At one point during his postgame Zoom interview with reporters Saturday night, Anthony Black glanced down at the box score sitting in front of him.
As the freshman did some quick math in his head, he picked the sheet up and brought it closer to his face, almost as if he couldn’t believe what he was reading.
“It’s crazy,” Black said. “We missed 13 free throws and we lost by 13.”
Of course, what unfolded down on the Plains can’t be boiled down to one statistic or one area, but struggles at the charity stripe — especially in the first half — were a major factor in No. 13 Arkansas suffering a disappointing 72-59 loss to No. 22 Auburn inside Neville Arena.
The Razorbacks shot 8 of 17 (47.1%) before halftime and finished the game just 19 of 32 from the free throw line for a measly 59.4%. That is well below their season average of 71.5% coming into the game and marked only the third time in 15 games Arkansas shot below 60% from the line.
“Obviously it’s really frustrating,” head coach Eric Musselman said. “We can’t miss that many foul shots. … The only thing I know is you’ve got to get in the gym on your own. That’s something that’s been part of our culture — guys working relentlessly on their game outside of practice. That’s got to improve for sure.”
Black’s use of “we” in his above comment was also generous. He knocked down a respectable 13 of 16 (81.3%). That means his teammates were just 6 of 16 (37.5%).
Ricky Council IV came in as the most consistent (79.2%) and highest volume (5.5 attempts/game) free throw shooter on the team, but got to the free throw line just twice — and made both of them.
The rest of the team — Jordan Walsh (2 of 4), Makhi Mitchell (0 of 3), Jalen Graham (1 of 5) and Kamani Johnson (1 of 2) — shot a combined 28.6% (4 of 14) from the charity stripe.
That was far from the only issue that led to Arkansas suffering its worst loss of the season, losing by 13 after its previous two losses were by a combined six points. Here’s a look at the other problems Musselman brought up afterward…
Finishing at the Rim
It’s easy to look at Arkansas going 2 of 16 (12.5%) from beyond the arc — plus the aforementioned free throw struggles — and pin the loss on the fact that it didn’t shoot well.
However, Eric Musselman has said since the preseason that this team would struggle to shoot from beyond the arc, and that was before two of its biggest threats from outside — Nick Smith Jr. and Trevon Brazile — went down with injuries.
Sure enough, the Razorbacks entered Saturday ranked 328th out of 363 Division I teams at 29.9%. Instead, what has carried them offensively has been their ability to get to the basket and finish or get fouled.
“The three-point shooting, you’re not just going to miraculously wake up and all of a sudden become a great three-point shooting team,” Musselman said. “So you’ve got to figure out other ways to try to put points on the board.”
Arkansas accomplished the getting to the rim part of that Saturday, but had a hard time putting the ball through the hoop. It did make all six of its dunks, but was just 7 of 22 on shots classified as layups in Auburn’s official stat broadcast.
That number includes some tip-in attempts and Johni Broome’s six blocks for Auburn also contributed to it, but at 31.8%, it was far less efficient than what the Razorbacks have been. In SEC play alone, Arkansas had made 59.5% of its layups against LSU and Missouri.
Had the Razorbacks just converted at that rate against Auburn, they would have made an additional six shots. Likewise, shooting their season average at the free throw line would have equated to four more makes.
It’s not as simple as that, but it can be argued that Arkansas left 16 points on the floor in a game it lost by 13.
“I think we really beat ourselves tonight,” Black said. “I mean, Auburn is a solid team, but I think we really beat ourselves, to be honest.”
Lack of Points in Transition
Another way this Arkansas basketball team has figured out how to score is through its defense.
It has been one of the most prolific teams in the country when it comes to steals and forcing turnovers, ranking in the top 20 nationally in both categories, and that has led to easy buckets — dunks and layups — in transition.
Despite facing an Auburn team prone to coughing up the ball, the Razorbacks forced just eight turnovers Saturday night. That included only four steals, which was well below the 10.2 it was averaging (13th nationally).
