Eric Musselman has been extremely critical of this Arkansas basketball team throughout the season — and understandably so.
The Razorbacks have vastly underperformed, falling from out of the top 15 and racking up historic “worsts” like some of their past teams racked up resume-building wins. Numerous times, Musselman called out his players for being nothing like his first four teams in Fayetteville.
Considering how poorly Arkansas opened up SEC play, with five double-digit losses and one win in which it needed a buzzer beater after squandering a 20-point lead, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the team completely fall apart and quit on the season — especially with its two preseason All-SEC selections not on the floor.
Instead, the Razorbacks have played arguably their best two-game stretch of the season. They came up short at home against No. 6 Kentucky before a dominant (don’t be fooled by the final margin) road win at Missouri.
“I thought we did a phenomenal job sharing the basketball,” Musselman said after beating the Tigers. “Defensive activity is where it needs to be with 10 steals. This group tonight played like teams of the past, creating steals, jumping in passing lanes, sharing the basketball. Super proud of the 40-minute effort tonight.”
The fact that Arkansas stacked solid performances on top of each other, rather than playing down to Missouri’s level, is encouraging on its own. The NCAA Tournament is still pretty far-fetched — they’re still just No. 123 in the NET rankings, up six spots with the win — but it now seems like this year’s Razorbacks will avoid making more dubious history.
The way things were trending, this team was on its way to becoming arguably Arkansas’ worst of the SEC era. That distinction might be held by the 2008-09 team, which went 14-16 overall with a 2-14 mark in conference play under John Pelphrey. (A case could also be made for Stan Heath’s first two teams.)
That team famously (infamously?) knocked off No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 7 Texas in the span of a week just before the start of SEC play and then won only two conference games. This year’s team — which had similar moments against Purdue (albeit in an exhibition) and Duke — needs just one more win to ensure a better conference winning percentage than that squad.
Of course, this could just be an aberration similar to the football team beating Florida (another bad team, like Missouri basketball) before the wheels completely fell off. There is reason to believe that isn’t the case, though.
Look no further than how two different position groups responded to very public criticism from Eric Musselman the last two games.
Point Guard Improvement vs. Missouri
One reason the Razorbacks fell apart down the stretch against Kentucky was because of turnovers that led to easy buckets on the other end of the floor.
All but one of the Wildcats’ 12 points off turnovers came in the second half. Three of those giveaways led to easy fast-break dunks or layups, helping Kentucky first rally from a deficit and then pull away late.
El Ellis had five turnovers and Tramon Mark had three. They combined for eight of Arkansas’ 13 total turnovers.
“The turnovers, I mean, we need better point guard play straight up,” Musselman said in the opening remarks of his postgame press conference.
The Razorbacks got that against Missouri. Again, there’s a significant difference between Kentucky and Missouri, but it was a dramatic improvement.
Freshman Layden Blocker got the starting nod for just the third time this season, with his other two starts coming in the Bahamas. His final stat line — 9 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 3 turnovers — isn’t overly impressive, but he also played really good defense during his 29 minutes on the floor.
Although he played only five minutes against Kentucky, that was five more minutes than Washington transfer Keyon Menifield, who didn’t play at all because of a coach’s decision.
Despite coming off the bench, he actually played the most at point guard against Missouri. In 32 minutes, Menifield had 16 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists and only 1 turnover. He wasn’t super efficient, going 4 of 11 from the floor, and took some ill-advised shots in the second half, but Musselman was still pleased with his play overall.
“Keyon the last two days at practice, he was focused, so he got the nod tonight getting 32 minutes,” Musselman said. “His free throws were very important going 6 for 6 and the ball flows really well when he’s out there. I thought he made a couple of great pocket passes that might not have gone down as assists because maybe one of our bigs took two or three dribbles.”
There were long stretches when Menifield and Blocker were on the court together, as well. Musselman said that was because of matchups, as Missouri played two smaller guards — Sean East (6-foot-3) and Nick Honor (5-foot-10) — together.
That won’t be the case against a lot of SEC teams, but he still liked what he saw from the combo. Specifically, on defense, Musselman said their quickness helped keep Missouri’s guards in front of them instead of driving to the basket at will.
“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. We were able to extend our defense a little bit more, which probably goes in line with those 10 team steals.”
It’s also worth noting that late in the game, when the Razorbacks went to their stall-ball offense, Tramon Mark handled a lot of the point guard duties — something he’ll likely continue to do with Davonte Davis stepping away from the team.
Ellis, meanwhile, made the trip and did not play at all. He had been one of only two players who appeared in each of the first 20 games of the season.
Arkansas Frontcourt Steps up Big
Before this current two-game stretch, it was Arkansas’ big men who drew the ire of Eric Musselman.
Following an ugly 26-point loss at Ole Miss, the fifth-year coach was at a loss for words about the rebounding of his centers, pointing out that they combined for no defensive rebounds in nearly 37 minutes.
It was a stat so incredible that it warranted a fact check — and it was true. Chandler Lawson (6 minutes), Makhi Mitchell (12 minutes), Jalen Graham (13 minutes) and Baye Fall (6 minutes) did grab 4 combined offensive boards, but that was it.
Even with Trevon Brazile sidelined with a sore knee, that unit has been key to Arkansas out-rebounding both Kentucky and Missouri. The trio of Lawson, Graham and Mitchell have combined to average 20 total rebounds over the last two games
“Certainly feel that that’s an important aspect to us winning basketball games,” Musselman said. “If we don’t rebound in this league, we’re going to really, really struggle.”
The data certainly backs that up. Even with the loss to the Wildcats, Arkansas is now 9-2 when out-rebounding its opponent, compared to 2-8 when it loses the rebound battle.
They haven’t just been rebounding, either. They’re also combining for 31.5 points, 4.5 assists, 3 steals and 5 blocks per game over that two-game stretch.
“I think our three-headed bigs have been unbelievable,” Musselman said. “I really do. I think Chandler and Jalen and Khi have been outstanding. Not good, but outstanding.”
Lawson has continued to be a glue guy whose impact doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score. He is a combined plus-11 in his 41 minutes of action against Kentucky and Missouri, which means the Razorbacks are minus-10 with him on the bench.
Mitchell has seemingly transformed into a different player, posting double-doubles in back-to-back games for the first time in his career, including his time at Rhode Island. His 19-point, 14-rebound effort against Missouri was likely his best game in college.
Known primarily for his elite scoring ability, Graham did a little bit of everything in the win over the Tigers. On top of his 13 points, he also led the team in assists (4), steals (4) and blocks (3) in 25 minutes before fouling out with five minutes remaining.
According to HogStats, he’s the first Arkansas basketball player to hit those three marks in an SEC game since current assistant coach Ronnie Brewer did it against South Carolina on Feb. 21, 2004. All three also either matched or exceeded his previous highs with the Razorbacks.
When asked about his teammate’s all-around performance, Mitchell gave Graham some props, but mainly spoke about the unit as a whole – which is appropriate for a group that likely needs all three to play at a high level for Arkansas to remain competitive.
“Tremendous performance by Jalen,” Mitchell said. “We need that every night from the bigs. We’re one. We’re one group. We meet before practices and stuff and talk. We gotta build from this. Overall, a good performance by everybody on the front line.”
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