Arkansas Season Opener Preview: Alcorn State’s Mascot Might As Well Be Leprechauns Given Certain KenPom Stat

Trevon Brazile, Jeremiah Kendall, Arkansas basketball, Alcorn State basketball, Arkansas vs Alcorn State
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Alcorn State Athletics

The 2023-24 Arkansas basketball season is set to officially start Monday against Alcorn State after unofficially starting with a head-turning win over No. 3 Purdue in a charity exhibition game at Bud Walton Arena.

If fans weren’t already excited for the upcoming season, the upset victory certainly should have them fired up by now. Even though both head coaches and several players talked about the environment being closer to a tournament game than a regular exhibition, the win still won’t show up on the Razorbacks’ official record – though it could put a positive spin on the opinions of the national analysts early in the season.

Now Arkansas will get an opportunity to put its money where its mouth is with a relatively tough non-conference schedule. While Alcorn State isn’t viewed nationally as a big-name program, it finished tied for first in the Southwestern Athletic Conference with a 15-3 conference mark last season – giving the Braves their second straight regular-season SWAC title. They’re now projected to finish third in the conference in 2023-24 with a roster composed of six returners, six JUCO signees and three Division I transfers along with a few freshmen.

The Arkansas vs Alcorn State game is set to tip off at 7 p.m. CT Monday inside Bud Walton Arena.

Previewing Alcorn State Basketball

With no official games under their belt, it can be a bit tricky to fully know what to expect from the Braves in their first game. Last season, Alcorn State finished ranked No. 247 overall on KenPom, along with a less-than-impressive No. 250 offensive efficiency and No. 245 defensive efficiency.

It’s also worth noting that KenPom gave the Braves a “Luck” ranking of No. 4, essentially stating they heavily benefited from making unlikely shots, teams shooting poorly against them and other small things that could affect the outcome of a game. For comparison’s sake, Arkansas was No. 280 in this statistic.

The Braves have more than fortune on their side, though, with an experienced roster featuring several older players. They’re returning three of their top five scorers from last season, led by forward Jeremiah Kendall (6-foot-7) who averaged 11.1 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds last season.

He wasn’t a threat from the outside – missing all three of his 3-point attempts a season ago – but he did have a solid enough free throw rate, attempting .402 free throws per field goal attempt. For reference, this is similar to the free throw rate of Trevon Brazile and Makhi Mitchell last season.

While Kendall is a far cry from Purdue’s 7-foot-4 All-American Zach Edey, the Razorback bigs will likely be tasked with defending him one-on-one and will need to adjust their game to avoid foul trouble early – an issue that seems to plague every Musselman-coached team.

Alcorn State’s other top returning scorers are a pair of senior guards in Byron Joshua (5-foot-10) and Dekedran Thorn (6-foot-3), who averaged 11.0 and 9.0 points, respectively, a season ago. They combined to attempt nearly eight 3-pointers per game. Joshua finished the season at only 24% from range, but Thorn proved to be one of the better shooters in the conference, hitting 36% of his 3-point attempts.

“(Joshua) has great quickness with the ball…ability to make 3-point shots,” Musselman said this week. “And then they have some really good shooters. (Jeremiah) Gambrell took 10 threes in their exhibition game the other day. (Roderick) Jones and (Jalen) Hawkins, those guys can shoot the ball.”

Both Jones (6-foot-2) and Hawkins (6-foot-4) are set to make their Alcorn State debuts in this game. Jones joins from the JUCO ranks, while Hawkins averaged 8.0 points per game last season at Morehead State. They may not be returning to a system they know, but they’re both experienced guards who can give the Razorbacks fits if left unchecked.

The Braves loaded up with junior college talent this offseason, bringing in six JUCO recruits:

  • #0 Stephen Byard | 6-8 | Forward
  • #4 Roderick Jones | 6-2 | Guard
  • #7 Alex Tsynkevich | 6-10 | Center
  • #15 Djahi Binet | 6-7 | Forward
  • #20 Trevon Stoutermire | 6-8 | Forward
  • #24 Del Jayvien Harried | 6-3 | Guard

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

The Razorbacks went 10-deep in their final preseason exhibition game against Purdue. This is deeper into his bench than Eric Musselman typically likes to play, but perhaps the combination of it being an exhibition, some foul trouble and this roster being generally loaded with talent forced his hand.

Or perhaps it’s possible that the rotation will consistently be 9-10 players deep for the first time in Musselman’s tenure at Arkansas. After all, the Hogs were without senior forward Jalen Graham, a per-minute offensive juggernaut, in this game. Musselman noted that Graham was trending in the right direction to be available for Monday’s matchup.

“That’s the plan right now,” Musselman told media members on Wednesday. “From a training perspective, strength coach perspective, doctor perspective and player perspective — he will be able to be in uniform Monday.”

Highly-touted freshman Baye Fall also didn’t see any minutes in the Purdue exhibition, largely due to how well Chandler Lawson was performing. 

