Arkansas vs LSU: You Can Throw Predictive Analytics Right Out the Window

Matt McMahon, Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball, LSU basketball, Arkansas vs LSU
photo credit: LSU Athletics / Arkansas Athletics

Arkansas basketball jumped back into the win column on Wednesday night with a 91-84 victory over the Missouri Tigers. The game was far more lopsided than the final score indicates thanks to a late burst from Missouri while the Hogs were trying to run out the clock.

Fortunately, Arkansas had built enough of a cushion, leading by as many as 23 in the second half and even holding a 16-point advantage with 1:49 left in the game. Despite the sloppiness late, the Hogs looked like the best version of themselves in this win.

Musselman played only eight players – two of which saw 15 or less minutes – and the team looked more cohesive than it has all season. This could easily be attributed to facing Missouri, one of only two remaining SEC teams without a win in conference play, but Arkansas has played down to the level of its opponent far too often this season for that excuse to be the only reason for the improved play. The consistent minutes for rotation players looks to be a much more important factor.

Now the question becomes whether the Hogs can sustain their elevated play and new-found consistency. Arkansas hasn’t won back-to-back games since defeating Abilene Christian and UNC Wilmington in the last week of December, though it has suffered multiple three-game losing streaks already in SEC play.

The Razorbacks have a good shot at string together some wins, however, with a road game against LSU coming up next on their schedule. The Tigers are 11-9 on the season, including 3-4 in SEC play. One of those wins came against Vanderbilt at home, but they have a pair of quality wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M, the latter coming on the road.

The Arkansas vs LSU game is scheduled to tip off at 11 am CT Saturday and will be televised on ESPN2. See live updates reporting here:

~LIVE UPDATES: Paul Skenes, Olivia Dunne Just Keep Haunting Hogs in Arkansas vs LSU~

Previewing LSU Basketball

LSU has lost four of its last five games with their lone win coming at home against Ole Miss. The five teams LSU has faced in this stretch have an average NET ranking of 40, however, and the Tigers have played relatively well despite their bad record.

They’re averaging 78.0 points on nearly 40% shooting from long range in this stretch and continue to be one of the elite teams at forcing turnovers in the country. They average 9.2 steals per game on the season, ranking 19th in the country and No. 1 in the SEC. Their steals have dropped slightly to 7.1 against SEC teams, but they’re still among the most disruptive defensive teams Arkansas will face this year.

The spearhead of that disruptive defense is also the Tigers’ leading scorer, 6-foot-5 guard Jordan Wright. The senior transfer joined LSU this year after four seasons at Vanderbilt. In his last two years with the Commodores, he averaged 11.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.3 steals per game on roughly 33% from beyond the arc. He’s played Arkansas five times in his career, including a 17-point outing in his last game against the Hogs, a home win for Vanderbilt in January 2023.

Now, he’s averaging career highs in points (15.7), assists (2.7) and steals (2.1) to go along with 5.2 rebounds per game and over 36% 3-point shooting. Wright has firmly planted himself as an All-SEC First Team contender, and potentially an SEC Player of the Year candidate if LSU can amass a better record by the end of the season.

Jalen Cook (6-0, Jr.) has been somewhat of a revelation for the Tigers. After starting his career with LSU three seasons ago, Cook spent two years at Tulane before returning to Baton Rouge. He missed 10 games to start this season, but has come on strong out of the gates in SEC play after only getting three non-conference “warm-up” games. The junior guard is averaging 15.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.1 steals while hitting 95% of his free throw attempts.

Will Baker (6-11, Sr., excellent last name) is next in line for the Tigers in terms of scoring with 11.1 points to go along with 5.2 rebounds – tied for the team high with Jordan Wright. He’s not shooting particularly well from long range, but averages almost four free throw attempts per game. Arkansas’ ability to defend the paint without fouling will be put to the test again.

One player who may not be at the top of most teams’ scouting reports for LSU but should ring a bell for Razorback fans is Trae Hannibal. Last season, he scored a season high against Arkansas with 19 points on 9-of-14 (64%) shooting from the field, including going 1 of 2 from beyond the arc despite averaging only 6.8 points on 14% shooting from outside last season.

