The Arkansas basketball team jumped back into the win column with a victory over Texas A&M on Tuesday thanks to a thrilling last-second floater by Tramon Mark. There might still be some cause for concern considering Arkansas squandered a 20-point lead and needed last-second heroics to escape with a win, but there is still a level of confidence to be gained from winning their first SEC game.
“We needed to lead from start to finish in a game,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “When you lose like we have of late, your confidence can get shaken.
“All over the locker room, there’s probably 40 signs in there that say, ‘Bring you swagger back.’ When we played Duke, we had swagger. We thought we were going to win the game. We had swagger when we played Purdue. We need that back and the only way to truly, truly get it back is to play well.”
The Hogs certainly played well in the first half of their win over the Aggies, even if their focus seemed to slip some in the second half. Perhaps their overall improved play in this contest will spark more confidence and swagger as they move forward into SEC play.
“Certainly, when you get a win after losing three games, I think that helps the overall vibe and now you gotta push your last win aside and you gotta get ready for (the next game),” Musselman said. “I think that’s the important thing.”
Next up on the schedule is another SEC home game, this time against South Carolina (14-3, 2-2). Arkansas has won three in a row vs the Gamecocks and six of the last eight in Fayetteville. The latest rendition of the matchup is scheduled to tipoff in Bud Walton Arena at noon CT and will be televised on the SEC Network.
Previewing South Carolina Basketball
Junior Meechie Johnson leads the Gamecocks into battle offensively. The 6-foot-2 guard is averaging career highs in points (17.3) and rebounds (4.2) to go along with 2.4 assists and 1.0 steals per game as South Carolina’s leading shot-taker.
Johnson had a good outing last season against the Hogs, pouring in 20 points on 63% shooting from long range on his homecourt, though the Razorbacks pulled out a win in that contest. Tramon Mark seems like the most likely candidate to guard the leading scorer considering the good defensive flashes he showed against Wade Taylor IV at times against Texas A&M.
“Meechie Johnson is a returning player who quite frankly is playing as well as any guard in our league,” Musselman said. “I thought going into the year he wasn’t talked about enough. Well, everybody’s talking about him now.”
B.J. Mack has been serving as South Carolina’s starting center. The 6-foot-8 big man is also somewhat connected to the Hogs, as he included them in his top 10 schools after transferring from Wofford this summer. He’s now averaging 13.6 points and a team-high 5.1 rebounds for the Gamecocks.
Ta’Lon Cooper is pacing South Carolina basketball in assists with 4.2 per game to go along with 9.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The talented transfer guard is also shooting very well from long range at just under 39%, a dangerous weapon the Hogs will need to be aware of. Don’t be surprised to see Devo Davis draw this defensive matchup.
Myles Stute – yet another player with experience playing against Arkansas during his time at Vanderbilt – had been averaging 9.9 points on just under 39% from long range before suffering a shoulder injury. He will reportedly miss 2-3 weeks with the injury, starting with the Arkansas game.
The Gamecocks are ranked No. 76 in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom, but they lead the SEC in opponent points per game, 3-point attempts and makes, offensive rebounds, and total rebounds. It’s worth noting that South Carolina has played five different teams ranking outside the top 300 in the NET rankings; that has perhaps bolstered their numbers a bit against weaker competition.
All of these stats would typically point to a team being great defensively, but Lamont Paris’ South Carolina squad also ranks dead last among SEC teams in steals and turnovers forced, ranking outside the top 315 teams in steal percentage (a rough estimate of steals generated per defensive possession). Arkansas, meanwhile, ranks No. 13 in the SEC in both steals and total turnovers forced.
The Gamecocks are also among the worst teams in the conference at drawing fouls and free throw attempts, shooting only 19.4 attempts per game. By comparison, Arkansas leads the league with 27.4 attempts per game. This could play into the Hogs’ favor, especially on their home court.
The Gamecocks are also among the worst teams in the country about getting their shot blocked around the rim. According to KenPom, they rank No. 340 in offensive block percentage, getting 12.7% of their shots blocked. Arkansas ranks No. 4 in defensive block percentage, blocking 16.4% of its opponent’s shots. This is certainly a key discrepancy to watch.
“When the new (charge vs block) rules came out and we had our referee seminar, we had a decision to make in the summer,” Musselman said. “Our decision was to get away from trying to take charges. The decision was to go vertical and to try to become a little bit better shot blocking team.”
That meant guards needed to get in on the action, too.
“Keyon’s had a couple blocks in games and obviously Davenport’s had some games with some chase-behind blocks,” Musselman continued. “We all know that Trevon Brazile is a guy that’s got great length, athleticism and timing from a shot-blocking standpoint and we knew that Chandler Lawson, when you look at his length, that he would have the ability to alter shots, (Makhi) Mitchell’s done a really good job of being a shot blocker in his time here, as well.”
What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball
After being relegated to a bench role for five of the last eight games, El Ellis found himself back in a starting position and played more than 12 minutes in a game for the first time since the Hogs beat Duke back in late November. During the last eight games, Ellis had been averaging 6.0 minutes and 1.5 points on roughly 20% shooting from the field and 3-point line.
Against Texas A&M, however, he stepped up to the challenge in a big way. The Aggies came into the contest as the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the country, and though Arkansas still ultimately lost the battle of the boards, the 6-foot-3 Ellis secured a career-high 6 rebounds in an effort to limit Texas A&M’s effectiveness on the glass. He also scored 15 points and dished out 2 assists in his 31 minutes of action.
