Hogs Sticking with Small-Ball Attack vs Tennessee Will Come Down to This

El Ellis, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Tennessee
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Arkansas basketball captured its third SEC victory of the season Saturday against Georgia, earning revenge against a team that beat it exactly one month earlier. The victory – highlighted by the return of Devo Davis – came off of a week-long break in which head coach Eric Musselman noted that the team implemented some new offensive sets and motions.

The change in philosophy seemed to work as Arkansas put up 78 points on 57% shooting, including 36% from long range. Of course, the Razorbacks have shot more efficiently at home all season, but both of these numbers surpass their season averages. In fact, it’s only the second time all season Arkansas has achieved both of those shooting percentages in the same game – the first time coming in a 97-point outing at home against Furman in early December.

The good news for Arkansas is that its next game is also at home, providing a potential opportunity to build on the success it found against Georgia. The not-so-good news is that the next game comes against No. 8 Tennessee, one of the clear-cut top three teams in the SEC.

The Volunteers are 17-6 (7-3 SEC) and have won six of their last eight games, though they lost their most recent matchup on the road against Texas A&M. Their other loss in this stretch came against South Carolina at home when Tennessee shot just 36% from the field as a team.

In other words, despite how good they’ve looked for most of the season, the Vols have proven to be beatable. The Arkansas vs Tennessee game is scheduled to tipoff at 8 p.m. CT Wednesday and will be televised on ESPN2.

Previewing Tennessee Basketball

SEC Player of the Year candidate Dalton Knecht leads the Volunteers into battle. The 6-foot-6 wing started his career at Northeastern Colorado J.C before spending two years at Northern Colorado in the Big Sky Conference, where he averaged 20.2 points and 7.2 rebounds as a senior last season.

Since coming to Tennessee, he’s taken his scoring prowess to the next level, tallying 20.3 points on fewer overall shot attempts per game. A large part of his improved efficiency has come from his nearly 41% 3-point shooting and improved ability to get to the free throw line, where he averages 5.6 attempts. For reference, Tramon Mark (7.0) is the only Razorback averaging more than 3.0 free throws in SEC play.

Lately, Knecht has been on an absolute tear even by his normal scoring standards. Over his last nine games, the senior swingman is averaging 28.4 points on 50% shooting from the field and 45% from beyond the arc. He’s also averaging 8.0 free throw attempts during this stretch.

The Razorbacks will have their hands full with Knecht, but even despite their struggles on both sides of the ball this season, Musselman has continued to find ways to gameplan well against the opposing team’s best player. Against Georgia, Arkansas held the Bulldogs’ top two scorers (Jabri Abdur-Rahim and Noah Thomasson) to a combined 8 points on 4 of 14 shooting with 3 turnovers.

A pair of juniors in their third year with Tennessee, Jonas Aidoo (6-11) and Zakai Zeigler (5-9), join Knecht as double-digit scorers on this team with 11.3 and 11.0 points per game, respectively. Aidoo leads the Vols in rebounding with 7.3 per game, while Zeigler paces Tennessee basketball in assists with 5.6 per game – also ranking him No. 1 in the SEC and No. 30 in the country in assists per game.

The Razorbacks found a majority of their success against Georgia while fielding a small-ball lineup with essentially four point-guard capable players alongside Makhi Mitchell and occasionally Jalen Graham. They were able to do this due to Georgia’s lack of an interior threat at the power forward position. Musselman even noted that El Ellis, listed at 6-foot-3, guarded the opposing power forward at times.

“[Devo] did a great job guarding the 4 men and actually El Ellis defended their 4 for probably about 20-22 minutes tonight,” Musselman said. “I thought he did a great job defending the 4 and we didn’t get hurt in the post at that position at all.”

Obviously, that sort of matchup that played into Arkansas’ favor won’t be the case in every game, though it could be something to pay attention to against Tennessee. Josiah-Jordan James (6-6, Sr.) starts at the 4 for Tennessee. He spends a lot of time on the perimeter, attempting nearly four 3-pointers per game, but he also leads the Volunteers in offensive rebounding with 1.5 per game.

