Arkansas vs Purdue: Musselman to Pull Out All Stops for Boilermakers’ 7’4″ Ace in Hole

Matt Painter, Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball, Purdue basketball, Arkansas vs Purdue
photo credit: Purdue Athletics / Arkansas Athletics

After drubbing a Division II team last week, Arkansas basketball will get a much tougher test in its next dress rehearsal.

The No. 14 Razorbacks welcome No. 3 Purdue to Bud Walton Arena for arguably the most highly anticipated exhibition game in the country – and likely the biggest in UA history – at 3 p.m. CT Saturday. The game is nearing a sellout and will be streamed on SEC Network-Plus.

While the 92-39 beatdown of UT Tyler was fun for fans and gave a few inklings of what to expect during the early portion of the season, the showdown with the Boilermakers should provide even more answers.

“To be able to play a team that has a chance to win a national championship, it certainly makes this game way more meaningful and way more special than just a normal exhibition game when you look at lessons that can be learned once this game is over,” head coach Eric Musselman said about the Arkansas vs Purdue matchup.

UPDATE: For a breakdown of the game in real time, go here: LIVE UPDATES: Preseason Odds Show Arkansas vs Purdue Features Pair of Title Contenders

Previewing Purdue

Purdue basketball is returning seven players from last year’s roster who averaged at least 11.3 minutes and appeared in 32 or more games, as well as Brian Waddell, who appeared in 17 games for an average of 8.1 minutes per game. They also brought in fifth-year graduate transfer Lance Jones, who started 113 of his 119 appearances at Southern Illinois over the last four seasons.

The biggest (no pun intended here, unlike with Nate Olson) of those returning players is reigning AP Player of the Year Zach Edey. The 7-foot-4 center averaged a phenomenal 22.3 points, 13.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks last year while shooting nearly 61% from the field across 34 games.

“That’s one of the reasons that we’re so excited about playing Purdue,” Musselman said. “You’re talking about maybe the hardest player in college basketball to game plan against – because of his size, because of his skill level and because of his teammates who play surrounding him.”

Perhaps the most glaring weakness on Arkansas’ roster is interior depth defensively. Makhi Mitchell by himself is an imposing presence against most opposing centers, though he stands six inches shorter than Edey. After Mitchell, however, questions arise regarding the Razorbacks’ ability to defend elite big men and rebound effectively.

Trevon Brazile and Jalen Graham will likely get their share of minutes at center this season, but Brazile is still recovering from an ACL injury and Graham is, at best, considered questionable for Saturday’s matchup.

“He tried (to practice) yesterday,” Musselman told the media on Tuesday. “We’re not going to play him if he’s like he was yesterday, I can tell you that.”

Even if both players were full-go for this matchup, both are a bit undersized to be defending a player like Edey, and Graham struggled to stay on the court last season due to his lack of defensive intensity and rebounding. After these two, Baye Fall at 6-foot-10 is a likely candidate, though he’s still filling out his frame as a true freshman.

Guarding Zach Edey

Musselman specifically named Chandler Lawson, a 6-foot-8 transfer out of Memphis, when discussing his game plan to defend Edey. An incredible 7-foot-7 wingspan could come in handy against the Purdue big man.

“I think in this particular game, Chandler Lawson will get an opportunity to guard Edey,” Musselman said. “(Mitchell) and Chandler are the two players on our roster that have the experience of maybe defending some of the more physical guys that we could see.”

Tramon Mark, a star defensive-minded transfer from Houston, spoke highly of Lawson’s all-around ability on the court, as well.

“[Lawson] is nasty,” Mark said. “Another high-IQ guy. He comes with a lot of energy in practice, a lot of energy in the games. He just knows what he’s doing on the basketball floor. He’s a great addition to our team and he just knows what he’s doing out there.”

While we could spend all day discussing Edey and the Hogs’ potential issues guarding him, it’s the other players surrounding the reigning player of the year that make this Purdue basketball team exceptionally dangerous.

“Coach Painter has done a great job of getting shooting to surround a player that’s got great skill [on the] interior,” Musselman said of Purdue. “They’re tough, they execute, a lot of continuity. I would say they’re for sure way ahead of where we are today, and they’re probably way ahead of a lot of other programs.”

Fletcher Loyer (6-foot-4) and Braden Smith (6-foot-0) are a pair of sophomores set to compose one of the best backcourts in college basketball next season. Last year, as true freshmen, the two combined for 20.7 points, 6.8 assists, 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 made threes per game on 35% shooting from long range.

Smith in particular has great defensive instincts, highlighted by his 1.2 steals per game last season. It will be the defense of the Razorback guards that could be on display in this game, though, with this being the first true test of the new duo of Mark and Devo Davis. Layden Blocker could also see significant time in this game as a defensive option for the Hogs.

Other notable returners for Purdue along with their averages from last season:

  • Mason Gillis: Sr. | F | 6.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 36% 3PT
  • Ethan Morton: Sr. | G | 3.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists
  • Caleb Furst: Jr. | F | 5.5 points, 4.6 rebounds
  • Trey Kaufman-Renn: Soph. | F | 4.5 points, 1.8 rebounds

What to Watch from Arkansas

The conundrum of defending Zach Edey has already been well-discussed, but the production from Arkansas’ bigs will be another story line to watch in this game. Trevon Brazile played a few more minutes than the staff anticipated in the first exhibition and Musselman has already stated they expect him to play somewhere between 15-25 minutes against Purdue.

If Jalen Graham can’t go, it’s worth paying attention to who soaks up the center minutes. It’s certainly possible that Musselman will opt for small-ball lineups featuring Brazile at center, though against a big man like Edey, it’s fair to expect some combination of Chandler Lawson, Baye Fall and Brazile during the minutes without Makhi Mitchell on the court.

