The Razorbacks have been playing with the mindset of “respect everyone, fear no one.” Their path so far largely focused on the first part of that maxim, as the Hogs knew they couldn’t afford to overlook lower-seeded opponents on the way to booking a second consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance for the first time since 1995 & 1996 after defeating the Aggies 53-48 in a brutal second-round slug-fest.
In a brutal second-round slug-fest, Arkansas stifled New Mexico State for all 40 minutes but struggled mightily on the other end of the court. A total of 14 made field goals isn’t going to come near to cutting it in the next round.
That’s where the second part of “respect everyone, fear no one” comes into play. On Thursday night, the Hogs will throw down with big, occasionally bad Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Gonzaga basketball program is well on its way to earning “Blue Blood” status if it is ever able to obtain the elusive NCAA Championship. The Bulldogs have been ranked No. 1 at least once in each of the last five seasons and have made the Sweet 16 for seven consecutive tournaments, including reaching the national championship game twice in that span.
This year projected similar success from the jump for legendary coach Mark Few’s Bulldogs. They boast an impressive array of returning leadership and young players with elite potential, allowing them to have the No. 1 offense and No. 9 defense according to KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive (AOE) and Defensive (ADE) Rankings.
“Gonzaga is a great team,” said Musselman after the Hogs’ recent victory. “We kind of felt like when we were at Nevada that Gonzaga and Nevada were the two best teams [out west], although we were both mid-major schools. We felt like we were better than the Pac-12.”
What to Expect When Gonzaga Has the Ball
The Bulldogs average a nation-leading 87.8 points per game, nearly two full points ahead of the second-highest scoring team, previously eliminated 13-seed South Dakota State. Gonzaga also leads the nation in field goals made per game (32.9), 2-point field goal percentage (.610), and defensive rebounds per game (32.2). They rank 3rd in team assists per game with 18.4, as well as landing in the top 25 in 3-point percentage (.374).
Senior point guard Andrew Nembhard is a major reason for the Bulldogs ranking highly in so many offensive stats. The 6’5 ball handler brings a high level of experience after playing for the Florida Gators for two seasons prior to his last two seasons with the Bulldogs. Nembhard can analyze a defense and make good reads better than most guards in the nation, evident by his 5.8 assists per game and 39% 3-point shooting. He is best with the ball in his hands, so don’t be surprised if Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman turns loose his premier perimeter defender, Au’Diese Toney, on Nembhard to hinder his ability to dribble and orchestrate – similar to the game plan coach Musselman implemented with Toney to limit the elite scoring threat of Teddy Allen against New Mexico State.
Alongside Nembhard is a pair of deadly shooters, 6’3 senior Rasir Bolton and 6’7 sophomore Julian Strawther. Bolton leads his team in 3-point shooting at 47% on over four attempts per game. At 6’3, he will likely draw the defensive assignments of JD Notae or Devo Davis once he checks into the game for the Hogs. The Razorback guards must be aware of his location on the court at all times if they want to avoid being burned from long range.
Twin Towers in Arkansas vs Gonzaga
Freshman phenom Chet Holmgren is the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. The starting center averages more than 14 points per game while hitting 39% of his 3-point attempts. At 7’0 tall with a 7’6 wingspan, Holmgren is a mismatch nightmare for defenders. He moves with a grace rare amongst forwards, much less centers, and has remarkable touch from everywhere on the court, as well as the ability to make difficult high-low post entry passes due to his combination of size and high IQ. His biggest weakness is his lack of physicality given his 195-pound frame, but the 19-year old has no back-down from even the most imposing defenders.
All of that being said, Holmgren has hit a notable shooting slump in his last seven games. Though still averaging 12.9 PPG, the stretch big man is only shooting 17% from distance since February 19th. His free throw percentage also dropped from 75% to below 67% in the same span of games. It’s unclear what defensive game plan coach Musselman will deploy against this high-powered offense, but forcing Holmgren to be only a jump shooter with the physical, grinding defense of Trey Wade and Stanley Umude looks like a promising place to start. The pair of seniors could also use their strength to keep Holmgren in check in the rebound battle.
Drew Timme, a 6-10 junior, joins Holmgren in the Bulldog frontcourt to create one of the more imposing “Twin Tower” duos in college basketball history. “Their two bigs are really good,” says Razorback forward Jaylin Williams. “I got to scout them more, and they have a lot of skill. They are really the heart of that team.”
Timme, a former consensus All-American, Karl Malone Award winner, and current WCC Player of the Year, leads Gonzaga in scoring at over 18 points per game, doing most of his damage from inside the 3-point arc. He’s one of the best back-to-the-basket big men in the NCAA, showing flashes of Kevin McHale-like footwork on the block. Defenders have struggled to contain Timme all season, part of why he’s averaging 5.4 free throw attempts per game.
Foul trouble could quickly become an issue for Jaylin Williams and the Razorbacks if Timme finds a groove early. Williams will need to his defensive IQ and self-discipline to the next level to keep from biting on the kinds of pump fakes that Timme shows here:
We could potentially see Kamani Johnson’s name called for the first time in this NCAA Tournament should Williams need reinforcements on the defensive block. Connor Vanover, Arkansas’ own 7-footer, might even become an option to mitigate Gonzaga’s size if the Razorback frontcourt faces more foul trouble than anticipated.
On the flip side, Williams has struggled all season to single-handedly contain opposing big men. Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe put up 30 points and 18 rebounds against the Hogs. Auburn’s Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith combined for 36 points and 18 rebounds. Florida’s Colin Castleton scored a career-high 29 points. Most recently, Vermont’s Ryan Davis scored 20 points on 4-5 long-range shooting.
