Arkansas vs Auburn: Hogs Can No Longer Tempt Fate with Big Weakness

Eric Musselman, Johni Broome, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Auburn
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / Auburn Athletics

Arkansas basketball ended its non-conference slate with a bang, but the competition only gets tougher as it enters SEC play.

Scoring 106 points in a 16-point win over UNC Wilmington that featured an offensive explosion from Keyon Menifield was a nice final tuneup, but the Razorbacks still allowed 90 points and have their fair share of problems still to be addressed.

There’s no question that the team is at least trending in the right direction, though, both on the court and by the metrics. They now rank No. 86 in the NET Rankings and No. 58 on KenPom.

“I think we’re getting better,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said after the victory over UNCW. “I was happy tonight offensively. It’s hard in the college game to score 106 points.”

Up first on the Razorbacks’ SEC slate is their first matchup with Auburn in Fayetteville since the famous upset over the then-No. 1 Tigers that ended with an emphatic Devo Davis self-alley-oop dunk (after the buzzer) as the lights went out in Bud Walton Arena.

The No. 1 in front of Auburn’s name carried a lot of weight in that upset victory, and now they’re headed to The Hill ranked as the No. 25 team in the country for their SEC opener. The game is scheduled to tip off at 1 p.m. Saturday and will be televised on ESPN2.

At 11-2 on the season, the Tigers have themselves in a better position by most metrics than the Razorbacks heading into conference play, but the biggest opportunities to improve are still to come for both teams.

Previewing Auburn Basketball

The Tigers are led offensively by an All-SEC caliber big man, Johni Broome. The 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 15.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and a career high 1.6 assists while shooting over 56% from the field. He’s also one of the league’s premier shot blockers, averaging 2.0 per game in non-conference play.

Broome hasn’t been a huge threat from long range in his career, but he’s more than doubled his 3-point attempts per game from last season, taking roughly 2.0 per contest – though he still only hits at a 27% rate from distance including a 3-of-4 outing in his last game. Before that, he was shooting only 18% (4 of 22) from long range.

This doesn’t mean Arkansas can forget about him on the perimeter, but perhaps his interior-oriented game will lead to more minutes for the Razorbacks’ true big men like Chandler Lawson and Makhi Mitchell. Jalen Graham could get a look at Broome considering the Arkansas forward’s efficient play lately, but this could be a tough matchup defensively for Graham, who has been known to struggle at times on that end of the court.

Jaylin Williams – no, not that one – has also had an efficient start to his season for the Tigers. The fifth-year senior is contributing career highs in points (11.5) and rebounds (4.9) to go along with 2.0 assists and nearly 38% shooting from 3-point range.

The upcoming matchup with Arkansas will be Williams’ sixth game playing against Musselman and the Hogs – though only his third time doing so in Bud Walton Arena. In his career against Arkansas, he’s averaged 6.4 points on 33% shooting from the field, including 30% from long range. In Fayetteville, however, those numbers drop significantly to 2.0 points on 17%, including 0 of 4 from distance.

The Tigers’ offense has generally been orchestrated by true freshman Aden Holloway. The former five-star recruit is leading the team with 3.9 assists to go along with 10.5 points per game on relatively inefficient shooting.

“Super impressed with Holloway and the fact that his assist-to-turnover ratio is good,” Musselman said of the freshman point guard. “Super impressed with his ability to create shots for others (and) his high-volume assists. And look, you gotta identify him, you gotta ID him right away.

“He takes deep, deep, deep shots, shots at what you’d consider the 4-point line, so you can never not carry a hand. He’s a really, really great shooter off the bounce. Unique when a guy can be shifty – go left, right, east, west – and pull up, rise over the top of you.”

Auburn’s impressive depth entails 10 players who have appeared in all 13 games this season, each averaging at least 15 minutes per game. This doesn’t include senior guard Lior Berman who averages 6.8 minutes across his 12 appearances.

“Much like Wilmington that we just played,” Musselman said, “When they sub they get better at times, and they get better at certain positions you could argue.”