The result was only 6 points off turnovers and 5 fast break points. For a comparison, the Tigers turned Arkansas’ 14 turnovers into 25 points.
“The defensive game plan has not changed over than the execution by some of our guys,” Musselman said. “We had four steals tonight and two of them were by our power forward/center Kamani Johnson, so that kind of tells you what our perimeters did from a defensive creating turnovers standpoint — not much at all. You can’t play 35, 36 minutes and not have a steal in our system.”
Anthony Black and Joseph Pinion were the only guards with a steal, while Ricky Council and Jordan Walsh had none in 36 and 32 minutes, respectively.
When asked about the Razorbacks’ offensive struggles after the game, Anthony Black eventually settled on “stagnant” as the adjective that best described what they were doing on that end of the floor.
As LSU and Missouri before it, Auburn threw a zone at Arkansas and it caused problems. Unlike the first two SEC games, though, it wasn’t able to rally and force it to change up its defense.
One thing Eric Musselman said he’d like to see is better movement from his team without the ball — and area that previous teams have excelled at with guys like Jimmy Whitt Jr., Justin Smith, Moses Moody and Au’Diese Toney.
“We’ve talked to our team about trying to be better cutters,” Musselman said. “Instead of just dribbling the ball, you’ve got to cut. … You’ve got to move without the ball and figure out how to score across the board.
“We’re not getting as many basket cuts as we have in the past. We’re doing the same drills. You’ve got to figure out when your shot is not falling how to get some easy baskets off of reading the defense.”
Yet Another Slow Start
Just 14 seconds into the game, Arkansas found itself in a 4-0 hole thanks to Wendell Green Jr. knocking down a 3-pointer, getting fouled and making the free throw to convert the rare four-point play.
He quickly made another one, making him 2 of 2 from deep after going just 3 of 23 over the previous six games, and the Razorbacks were in catch-up mode the rest of the game. They never led and the only tie was 0-0.
“You play on the road and you give up a 4-point play, it’s hard to recover from that,” Black said. “They started the game with a lot of momentum. They just took it and ran with it. It’s hard to win on the road. We’ve got to start off games better, to be honest.”
To Arkansas’ credit, it made its first three shots of the game. When Ricky Council IV made a 3, it looked as though the Razorbacks might finally get off to a hot start.
However, after that three, they were just 1 of 8 from the floor over the next five minutes and ended the half shooting 33.3% from the field, 16.7% (1 of 6) from beyond the arc and 46.1% (8 of 17) from the free throw line.
It was the continuation of a troubling trend in SEC play. In three conference games, the Razorbacks now have shooting splits of 31.8%, 9.7% and 46.7% in the first half.
A contributing factor to Saturday’s slow start was likely the fact that three significant contributors picked up their second foul within the game’s first 12 minutes and 2 seconds: Davonte Davis (16:50), Anthony Black (9:27) and Kamani Johnson (7:58).
“Devo picked up two really quick fouls — our most experienced player on the team,” Musselman said. “You’re minus two starters, he picks up two fouls. You saw the results.”
Even though Neville Arena seats only 9,121 fans, Auburn has developed one of the best home court advantages in college basketball in recent years. In fact, Saturday was the Tigers’ 27th straight win at the venue, the third-longest active streak in Division I.
The spring semester has yet to start at Auburn, but the student section — nicknamed “The Jungle” — was packed well before tip off.
Eric Musselman didn’t bite when specifically asked if the environment impacted the team’s play, especially the slow start, but made other casual remarks that seemed to indicate it did.
He said that his team, which consists of only two returning players from last year’s Elite Eight team, needed to “figure out how to play better on the road” and “how to play more composed” because winning true road games — in which they’re now 0-2 — has been “problematic.”