“Where are the minutes going to come from, you know what I mean?” Musselman said when asked about Fall’s lack of playing time. “It’s hard to play four interior players… Either we’re going to have to play some guys shorter minutes or we’re going to have to play a bigger lineup because we did play Brazile at the 3 even… It’s a decision game-by-game we are going to have to make.”

In Arkansas vs Alcorn State in particular, the biggest interior threats for the Braves are the 6-foot-7 Kendall – who was selected to the preseason All-SWAC first team – and 6-foot-10 JUCO transfer Alex Tsynkevich.

Don’t be surprised if the Hogs run more small-ball lineups in this game, and likely several games where they don’t have to deal with a big man possessing the size and skill-level of Edey. Players like Layden Blocker, Joseph Pinion and Jeremiah Davenport could see increased minutes and opportunities, while someone like Chandler Lawson – who played 33 minutes in the exhibition win – is likely to see a notable drop-off in minutes.

One of the biggest strengths of this team projects to be its ability to adjust to whatever the opposition is throwing at them. Musselman flexed his frontcourt in the win against Purdue, even without Graham available, and in games like this one, he might show off his backcourt with three- and four-guard lineups alongside a lone big man.

This should also be a good opportunity for the younger players like Blocker, Fall and even Pinion to get their feet under them against theoretically lower competition.

What to Watch For in Arkansas vs Alcorn State

Alcorn State is a solid program that has consistently competed in the SWAC for several years, but the biggest threat to Arkansas in this game is itself. With the sold-out exhibition win over No. 3 Purdue being the first true taste of what’s to come in Bud Walton Arena this season for the majority of the team, it would be all too easy for the Hogs to sleep-walk into this game knowing the atmosphere won’t be quite the same.

It may not be fair to call this a “trap game,” but the Hogs certainly can’t let their guard down and allow an experienced team to gain confidence early on. Last year’s team had a problem putting away mid-major opponents early in the season and some of those struggles carried over into SEC play, where they finished an 8-10 record.

It’ll also be interesting to watch the shot distribution in this game. As a team, the Hogs shot 8 of 23 (34.8%) from long range in their win over Purdue. This is a welcome change for Razorback fans who have experienced some of the country’s worst shooting teams for the last couple of seasons.

The last time Arkansas played Alcorn State in a season opener was 2009, which saw perhaps the greatest single shooting performance in Arkansas basketball history. Rotnei Clarke scored a school-record 51 points in that blowout win, making an SEC-record 13 3-pointers (on 17 attempts).

This team may not produce a singular supernova like that, but it as the potential to have more depth with its perimeter shooters than most of its Arkansas predecessors. Even with the improved shooting, it’s worth paying attention in these early games to how much the Hogs settle for long-range bombs rather than forcing their way into the paint. They might be able to live and die by the three against a team like Alcorn State, but they also need to continue working on getting to the rim and creating quality looks for themselves and others – including getting to the free throw line.

“We need to be a better free throw attempt team,” Musselman said. “I mean, we didn’t attempt a foul shot against Purdue until 29.5 minutes into the game. We have to do a way better job, because historically our teams have been not good at getting to the foul line, but great at getting to the foul line. And with the perimeter shooting threat, you’d think you’d be even better getting to the cup.”

Game Prediction

No drama to discuss in this one. Arkansas handles Alcorn State relatively easily, even if they experience a bit of an emotional hangover from that big Purdue win in the opening minutes. The Razorbacks will pull away late and avoid any “trap game” noise thanks to their plethora of leadership and experience.

The younger players and guards will get their share of playing time, especially in the second half, and Jalen Graham will show off what he’s been working on this offseason in his return to action. Even with more small-ball lineups, Arkansas will overpower the smaller Alcorn State with athleticism and talent across the board.

92-68, Arkansas

How to Watch Arkansas vs Alcorn State

Date: Monday, Nov. 6

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)

Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: 7 p.m. CT (SEC Network+)

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 97.4% chance to win, favored by 23.6

The betting line according to sportsbooks on Melbet Sign Up includes a point spread of Arkansas -24.5, with an O/U of 145.5.

Arkansas vs Alcorn State Game Notes

  • Arkansas is a perfect 30-0 in Bud Walton Arena for home openers.
  • Arkansas has won 47 of the last 49 season openers dating back to 1974-75 with both losses coming on neutral courts. Its two losses over the span were the 1994-95 opener when preseason #1 Arkansas fell to preseason #3 UMass (104-80) in the Tipoff Classic (Springfield, Mass.) and the 2018-19 season opener in El Paso versus Texas (77-73 in OT) in the ESPN Armed Forces Classic.
  • Arkansas is 140-41 (.773) all-time in the month of November, including a 21-1 mark under Musselman.

via Razorback Communications


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Watch Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman preview the Arkansas vs Alcorn State matchup:

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