Expect to see a heavy dose of Devo Davis, Tramon Mark and El Ellis – the most probable starting backcourt at this point thanks to their combination of defense, playmaking and experience – but pay attention to who serves as a complementary piece to this trio. That could indicate where Musselman and the Arkansas basketball staff are leaning in terms of their core rotation.

Khalif Battle is the most obvious candidate to see significant action, especially after his quick scoring outburst in the first exhibition, but who else joins him off the bench? Layden Blocker is a strong option for a defensive-minded ball-handler. Both Joseph Pinion and Jeremiah Davenport have shown a knack for knocking down the long ball.

An argument could be made that all seven players deserve minutes, but it’s well documented that Musselman rarely goes that deep into his bench rotation. This early-season test could provide a peak at who might be the odd man out after nearly every player saw double-digit minutes last time out. Of course, the true core rotation won’t be finalized for another few months, but this matchup could be a good indicator of where things currently stand.

As far as this particular matchup is concerned, transfer forward Chandler Lawson noted that one key to beating a team featuring a massive interior force like Purdue is to outrun them.

“I feel like offensive-wise, we’ve got to run the floor and put him in so much pick-and-roll coverage,” Lawson said. “I feel like we’ve got to outrun him. The goal is just to run, run, run, just make him keep up with us and our athleticism.”

Perhaps this extra emphasis on running hard up and down the court will force Musselman to deploy a deeper rotation in this game similar to his strategy against UT Tyler rather than leaning into his more trusted players for extended minutes.

Hogs’ Advantage in Arkansas vs Purdue?

Since Arkansas’ first exhibit game vs Tyler wasn’t televised, the Boilermakers don’t have any game tape on this new Razorback team, Purdue basketball coach Matt Painter said on Friday. “It’s probably a lot easier for them since we have so many people returning,” Painter said. While Arkansas can scout a Purdue team that returns its core pieces by looking at last year’s tape, the Boilermakers can’t do the same since Arkansas has so many new faces.

“The newness of Arkansas’s roster could work in its favor in terms of prep work, Casey Bartley of Rivals’ BoilerUpload wrote.

How said newness manifests behind the arc will dictate a lot about Arkansas’ success in the coming season.

After back-to-back seasons of atrocious 3-point shooting, Musselman and his staff seemingly addressed their need for long-range scoring over the offseason, adding numerous transfers capable of bolstering the overall team shooting percentage. In the Red/White Exhibition game, the Hogs looked nearly unstoppable from long-range, hitting 50% of their 3-point attempts.

That number came back to Earth a bit during their first game in Bud Walton Arena, though they still shot 32% from distance despite some expected first-game jitters early on. Brazile had an off night in his first live action since his ACL injury in December of 2022 – which isn’t overly surprising or concerning – as he missed all four of his long-range attempts. Without his misses, the rest of the team shot nearly 37% from distance.

Pinion and Davenport combined to shoot 6 of 14 (43%) from deep, providing yet another example of why they have to be considered for the regular rotation. Battle also shot 2 of 3 from deep, while Lawson, Ellis and Mark also added one triple each. It is not only worth monitoring who gets minutes, but also how everyone’s shooting progresses as the competition level increases.

Recent Exhibition Woes

The last time a ranked Arkansas basketball squad faced a ranked opponent in an exhibition game, things got ugly fast. In late October before the official start of the 2022-23 season, No. 10 Arkansas traveled to the Moody Center in Austin, Texas, for a matchup with No. 12 Texas. The Longhorns opened the second half on a 25-5 run and ultimately won by a score of 90-60.

Here’s why Arkansas vs Purdue will be different.

First of all, this exhibition will be in front of a home-court crowd at Bud Walton Arena. Musselman noted that around 14,000 tickets had been sold so far at the time of his Tuesday media session, with an additional 3,000 spots reserved for students. This will be the first taste of a true Bud Walton Arena environment for most of the incoming transfers, as well as a good test for Purdue in a true road environment.

Secondly, this Razorback squad is loaded with experience. Last year’s exhibition against Texas was the first taste of collegiate competition for every freshman on the roster – which, in case you forgot, was just under half the roster. Experience doesn’t guarantee a win, but it should certainly help this team be more prepared to withstand runs from their opponent and answer with big plays of their own.

Arkansas vs Purdue Prediction

The Razorbacks look like a team legitimately capable of contending for a Final Four appearance this season, but Purdue is among the preseason favorites to win it all. With seven returning core players and the reigning national player of the year, the Boilermakers are going to be hard for any team to beat – especially a team playing its first competitive game together.

Musselman will put together a sound game plan to deter Zach Edey for as long as possible, and the Razorbacks’ speed and athleticism will give the Boilermakers fits, but ultimately Purdue comes out on top in this preseason showdown.

The Hogs’ size inside – or lack thereof – is likely to lead to either foul trouble or a wide rebound margin in favor of Purdue. Combine that with their uniquely high level of continuity and experience, and the Boilermakers come away with a win.

79-72, Purdue

How to Watch Arkansas vs Purdue

Date: Saturday, Oct. 28

Location: Bud Walton Arena (Fayetteville, Ark.)

Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: 3 p.m. CT (SEC+)

Purdue Basketball Rankings: No. 3 (AP) | No. 2 (Coaches) | No. 1 (KenPom)

Arkansas Basketball Rankings: No. 14 (AP) | No. 14 (Coaches) | No. 14 (KenPom)

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Watch Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman preview the Arkansas vs Purdue exhibition:

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