Chris Moore is one of those players, averaging 16.5 minutes and starting all 13 of the Tigers’ games so far. While his numbers this season don’t stand out (3.5 PPG and 1.8 RPG), his name is likely familiar to Hog fans tuned into recruiting battles.

Moore had the opportunity to join the legendary 2020 Razorback class along with four other Arkansas natives – Moses Moody, Jaylin Williams, Devo Davis and KK Robinson – but instead decided to take his talents to Auburn.

Other notable players in Auburn’s rotation:

  • Chad Baker-Mazara (6-7, Jr.) | 9.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.0 APG, 36% 3P, 3.2 FTA/G
  • Denver Jones (6-4, Jr.) | 8.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 36% 3P
  • K.D. Johnson (6’1, Sr.) | 7.6 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.4 APG
  • Tre Donaldson (6-2, So.) | 7.5 PPG, 3.5 APG, 2.5 RPG, 40% 3P
  • Dylan Cardwell (6-11, Sr.) | 5.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 70% 2P

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

The Razorbacks have found new life on the offensive side of the ball, led primarily by Washington transfer Keyon Menifield — despite him having only three games with the Razorbacks under his belt. 

While the 6-foot-1 guard does have a soft touch all over the court, it’s been his ability to handle the rock and make good decisions to create for himself and others that has really allowed Arkansas to take a step forward offensively.

The roster already had numerous good isolation scorers with guys like Tramon Mark, Khalif Battle and even Jalen Graham when he’s afforded the minutes and leeway to do so. It was the lack of consistent ball movement and dribble penetration that often leads to free throw attempts, kick-outs or good looks at the rim that occasionally caused Arkansas to go on scoring droughts.

“Keyon’s got a true point guard mentality,” Musselman said. “He’s a player that really understands how to get people in the right spots. He’s got creativeness off the bounce. He’s got shiftiness. He’s got really, really good court vision.

“I think Keyon has really helped Devo get good open looks. When you look at the (three) 3-point shots Devo made last game, a lot of them were coming off Keyon Menifield drawing defenders and spitting it out to Devo for feet-set 3s.”

Of course, the Razorbacks’ problems aren’t all fixed, but consistency on the offensive side of the ball – something that most analysts covering Arkansas in the preseason expected from the beginning of the season – should certainly help them steady the ship.

While UNC Wilmington is a good offensive team by virtually any measure, allowing 90 points to any opponent – much less a non-SEC opponent – isn’t exactly encouraging. It didn’t help that the Hogs allowed 34 free throw attempts and 30 points in the paint to the Seahawks. Both of these will surely be areas of focus heading into this Auburn matchup – along with defensive rebounding.

“106 points obviously are a lot of points to score,” Musselman said postgame. “On the flip side, 90 points is way too much to give up. So, pleased with our offense. Very displeased with our defense… We’ve got to do a much better job defensive rebounding.”

Devo Davis also had one of his better games of the season with a very well-rounded stat line of 14 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals while shooting 71% from the field. Musselman joked postgame that Davis must have some sort of “biological clock” that elevates his game at this point in the season.

Jalen Graham also turned in his best performance of the season and fourth solid game in a row. Over his last four contests, the offensive-minded forward is averaging 10.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and an impressive 1.8 blocks while shooting 75% from the field and 75% from the charity stripe – which is a huge improvement over his sub-50% career average.

Trevon Brazile – a player we focused on throughout our UNCW preview – showed a renewed aggression in attacking off the dribble that he hadn’t shown much this season. Three possessions in a row he attacked his defender off the bounce and earned either a good shot or free throw attempts. Arkansas is better when he’s playing aggressive and utilizing his length and versatility.

“He needs to be a guy that beats people off the dribble because he’s got a good, quick first step,” Musselman said. “He’s got a long first step. People underestimate how long that first step of TB’s can be. We tried to put him in some positions out on the floor where he had the ability to be able to jab-step and rip and go.”

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Auburn

From a purely statistical standpoint, Auburn appears to have the upper hand in this matchup when judging its season totals and averages, especially when looking at their ball movement.

The Tigers have a couple of guards leading the way with more than 3.5 assists per game, but eight different players are averaging at least 1.2 assists. They rank No. 11 in the country in team assists per game.