The Hogs’ ability to keep Tennessee off of the offensive glass will likely be the deciding factor in how often they’re able to implement their small-ball lineup in this game.

Santiago Vescovi (6-3, Sr.) is likely a familiar name for Hog fans – especially considering this will be his seventh career game against the Razorbacks. The South American native is unique in college basketball for his unorthodox and hard-nosed style of play, as well as his dangerous scoring from virtually anywhere on the court. Though he’s averaging only 7.6 points per game this season, the senior guard is still shooting 35% from long range and just under 80% from the charity stripe.

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

The return of Devo Davis went about as smoothly as could’ve been expected after the senior guard missed three games for undisclosed reasons. The team announced last Monday that Davis had rejoined the team in practice in preparation for the game against Georgia.

Davis finished with only 4 points on 1-of-1 from the floor and 1-of-2 from the free throw line, but he also played 35 minutes with only one turnover and finished with a team-high plus-8 box plus/minus. He did a good job of letting the game come to him and not forcing his way back into the mix.

His ability to guard the post and be versatile on both ends of the court also contributed to Arkansas’ success with their small-ball lineup due to his ability to play virtually every position on the court on either side of the ball.

“Obviously, Devo changes things for us,” Musselman said. “Getting loose balls and defensively we’re much different with Devo in there. He did a great job guarding the 4… He played really hard. He had some big loose balls and he’s a guy that understands all four positions on the floor so we’re able to play him at the 4 tonight and our offense, our sets we could still get into them.”

Musselman noted that a big reason the small-ball lineup was so successful against Georgia was their ability to basically play four point guards at the same time, allowing the team to be more free flowing with their passes and quicker to attack off the bounce.

“We had Devo out there. We had Keyon out there. We had El out there,” Musselman said. “And even (Mark) has played point guard at times for us, so we played with four point guards. I thought the ball really, really moved. I think we had like 119 passes in the first half (200 is the goal for every game). So, the ball was moving, and the ball had energy.”

Ellis’ ability to be versatile and contribute as a rebounder is a major reason why he’s earned a spot back in the rotation. He finished with 5 rebounds and 3 assists against Georgia and is averaging 3.8 rebounds from the point guard position over his last four games played (not counting the two DNPs against Missouri and LSU).

Five different Razorbacks finished in double-digit scoring, led by the duo of El Ellis and Keyon Menifield with 15 points each – both on 6-of-11 shooting from the field. Mitchell finished with 14 points, Mark had 13 and Graham contributed 11 on efficient shooting.

The team shot 5 of 14 (36%) from long range, marking only the third time this season they’ve shot at least 10 threes against an SEC team and hit 33% or more of their attempts. El Ellis led the charge from downtown, hitting 3 of 6 including a huge shot late in the game to regain the lead with 1:42 remaining. Arkansas stayed ahead the rest of the way and ended up winning by three points.

“Staying ready, staying in the gym,” Ellis said when asked about having a big role against Georgia after being relegated to the bench for two consecutive games. “Being confident in myself. I produce at this level, so I just had to keep that confidence in myself and keep that mindset, staying in the gym.”

Perhaps the biggest catalyst of the success Arkansas found against the Bulldogs, however, was the lone big man through much of the second half: Makhi Mitchell. With his 14 points against Georgia, Mitchell has now recorded four consecutive double-digit scoring games for the first time in his five-year college career.

His aggression and awareness in the paint on both ends of the court has led to easy dump-off passes leading to layups, second chance points and a physical presence in the paint defensively. That’s all helped Arkansas look like an actual competitive SEC team in three of its last four games.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs Tennessee

Against Georgia, Musselman noted that defending the 3 was the No. 1 priority defensively because of how many 3s the Bulldogs usually take and how common it’s been for Arkansas to allow its opponent to get hot from behind the 3-point line.