“I have never been in that position in my career in junior college or when I was at Louisville,” Ellis said of his recently diminished role. “But I just knew I had to stay ready, stay in the gym… I just knew I was going to get my opportunity sooner or later, and I just had to capitalize on it.”
Ball movement has been a major focal point for this Razorback team that has struggled to find open looks offensively. Though Ellis only contributed two assists, perhaps gaining back some of his confidence – or ‘swagger’ as Musselman likes to put it – he can play a big role in helping this offense become more efficient.
Tramon Mark also had arguably the best game of his career against Texas A&M. He set a new career high in points at 35, one more than his 34-point outing against North Carolina earlier in the season, while also contributing 5 rebounds and 3 blocks in the hard-fought win.
Most impressive of all, though, was his ability to stay calm, cool and collected in the closing seconds after Texas A&M took its first lead of the game with under 8 seconds on the clock. He found his spot in the paint and got off a high-releasing floater that was never in doubt as he regained the lead for the Hogs just before time expired.
“Coach drew it up and I just went out and executed,” Mark said postgame. “I saw how they were playing me. I thought they were going to play me tighter but they just kind of let me get a full head of steam, so I just went and I got a good look.”
Mark is averaging 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.3 blocks and 0.9 steals over the last seven games. It seems as though he never lost the swagger Musselman has been adamant about regaining, but hitting a game-winner should certainly help him to continue playing with confidence as the clear leader of this team offensively.
On the other side of the ball, the Hogs seemed to turn a corner against the Aggies in terms of ball pressure and opponent field goal percentage (32% FG, 21% 3P). Granted, Texas A&M is not a good shooting team and they rely heavily on offensive rebounds, but the Razorbacks still showed good perimeter pressure and overall rotations compared to what we’ve seen in the past. This could potentially become a welcome trend as they move deeper into SEC play.
What to Watch: Arkansas vs South Carolina
To the surprise of no one, the Hogs rolled out a different starting five against Texas A&M. As they’ve continued to struggle, Musselman has continued to search for answers both in the game plan and in the rotation of players on the court.
This time, Arkansas fielded the same starting lineup it started the season with that included El Ellis and Chandler Lawson alongside the relative mainstays of Devo Davis, Tramon Mark and Trevon Brazile. This is the first time we’ve seen this starting five since the neutral site loss to Oklahoma at the beginning of December.
The Hogs are now 4-1 when starting this group together. Their first loss of the season to UNC Greensboro was actually the first game that this group did not start together. Perhaps Musselman had found the winning formula from the beginning all along.
What was perhaps a bit surprising for Razorback fans was once again the absence of hard-nosed freshman, Layden Blocker, and high-scoring transfer guard Khalif Battle. It’s hard to be upset at a rotation that earned Arkansas its first win in over two weeks, but it was a bit confusing to hear Musselman speak so highly of both Blocker and Joseph Pinion after their tremendous efforts in the Florida loss and then not see either for more than a few seconds in the next game.
Blocker may not be a polished offensive guard the way Ellis and Menifield have shown to be at times, but his physical style of play typically leads to positive things happening for the Razorbacks when he’s on the court.
Battle’s absence was perhaps even more surprising considering this is the first game all season that he didn’t play due to a coaching decision. He played only two minutes against Florida and tallied nine total points over his last four games before not seeing the court at all against Texas A&M.
While this isn’t a call for change – especially with Arkansas finally winning its first SEC game – it is certainly something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Perhaps the re-emerging of Ellis combined with the hot shooting of Menifield when he first rejoined the team has put the two guards lower in the pecking order. If this continues to result in a winning formula, it’s hard to complain too much about it for now.
Winning cures all. Well, perhaps winning one single game after a relatively rocky season doesn’t fix everything, but it could certainly push the Hogs back on track to being a competitive team.
South Carolina comes into town as a middle-of-the-pack SEC team that Arkansas should be able to beat on its home court – regardless of what the metrics say. The Razorbacks will continue to feel the sense of urgency with their season essentially on the line in every game from here on out.
Mark will continue to show out as the team’s leading scorer while the rest of the rotation shoots well thanks to being back on their home floor for a second consecutive game. Arkansas will also continue to develop as a defensive team, extending pressure onto ball handlers and making life difficult for opponents like it did against the Aggies.
Arkansas wins, 77-70
How to Watch Arkansas vs South Carolina
Date: Saturday, Jan. 20
Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Tipoff Time/TV: Noon CT (SEC Network)
ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 64.4% chance to win, favored by 3.8 points.
Line: Arkansas -2.5 according to play on XBet
Arkansas vs South Carolina Notes
- Arkansas owns a 23-15 advantage in the series, including a 12-5 advantage in games played in Fayetteville. Arkansas has won three straight and eight of the last 11.
- After recording nine blocked shots versus Texas A&M on Tuesday, the Hogs jumped two spots to lead the NCAA in blocked shots (6.7 avg.). In losses at Georgia and at Florida prior to A&M, Arkansas blocked seven and eight shots, respectively. Arkansas has had at least one player with three blocked shots in each of the last four games and in 10 of the 17 games this season.
- Still, Arkansas basketball has no players in the NCAA top 125 nor in the SEC top 6 in blocked shots but is the only team with three players among the SEC top 10 in blocked shots and four in the top 20. (via Razorback Communications)
Check out what Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said ahead of the Arkansas vs South Carolina game:
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…