For reference, Arkansas ranks No. 265 in the same stat and has six players averaging more than 1.2 assists per game. Only Keyon Menifield averages more than 3.0, with exactly nine assists over his first three games.

However, when looking a bit closer at Tigers’ schedule, they’ve played only one team with better metrics across the board (NET, KenPom, Adj Off, Adj Def) than Arkansas: their first game of the season against Baylor.

Sure, Arkansas basketball isn’t Baylor, which is currently ranked No. 20 in the NET, No. 18 in the AP Poll and No. 16 on KenPom).

And Auburn at this point of the season isn’t the same team it was in the opener, but even when looking at the four teams the Tigers have played with a defensive rating of No. 81 (where Arkansas ranks) or better, they’re only 2-2 on the season.

In these games, the Tigers are averaging 74.3 points on 42% shooting from the field and less than 26% from long range. They still average 16.8 assists in these games – which would rank around 40th in the country – but that’s still a dip from their usual 19.0 assists per game.

While this drop in production against relatively good defensive teams is encouraging for Arkansas – a team that typically plays more energized and aggressive defense in front of a raucous Razorback crowd – Auburn’s ability to move the ball still plays well into one of Arkansas’ biggest weaknesses: defending off ball.

The Razorbacks have shown improvement on both sides of the ball over their last few games, but they still struggle to communicate and close out quickly enough on 3-point shooters when defending off the ball. 

Of course, they’ve also struggled to keep ball handlers in front of them at times as well, but if they can find a way to be disciplined against Auburn’s movement and force the Tigers to become one-on-one scorers, the Hogs might stand a better chance of winning.

Auburn is also a very good offensive rebounding team, ranking in the top 60 nationally with just under 12.8 offensive rebounds per game. This is another area Arkansas has struggled with at times this season. The Hogs have allowed 12 or more offensive rebounds six different times.

Strangely enough, however, the Hogs are still 5-1 in these games, with their only loss coming to North Carolina in the Bahamas. Most recently, Arkansas gave up a season-high 15 offensive rebounds to UNC Wilmington in what turned out to be its biggest margin of victory since beating Gardner-Webb 86-68 in the second game of the season.

Still, one can only play with a kind of fire and tempt fate for so long. The Razorbacks must find a way to limit offensive rebounds and second chance points for the Tigers to give themselves a realistic shot in this game. Auburn is already an efficient enough offensive team; giving them multiple opportunities per possession could prove to be disastrous.

Game Prediction

Arkansas basketball is 23-5 against Auburn all-time at home, including 8-2 in their last 10 meetings in Fayetteville. Bud Walton Arena was nothing short of magical the last time these two teams met, helping to propel the Hogs to an 80-76 overtime victory over the No. 1 Tigers.

The Razorbacks will be looking for a little more of that magic on Saturday as they stumble into conference play with a worse record than nearly anyone was expecting at this point in the season. Still, things are trending in the right direction for the Hogs as of late.

The offense will continue to be much improved, led by the newest Razorback, Keyon Menifield. Auburn is a good defensive team, but Arkansas has already faced – and beaten – three teams with a better adjusted defensive efficiency if you count the Purdue exhibition that felt like more than a preseason game.

However, the Razorback defense could very easily be exposed in this matchup by a strong, well-coached Auburn team known to be one of the best passing teams in the nation. The offensive glass will play a huge role in the outcome of this game, and unfortunately for the Hogs, that hasn’t been a strong suit of theirs to this point.

Arkansas drops its SEC opener, creating an even bigger hole to climb out of moving forward.

Auburn, 82-75

How to Watch Arkansas vs Auburn

Date: Saturday, Jan. 6

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark)

Tipoff Time/Tv: 1 p.m. CT (ESPN2)

ESPN BPI: Auburn has a 67.4% chance of winning, favored by 5.0 points.

For more on Arkansas basketball from BoAS, go here:

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Check out what Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman had to say ahead of the Hogs’ SEC opener:

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Need a reminder of what happened in the last Arkansas vs Auburn matchup in Bud Walton Arena?

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And for even more coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…

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