However, against Tennessee, that strategy could potentially change drastically. No, that doesn’t mean Arkansas should leave the 3-point line unguarded, but perhaps forcing Tennessee into contested jump shots rather than running them off the 3-point line entirely could work in the Hogs’ favor.

Hear me out.

The Volunteers are 4-2 in their last six games. In those two losses, Tennessee has actually attempted more 3-pointers and fewer 2-pointers and free throws on average. They’re shooting 26% from downtown on over 25 attempts per game in the two losses compared to 39% on closer to 24.5 attempts in the four wins. They’re also averaging 8 (!!!) fewer assists per game in the two losses.

The difference in total attempts doesn’t provide a big enough discrepancy for Arkansas to simply not guard the perimeter, but perhaps if the Hogs can force Tennessee to play more isolation basketball and shoot over the top of defenders, they could stand a better chance at slowing down the offense.

Zeigler and Vescovi – though both very experienced – are relatively small SEC guards. Perhaps this could play into the strategy of making the Volunteers shoot over contests from Razorback guards.

It’s also worth noting that the Volunteers shoot much worse on the road than at home – especially in SEC play. During conference play, Tennessee is hitting nearly 36% of its 3-point attempts at home and only 33.8% of its attempts on the road.

Arkansas is also limiting teams to only 33.1% from long range in Bud Walton Arena compared to 41% on the road. The Hogs are 4-9 on the season when allowing teams to shoot 35% or better from long range, compared to 8-2 when holding them below this mark.

Despite the Volunteers clearly shooting worse away from home, they’re still taking three more 3-point attempts per game on the road, meaning they seem to be more willing to settle for long-range bombs on the road – something that Arkansas could take advantage of.

The Hogs also did a great job at limiting Georgia on the defensive side of the ball, continuing their recent trend of generating turnovers. They’ve now forced their last three opponents into 18, 11 and 14 turnovers, averaging 8.0 steals as a team during that stretch.

Defensive intensity and creating points off of turnovers will continue to be a major factor regardless of who Arkansas is playing considering it still sometimes struggles to score in half court sets. Sometimes, just seeing the ball go through the net once on a fast break can make certain players more likely to hit their next shot in a half-court setting.

Game Prediction

Arkansas trails Tennessee 25-22 in the programs’ all-time series, including losing 3 of the last 4 matchups. Fortunately for Arkansas, however, it has won seven in a row against the Volunteers in Fayetteville. The last loss came in February 2009.

The magic of Bud Walton Arena will certainly give the Hogs an extra boost in the shooting and defensive intensity departments. The small-ball lineup will also provide a boost while the trio of Razorback bigs continue their good play as of late.

However, Tennessee isn’t ranked in the top 10 in the AP Poll, NET Rankings, KenPom and several other metrics for no reason. The Volunteers are an elite defensive team that could make a legitimate push in the NCAA Tournament this season.

Arkansas falls short despite another valiant effort at home.

Tennessee wins, 80-77

How to Watch Arkansas vs Tennessee

Date: Wednesday, Feb. 14

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)

Tipoff Time/TV: 8 p.m. CT (ESPN2)

Odds: Tennessee favored by 8.5 points according to NCAAB odds

ESPN BPI: Tennessee has an 86.6% chance to win, favored by 13.5 points

KenPom: Tennessee has an 85% chance to win, favored by a score of 80-69.

Arkansas vs Tennessee Notes

  • Arkansas is 14-10 when playing on Valentine’s Day, including an 8-4 mark in home games. Arkansas has not played on Valentine’s Day since 2015, winning at Ole Miss, 71-70. Arkansas has not played at home on Valentine’s Day since 2009, falling to Kentucky, 79-63.
  • Tennessee is 1 of 3 SEC teams to lead the all-time series with Arkansas (with Florida and Kentucky). Thanks to back-to-back wins in the series ­—both in Knoxville ­­— The Vols own a slight 25-22 advantage in the series. However, Arkansas leads 12-4 versus UT in games played in Fayetteville. (via Razorback Communications)

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