Arkansas vs Mississippi State: Devo’s ‘Crash and Burn’ Comment Can Be Applied Elsewhere

Chris Jans, Devo Davis, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Mississippi State
photo credit: MSU Athletics / Craven Whitlow

With its 92-63 home loss to Tennessee on Wednesday night, Arkansas has now suffered more 20-point or worse losses this season than it had in head coach Eric Musselman’s first four years combined. The Razorbacks have five such losses this season after suffering only four previously.

Though the writing has clearly been on the wall for quite some time, the Razorbacks essentially eliminated themselves from any inkling of consideration for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. Had they miraculously won the rest of their games starting with Tennessee, a 20-11 (11-7) record with a few impressive wins likely would’ve put them in the conversation late in the season.

Even a miraculous run starting now likely won’t be enough to dig them out of their current hole unless it ends with an improbable SEC Tournament win.

A large part of the team’s struggles has been its inability to close games strongly – even in wins. If you just checked the halftime score of Arkansas vs Tennessee, you’d probably be content to see the Hogs trailing a top-10 team by only six points at the break. It has been their inability to make the necessary in-game adjustments and continue to execute down the stretch, however, that has haunted them in every single SEC game this season.

“We didn’t play hard enough in the second half defensively, plain and simple,” Musselman said postgame. “In the first half, I thought we worked. They’ve just got really good players.”

Unfortunately, the schedule doesn’t get much easier from here, starting with a trip to Starkville, Miss., to face the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday. See our post-game piece on it here:

Arkansas struggled in the paint to score points against Tennessee and that task looks even tougher on Saturday given the recent announcement that Jalen Graham, Arkansas’ most prolific low-post scorer, will miss the game because of a knee injury:

Mississippi State – which has the No. 7 adjusted defense in the country, according to KenPom – comes into this game off of a week of rest. Its last game was a road win over Missouri on Feb. 10. Arkansas, on the other hand, played the last game of the night on Wednesday before heading into this early-afternoon matchup.

“The schedule hasn’t done us any favors,” Musselman said. “We’re the last SEC game on a Wednesday night, and Mississippi State has off (a week) and we go there. That’s the second time that’s happened to us in the last couple weeks (LSU had a week break before the 11 a.m. tipoff in Baton Rouge) – no excuses, it’s the schedule we have, but it’s not easy.”

Perhaps pointing to the difficult scheduling after losing by 29 points at home for the second time this season isn’t the best strategy from an optics perspective, but Musselman isn’t wrong in his assessment. Things won’t get any easier for Arkansas heading into the weekend.

Arkansas vs Mississippi State

After scoring the first couple of baskets, the Hogs fell into a 10-4 deficit early. They hung around but, with Graham out, the Bulldogs had a field day down low shooting over 70% from the field as the Bulldogs tallied up 25 points.

Arkansas tied the game up late in the first half but could never take the lead as it went into haltime down 34-29. The Bulldogs cooled off significantly down the stretch, and ended up shooting 13 of 26 on field goal attempts before the intermission.

Previewing Mississippi State Basketball

A familiar name leads Mississippi State on both sides of the ball. Tolu Smith (6-10, Sr.), after missing virtually all of non-conference play, has been on a tear in SEC play. He’s averaging 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists and shooting 61% from the field against SEC teams – including five double-doubles on the season.

The senior forward has already faced Arkansas five times in his career, averaging 11.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, including an 18-point, 6-rebound, 5-steal performance in December 2021.

The Bulldogs have eight players playing at least 18 minutes per game on the season. Six of those players are seniors, including Smith. One of the underclassmen is actually a true freshman in Josh Hubbard. The 5-foot-10 guard is averaging 14.8 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.7 assists, plus shooting 36% from long range.

He’ll be an interesting matchup for the Hogs, as Musselman has started leaning more heavily on his offensive-minded guards like El Ellis and Keyon Menifield. It’ll be worth paying attention to whether one of these guards draws the assignment, or if they guard up a position so that Devo Davis can take on the scoring guard.

Cameron Matthews (6-7, Sr.), Shakeel Moore (6-1, Sr.) and Dashawn Davis (6-2, Sr.) are the next three players in line in terms of shot attempts and scoring for the Bulldogs. They each average between 6.5 and 9.5 points and 2.0 and 3.1 assists, combining for roughly 24.4 points and 8.0 assists as a group. 

Davis (3.1) leads the team in assists and is one of four players playing at least 12.5 minutes per game and shooting over 31% from long range.

As a group, Mississippi State has been nothing short of excellent defensively. They rank No. 1 in the SEC in opponent 3-point percentage and No. 3 in overall FG percentage defense. The Bulldogs have held six of their last seven SEC opponents below 45% shooting from the field, including holding their last three opponents to 39% combined.

In that same three-game stretch, they’ve also averaged 10.0 steals and 14.3 forced turnovers, plus held opponents below 31% from long range and only 14.3 free throw attempts per game for their opponents. Arkansas hasn’t shot the ball particularly well away from Bud Walton, so this matchup against a top-10 defense doesn’t bode well for them.

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

The Razorbacks had looked competitive in three of their four games prior to the matchup with Tennessee, and even appeared to be ready to push the Volunteers to their limit for the first 20 minutes. However, a 45-23 second-half beating quickly took any hope of victory away from Arkansas.

Tramon Mark was the only Razorback to score in double figures against Tennessee, tallying 12 points on only 40% shooting from the field. Four Hogs contributed eight points each in the loss: Khalif Battle, Devo Davis, Jalen Graham and Jeremiah Davenport.