The Razorbacks managed to erase a 17-point deficit in Wednesday’s win over No. 20 Missouri, but that game was at Bud Walton Arena. In Auburn, they couldn’t get closer than nine in the second half.
“When you put yourself in a hole on the road, it’s pretty hard to come back from it,” Black said. “With the players we have, just who we are what type of players we have, every game is going to be sold out. They’re all going to play their best game against us, and the crowd is going to have a lot of energy. So, we’ve just got to come in and start our road games better off. The start is really what’s killing us, to be honest.”
The Bright Spot for Arkansas Basketball
Had it not been for the play of Anthony Black, the score likely would have been much worse than the 13-point final margin.
The freshman phenom battled foul trouble in the first half, which limited him to only 10 minutes, but he took over after halftime.
Playing all 20 minutes of the second half, Black scored 18 of his game-high 23 points and grabbed six of his seven total rebounds. There was a 6.5-minute stretch in which he scored 13 of the Razorbacks’ 14 points.
Musselman described his performance as “exceptional” and “spectacular.”
“He was the guy that the atmosphere didn’t affect him,” Musselman said. “When he saw that we weren’t getting much, he took it upon himself to be way more aggressive offensively. We needed him to.”
Black has shown an ability to score at a high clip this season, particularly at the Maui Invitational, but there have been other games in which he’s taken on more of a traditional point guard role and looked to distribute rather than score himself.
With all of the aforementioned offensive struggles, he quickly realized that he couldn’t be passive against Auburn.
“My job is just to win and kind of see what my team needs game by game,” Black said. “I could tell early on that we were going to need me on offense a little more than I’ve been. Just (be) aggressive. And I’ll probably have to keep playing aggressive going forward.”
Up Next for Arkansas Basketball
Arkansas returns home for yet another top-25 matchup Wednesday evening, as it’s scheduled to host Alabama. The Crimson Tide are 13-2 overall and 3-0 in SEC.
That includes wins over Ole Miss and Kentucky this week, the latter of which was by an eye-popping score of 78-52 in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. With those wins, Alabama should hold steady at — or even improve from — its No. 7 ranking in this week’s AP Poll.
It will be the Razorbacks’ third straight AP top-25 matchup, as they beat No. 20 Missouri at home and then lost to No. 22 Auburn on the road this week.
The only other times Arkansas has played three consecutive such games in the regular season were in 1980-81 and 1990-91. Each of those previous instances were part of early-season tournaments, so this stretch is truly unprecedented.
Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits
- With the loss, Arkansas dropped to 7-5 in AP top-25 matchups under Eric Musselman. Two of those losses are now in true road games, as the Razorbacks previously lost at No. 13 Tennessee last season.
- Auburn’s Allen Flanigan, who played his high school ball at Little Rock Parkview, showed out against his home state team. He poured in 18 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in 32 minutes off the bench. “I’m not surprised at all that he played really well,” Musselman said. “In my opinion, he’s as tough a one-on-one cover as there is. His jump-shot tonight, he rose over our guys. He’s got a good midrange game, a good post-up game, he’s a good cutter. I know our coaching staff has incredible respect for him. He played really well tonight.”
- As mentioned above, Johni Broome was a force as a rim-protector against Arkansas, finishing with six blocks. However, he also notched a double-double with 10 points — below his season average of 13.1 — and 10 rebounds. “I thought he played really good basketball, but I also thought (Makhi Mitchell) did a good job guarding him 1-on-1,” Musselman said. “Obviously, he’s one of the best shot blockers in the country. He did a great job protecting the rim for them, for sure.”
- New Auburn football coach Hugh Freeze was introduced during the first media timeout of the game. He was at Liberty last season and guided the Flames to a 21-19 win over the Razorbacks in Fayetteville.
Arkansas vs Auburn Highlights
Arkansas vs Auburn Postgame Interviews
Hear from Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman and freshman Anthony Black after the loss…
Arkansas vs Auburn Box Score
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