The Tide are traveling to Bud Walton Arena in what will be the first top-25 matchup* in Fayetteville this century. With the Alabama and Arkansas basketball teams now ranked 20th and 6th, respectively, this Wednesday night tilt is arguably the most anticipated game of the Eric Musselman era so far.
Let’s look at how these teams match up from a metrics standpoint, what to expect, and how this will be different from their previous meeting.
What do the metrics say?
|Offensive Efficiency Rank||24||38 *trending way up from 52 last week*|
|Defensive Efficiency Rank||2||20|
|Adjusted Tempo Rank||9||29|
|Effective FG% Rank||77||118|
Arkansas vs Alabama Magnitude
There is much to take in for what is building up to one of the most important Razorback basketball games (in the regular season, at least) this century. While the Tide have secured the regular-season SEC title, this game could dramatically alter tournament seeding come March.
According to BracketMatrix.com, a site the compiles bracketology updates from leading bracketologists, the Razorbacks are a consensus 6** seed. A win on Wednesday night would essentially set the Hog’s floor around a 6 seed with high upside.
A loss could see Arkansas slip back towards the 8/9/10 line by the end of the season.
What Has Changed since January 16th
The Tide dominated in the previous matchup on January 16, running the Hogs off the court in a decisive 90-59 victory. The Razorbacks fell behind 22-5 in the first ten minutes and it didn’t get any prettier after that.
The Hogs shot an abysmal 33% from the field, turned the ball over 18 times, and shot 23% from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, they watched as Alabama bury 15 three-point shots, out-rebounded them, and put together 18 assists. In the post-game press conference, Eric Musselman was as distraught as you’ll ever see him after the worst week of his career as a college head basketball coach.
So, this time around, why should the Hogs believe they can not only hang around — but win?
For starters, in the previous matchup, Justin Smith was just returning from ankle surgery only done two weeks prior. It was obvious that his rush back to play, two weeks before what the trainer had predicted, was premature as he struggled early on.
Since that loss to Bama, the Hogs have won seven straight conference games by a combined 71 points. During this stretch, they defeated a rising Kentucky team on the road, the 10th ranked Missouri team on the road, and a dangerous Florida team. This is not the same team that traveled to Tuscaloosa a month ago.
That can be attributed to a number of players.
When Arkansas Has the Ball
There were not many bright spots offensively for the Arkansas basketball team last time around. Apart from a career-high 28 point performance from Moses Moody, who also took 25 shots, there were really no consistent scoring threats.
Since this game, we have seen vast improvements from players in Devo Davis, Justin Smith, Connor Vanover, and Jaylin Williams. Those four players combined for just 10 points over 66 minutes of playing time since that Arkansas-Alabama game in January.
Let’s check out their performances since then:
Justin Smith: Has scored 15 and 19 points in the last two games on a combined 68% shooting and has averaged 13 points per game since January 16th
Devo Davis: Has averaged 10.2 points per game over the last month and has been on the floor for the majority of those games
Connor Vanover: Has averaged 8.6 points per game since as well as 2.5 blocks per game
Jaylin Williams: Has seen a major increase in usage while averaging just shy of 5 rebounds a game
Even with these improvements, the Hogs will have their hands full with the nation’s 2nd-ranked defense.
Despite a fast pace, Alabama actually relies on their half-court defense to slow down teams. They force teams to average 17.5 seconds a possession and to take contested shots as the shot clock winds down.
“By adjusted defensive efficiency, which weights the number of points allowed per 100 possessions by the quality of offense faced, Alabama allows 88.2 points, the second-best rate in the country,” as FiveThirtyEight.com’s Josh Planos points out.
This could again give Arkansas fits in an offense. Although Smith’s reemergence has helped, the Hogs are still prone to scoring droughts.
Alabama shuts off the three-ball with the 2nd best perimeter defense in the country. If Arkansas wants a chance to knock off the Tide, they will need scoring from all weapons, inside and outside the arc.
When Alabama Has the Ball
The Crimson Tide rely on the three-point shot and transition offense to score the majority of their points. They average only 14 seconds a possession (2nd fastest in college basketball) as they push the ball down the court.
This is a strength for the Hogs who have done well getting back and setting up their half-court defense. Look for Eric Musselman to do anything he can to limit the perimeter attack, as this been an issue for the Razorbacks and could very well be the difference in this game.
In the last meeting, the Tide made Arkansas pay with a barrage of 36 point attempts that resulted in 15 made three-point shots. It will be difficult for Arkansas to slow down all of Alabama’s weapons with four players who average more than 11 points per game in Jaden Shackelford, John Petty Jr, Herbert Jones and Jahvon Quinerly.
Doesn’t underestimate the role rebounding will play.
The Arkansas basketball team’s improvement in this area have been a difference in a couple of recent close wins. As Justin Smith, Connor Vanover and Jaylin Williams have fully healed, the Hogs have lead the SEC in rebounding over the past month. This will be crucial in preventing second-chance points against a dangerous Alabama offense.
All three big men need to attack the ball off of misses with the same intensity they have the last eight games.
See Eric Musselman preview the Hogs vs Crimson Tide here:
Arkansas vs Alabama Prediction
This game could go a hundred different ways.
If you only saw the last meeting, you’d be confident in picking Alabama by double-digits. If you have watched the Hogs since you would know they are now the hottest team in the SEC. Alabama, on the other hand, was just given fits by arguably the worst team in the conference at home against Vanderbilt.
Metrics call it a toss-up and analysts seem to feel the same way. I am going to give the Tide a 50.1% chance to take this one.
Alabama 76, Arkansas 74.
Game time: 8 p.m. CT on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021
On DirecTV, ESPN2 is channel 209. On Dish, ESPN2 is channel 143.
Online live stream: ESPN.com/watch
Online radio broadcast: TuneIn
See Eric Musselman preview the game here:
*All AP Top 25 matchups in Bud Walton Arena
2/12/94 #3 UA vs #20 UF W 99-87
1/29/95 #9 UA vs #5 UK W 94-92
11/17/95 #16 UA vs #19 Arizona L 83-73
12/21/96 #19 UA vs #18 Louisville L 91-88 OT
2/5/98 #14 UA vs #17 OM W 100-87
2/18/98 #16 UA vs #13 SC W 96-88
2/24/21 #20 UA vs #6 Bama
** The Razorback basketball team is 1-1 all-time as a No. 6 seed. Below is the all-time breakdown according to seeding, again courtesy of HogStats.com:
As No. 1 seed= 9-1
2 = 7-3
3 = 1-1
4 = 8-5
5 = 4-3
6 = 1-1
7 = 0-2
8 = 1-2
9 = 2-2
10 = 0-1
11 = 0-2
12 = 2-2
Jonah Rapert is an avid college basketball watcher with a strong interest in advanced metrics. He writes more about Hogs and college basketball on his blog here.