Only Davenport shot better than 44% from the field among players playing more than five minutes. It was simply an all-around poor offensive performance from the Hogs that also included only 15 free throw attempts – the lowest number of attempts since their blowout home loss to Auburn earlier this season.

“We’ve got to draw free throw attempts,” Musselman said. “That’s our game, is getting to the foul line. Tennessee’s a very, very physical team. Tennessee opponents I think in SEC play average over 22 free throws attempted. Tonight we got 15. We had a goal of trying to get to 30. We thought that was a realistic goal – we got half of them.”

Arkansas went back to its small-ball lineup as often as it could in this game, but the interior presence of Tennessee’s big man – mainly James Aidoo (6-11, Jr.), who led the Vols with 23 points and 12 rebounds – caused serious issues for the Hogs.

Even Josiah-Jordan James (6-6, Sr.) caused some issues for the Razorbacks with his ability to crash the glass and post up on smaller guards. This is exactly what Musselman was referring to when he noted the small-ball lineup would only be effective against certain competitions.

“I thought they got whatever they wanted in the paint,” Musselman said. “I thought they had hard post ups and physical post ups and they established post position. When you catch the ball that deep, it’s pretty hard to stop somebody.”

Davis played all 40 minutes in this game, contributing 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals along with his 8 points. It’s also worth noting that he shot 44% (second on the team behind Davenport) and didn’t commit a single turnover despite never leaving the game.

On Wednesday, Davis spoke about his time away from the team after missing three games for undisclosed reasons.

“Ups and downs are going to happen, you know what I mean?” Davis said in an appearance on 103.7 The Buzz. “And things are going to crash and burn. But we always build up, build up and I want to say that me, being myself, I think it was best for me.”

Even with the seemingly smooth return of their senior leader, “crash and burn” seems to be an unfortunately accurate choice of words for the Razorbacks’ season so far in multiple ways.

What to Watch: Arkansas vs Mississippi State

Arkansas has struggled mightily in most facets of the game this season, but one in particular has been trending in the wrong direction for several seasons now: continuing to score and limit their opponent’s scoring after the halftime break.

Arkansas has yet to outscore an SEC opponent in the second half of a game this year, including their three wins. The Hogs tied Georgia at 42-42 in the second half of their second SEC game this season, a contest they ended up losing 76-66 on the road.

Arkansas’ second-half scoring in general has been on a downward slope ever since Musselman’s first year at the helm. In his first season (2019-20), Arkansas averaged 8.6 points more in the second half of games than in the first half. Since then, that margin has declined to 7.4 in 2021, 6.5 in 2022, 3.9 in 2023 and now all the way down to 1.4 this season.

By contrast, Arkansas’ opponents are scoring 8.5 points more in the second half compared to the first – only rivaled by the 9.6 points allowed by the 2022-23 squad that also struggled through the regular season.

On average, the Hogs are being outscored by 10.3 points in the second halves of games this season compared to actually outscoring their opponents by an average of 2.1 points in the second half over the first four years of Musselman’s tenure – including a 5.4 second-half margin in the 2020-21 season that resulted in the Razorbacks’ first trip to the Sweet 16 in a quarter-century.

Arkansas has been outscored in the second half in 10 of its 11 SEC games (tied with Georgia) – including their three wins – or roughly 91% of its games this year. By comparison, the Hogs had only been outscored in the second half in 38% of all SEC games over the last four seasons.

Here are a few other metrics that illustrate how poor Arkansas has been in the second half of games this season compared to previous seasons under Musselman:

Stat (SEC only)First 4 Muss Yrs.2023-24
% of Games Ark. Outscored/Tied Opponent in 2H62%9%
% of Games Ark. Won and Outscored/Tied Opponent in 2H87%0%
Avg. 2H Score Differential+2.14-10.27
Avg. Opponent Point Differential from 1H to 2H in Ark. Wins4.1319.33

In other words, a fast start is important for Arkansas, but it rarely matters if they can’t figure out how to adjust mid-game and finish strong. Mississippi State is an elite defensive team that will likely prompt Arkansas to make on-the-fly adjustments to continue scoring the ball. This trend could make or break the game.

Game Prediction

Arkansas is quickly running out of tangible goals to play toward as its disappointing season crawls toward the end, but pride and avoiding the pain of losing will always be on the table. The Hogs will have to cling to those things as they face the third-best defensive team they’ve seen all season – trailing only Auburn and Tennessee, who beat Arkansas by 32 and 29 points respectively.

The Razorbacks haven’t won a game in Starkville since 2014-15, and it’ll be a tall task for this current squad to break that streak. Mark will almost certainly get his points, and Davis will likely continue his trend of doing what needs to be done to help the team and letting the game come to him, but it likely won’t be enough to put Arkansas over the top in this game.

The Hogs will fall again, dropping to below .500 for the first time under Musselman at 12-13 (3-9).

Mississippi State wins, 74-63

How to Watch Arkansas vs Mississippi State

Date: Saturday, Feb. 17

Location: Humphrey Coliseum (Starkville, Miss.)

Line: Mississippi State by 11.5 points according to sports casino

Tipoff Time/TV: 1 p.m. CT (ESPNU)

ESPN BPI: Mississippi State has a 90.2% chance to win, favored by 14.9 points

KenPom: Mississippi State has a 88% chance to win, favored by a score of 78-65


More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS… 

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