less than two months ago, and the Wildcats rank No. 3 in the country in points per game, trailing only Arizona and Alabama.

Game Prediction

Arkansas leads the all-time series against Alabama 36-32, though it is 8-22 in true road games. The Hogs have lost three in a row in Tuscaloosa and three in a row overall to the Tide, though Arkansas has still won 7 of the last 11 matchups overall.

As we’ve seen more than once this season, this Razorback squad will show up ready to play when the lights are the brightest. Their blowout loss to Tennessee, and perhaps their matchup with North Carolina in the Bahamas, were the only games against elite competition in which Arkansas didn’t have a chance to win late in the game.

The defensive intensity of a 6-11 SEC team might just catch the Tide off guard enough to afford Arkansas a good start to the game. Khalif Battle will continue his streak of being virtually unstoppable offensively, though don’t be surprised if his total free throw attempts drop on the road.

Still, Arkansas will give itself a fighting chance late in the second half of this game against one of the top teams in the country. However, it won’t be enough as Arkansas drops below .500 to end the season.

Alabama wins, 89-83

How to Watch Arkansas vs Alabama

Date: Saturday, March 9

Location: Coleman Coliseum (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)

Tipoff Time/TV: 11 a.m. CT (ESPN)

ESPN BPI: Alabama has a 96.3% chance to win, favored by 23.4 points.

KenPom: Alabama has a 94% chance to win, favored by a score of 96-79.


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