This year, his minutes and overall counting stats have dropped drastically, but his efficiency is at a career best across the board. Hannibal is shooting 56% from the floor, including 75% from long range (3 of 4 on the season) and 55% inside the arc. Arkansas can’t afford to let a role player like this get hot against them again.

Other Notable Players in the LSU Basketball Rotation:

  • Jalen Reed (6-10, So.) | 8.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 36% 3P
  • Mike Williams III (6-3, Fr.) | 8.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 36% 3P
  • Tyrell Ward (6-6, So.) | 7.6 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 40% 3P
  • Derek Fountain (6-9, Sr.) | 6.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 38% 3P

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

Makhi Mitchell had arguably the best game of his entire career against Missouri, setting a new career high at Arkansas and tying his career high from his time at Rhode Island with 19 points on 62% shooting. His 14 rebounds (tied for second-most in his career) also gave him a double-double for the second game in a row – the first time in his five-year career Mitchell has achieved this feat.

Consistency has always been a question mark surrounding Mitchell, even through much of last season. Part of that can be attributed to the inconsistent rotations on display this season and the plethora of big men Arkansas had at their disposal last season, but that likely wouldn’t be the case if Mitchell was consistently proving to the coaching staff that he is the best option at the center position.

His – along with the other bigs on the roster – ability to contribute multiple good games in a row will be vital for this team moving forward. Also, don’t be surprised to see Musselman go back to the two-bigs lineup consisting of some combination of Mitchell, Chandler Lawson and Jalen Graham again considering LSU’s starting frontcourt consists of two 6-foot-10 or taller players – especially if Trevon Brazile remains sidelined with knee soreness.

“I think our three-headed bigs have been unbelievable,” Musselman said. “I think Chandler and Jalen and (Makhi) have been outstanding. Not good, but outstanding. Jalen’s looking at the rim and he’s being super, super aggressive scoring the basketball. I mean, he had four steals, four assists. I mean, Graham offensively was outstanding. And Chandler continues to do all the little things that might not show up in a box score. Like I mentioned with Makhi’s play, when he plays like that he’s as good as any 5 in the country.”

Chandler Lawson is a combined plus-11 in 41 total minutes over the last two games, and Graham put together one of the most well-rounded performances of his collegiate career with 13 points, 4 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks despite pulling down only one rebound in 25 minutes.

The Tigers are also fifth in the SEC during conference play in total team rebounds, a stat that has proven to be a deciding factor in virtually every game Arkansas has played this season. The Hogs are now 9-2 when winning the rebound battle and 2-8 when losing it. In other words, the three-headed monster of Mitchell, Lawson and Graham will continue to be pivotal for the Hogs.

Musselman also questioned the point following a loss to Kentucky that included a 1-assist, 5-turnover performance from El Ellis and three turnovers from Tramon Mark, who has been running the show more often lately. He noted the team is still “searching for answers” at the point guard position.

Against Missouri, Layden Blocker got the nod as the starting floor general, but it was Keyon Menifield Jr. who really controlled the pace of the offense off the bench. He finished with only 3 assists, but his ability to keep the ball moving, draw defenders on dribble penetration and provide floor spacing as a shooter helped this team offensively more than the box score might indicate. Still, the transfer guard ended up with 16 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds and only 1 turnover in 33 minutes of action, along with going a perfect 6 of 6 from the charity stripe.

Blocker also played a great game, finishing with 9 points, 3 rebounds (all offensive), 2 assists and 1 steal on a perfect 2 of 2 from the floor. Much like Menifield, Blocker affects the game beyond the stat sheet, but he does so more on the defensive side of the ball. He’s one of the more fundamentally sound true freshman defenders you’ll find anywhere in the country, and he continues to disrupt opposing ball handlers and be a pest in passing lanes and fast break opportunities.

When Blocker and Menifield shared the court, good things seemed to happen for the Hogs – especially in transition. The one-two punch of an elite defender and the best playmaker on the team seems to be a combination that works for the Hogs.

“I thought those two guys tonight played extremely well off each other,” Musselman said. “I thought they both were extremely unselfish. I thought defensively they were really good. It created a little more defensive havoc for the opposition.”

He went on to note that it becomes easier to play his two point guards side by side when the opposition is playing a combination of Nick Honor (5-foot-10) and Sean East (6-foot-3) rather than some combination of guards closer to 6-foot-6, perhaps something to monitor moving forward.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Missouri

After arguably the most complete team game Arkansas has played all season – certainly the best it has looked against a non-blue-blood opponent – the question of consistency remains for these Hogs. They’ve shown flashes of their talent all season long, but stringing together multiple good games in a row has been a clear issue.

“This Razorback basketball team for the last 80 minutes of play has played really good basketball,” Musselman said. “Tonight’s 40 minutes, we played very well against Kentucky… I thought the last 80 minutes we’ve improved as much as any two games that we’ve had this year.”

Addition by subtraction is not usually a good thing for teams, but perhaps this Razorback team simply had too many options of talented players to sift through to find the right combination early in the season.

Since the sudden departure of Devo Davis and the absence due to injury of Brazile – both of which are talented players – the Razorbacks seem to have found some semblance of consistency in terms of playing time and the rotation.

The available big men specifically seem to have found some semblance of consistency in the paint. Mitchell’s back-to-back double-doubles might just catapult him into a great end to the season when the Hogs need him most.

Jalen Graham also put together arguably his best two-game stretch of the season with back-to-back efficient scoring games. Since becoming a starter due to Brazile’s absence two games ago, the former All-Pac-12 performer is averaging 10.5 points, 2.5 steals, 2.0 blocks, 2.0 assists and 1.5 rebounds on 56% from the field. That includes going 1 of 2 from the free throw line, an area at which Graham has struggled mightily during his time at Arkansas.

Perhaps the combination of Menifield and Blocker will prove to be the winning combination Arkansas has been looking for at the “1”. Good point guard play is certainly important, but consistent play is even more vital – especially for a team struggling with consistency like this Razorback team has.

It’s worth watching which guards get the lion’s share of minutes moving forward, whether Ellis gets another shot at the lead guard position and how often Menifield and Blocker take the court together.

Arkansas vs LSU Prediction

Arkansas is 42-35 all-time against LSU, including winning four of the last five meetings. However, the Hogs have lost three of the last four meetings in Baton Rouge and are only 6-4 overall under Eric Musselman, according to HogStats.

Arkansas comes into this road game as an underdog despite impressive performances in each of its last two games. That’s no surprise, however, given the 2-6 conference record. Still, the Hogs seem to have found their rhythm on both sides of the ball.

More consistent minutes and rotations will lead to more consistent production from those on the court, allowing them to find their groove and play within their abilities rather than worrying about making a mistake. Yes, ESPN BPI gives LSU a 75.2% chance of winning, but you can throw the predictive analytics right out of the window on this one.

The trio of big men will continue to wreak havoc in the paint, while Menifield and Blocker will combine to hold down the point guard duties as Arkansas fights its way to a second consecutive SEC road win for the first time since they defeated South Carolina and Kentucky in back-to-back games last February.

Arkansas wins, 84-77

How to Watch Arkansas vs LSU

Date: Saturday, Feb. 3

Location: Pete Maravich Assembly Center (Baton Rouge, La.)

Tipoff Time/TV: 11 a.m. CT (ESPN2)

Line: LSU is a 4.5 point favorite according to different bookmakers who offer betting bonuses

ESPN BPI: LSU has a 75.2% chance of winning, favored by 7.7 points

KenPom: LSU has a 69% chance of winning, projected score of 78-73 

Arkansas vs LSU Notes

  • LSU leads the series in games played in Baton Rouge, 20-13, including a 19-12 advantage in SEC matchups.
  • Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman was on staff at LSU under Johnny Jones for the 2014-15 season as associate head coach. The team went 20-11, finished third in the SEC (11-7) and was an eight-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Assistant coach Keith Smart is a native of Baton Rouge and graduated from McKinley HS.
  • Arkansas remains second in the NCAA in blocked shots but has no players ranked among the NCAA top 140 in the category. Arkansas has had at least one player block three shots in a game 13 times this season and in seven of the eight SEC games. (via Razorback Communications)

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