However, all of these big men share one important fact in common: their teams lost despite their big individual performances. With enough discipline and a subpar shooting night from Gonzaga, Arkansas can shut down the Zags’ perimeter enough to nullify what Timme and Holmgren are able to do against the Hogs’ interior defense.
What to Expect When Arkansas Has the Ball
Despite putting on a historic defensive display against New Mexico State in the Round of 32, Arkansas struggled more to score the ball than they have all season. They scored only 53 points on 28% shooting from the field, both season lows, while also shooting 19% from distance.
Arkansas overcame these struggles against the 13-seed Aggies, but it will be nearly impossible to hold Gonzaga’s offensive onslaught to under 50 points – they averaged 80.2 points in five games against Power Five teams this season, going 3-2 in such games.
Some good news for Hog fans: the last time Arkansas failed to score 60 points – a 58-48 victory over Tennessee – they followed it up with an 82-point performance on the road against the Florida Gators.
Bouncing back with a stellar offensive outing won’t be easy for the Hogs, however. While Florida ranks 80th in KenPom’s ADE, Gonzaga ranks 9th. A large part of their defensive success this year has come from their full-court press. Their guards are quick, lengthy, and smart – a deadly combination for opposing ball handlers.
The Bulldogs lead the nation in lowest 2-point percentage (41.6%) allowed to opponents and rank 2nd in overall field goal percentage (37.9%) allowed. Their imposing frontcourt has led them to the 6th most blocks per game at 5.9 while only sending their opponents to the free-throw line 14.8 times per contest. For reference, Arkansas averages 23.1 free throw attempts per game.
The Razorbacks turned their season around in mid-January when they switched to a lineup including four players standing 6’6 or taller alongside JD Notae. That size advantage quickly disappears against the Bulldog’s starting lineup, however, as they boast guards standing 6’3, 6’5, and 6’7 to go along with their dynamic frontcourt duo. Finishing in the lane will be a near-impossible task, though getting into the teeth of the defense could lead to fouls or open shooters on the perimeter, something that could prove difficult for the Gonzaga big men to defend.
Chet Holmgren in particular tends to over-pursue shot blocking opportunities from a help-defense position. His pursuit of the ball is also a major reason why he’s averaging 3.7 blocks per game on the season and 4.7 blocks per game in his last seven outings. JD Notae and company will do well to utilize pump fakes and drive-and-kick opportunities against the defensive stopper, either forcing him into early foul trouble or getting open shot opportunities with kick-outs. It’s also possible that Notae will get shots off over the top of Gonzaga’s shot blockers while drawing enough attention for Williams, Toney, or Umude to crash the offensive glass.
Arkansas vs Gonzaga: What to Watch For
In their first two games of the NCAA tournament against Georgia State and Memphis, Gonzaga allowed 25 and 20 free throw attempts to their opponents respectively. Holmgren, like Notae, has been battling foul trouble lately. Although he’s a high-IQ player, he’s averaging just under four fouls per contest in his last seven games, including fouling out of Gonzaga’s win in the last round of the tournament over Memphis. Bulldog head coach Mark Few, similar to Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, also runs a relatively short rotation.
Gonzaga has only three non-starters averaging double-digit minutes per game, none of which stand over 6-8. The Razorbacks have only Devo Davis and Chris Lykes averaging double-digit minutes off of their bench by comparison. This could lead to a problem for either or both teams depending on how loose the referees are with their whistles. Foul trouble could severely limit Gonzaga’s size and scoring threats as well as give the Hogs more opportunities from the free-throw line, but it could also have an undesirable effect if one or both of JD Notae and Jaylin Williams finds themselves on the bench early in the game.
If Arkansas can win the foul trouble and free-throw battle, they have a decent shot at winning the war.
CBS JUMPS INTO THE FRAY YET AGAIN
ESPN’s BPI gives Gonzaga an 85.5% win probability heading into their matchup with the Razorbacks. For what it’s worth, the same BPI tool gave Arkansas a nearly 89% to beat New Mexico State, and that game never threatened to be a blowout. The Razorbacks are 0-1 all-time against the Bulldogs, losing their only meeting back in 2013 at the Maui Invitational.
As much as some Razorback fans feel ESPN has an anti-Razorback bias, CBS has outdone itself -and arguably even ESPN – in this realm during these last few weeks.
First, there was an article (since revised) that declared Arkansas had lost to No. 1 Auburn this season instead of beaten them. Then there was letting Arch Clown analyst Todd Fuhrman take up valuable oxygen on air before the Vermont game.
Now, CBS’ Tim Doyle makes a laudable claim regarding Arkansas basketball in an Arkansas vs Gonzaga preview. In the clip below, Doyle says that Gonzaga will outpace Arkansas and that essentially the Hogs won’t be able to keep up. This very well could happen (just look at the prediction below).
But that’s not because “Eric Musselman wants to play slow,” as Doyles says. Musselman, like Few, actually wants to play at very high pace. It’s what he has hammered home since his first days at Arkansas. “”We play fast and we shoot a lot of threes and we try to get to the basket and we try to draw a lot of free throws attempted,” he explained back in 2019.
Sure, Musselman can play slow. He’ll do that if the game dictates it, as it did against New Mexico State. But that’s not his natural inclination. To say otherwise simply shows ignorance.
What CBS’ Tim Doyle Actually Said
- Gonzaga vs Arkansas spread: Bulldogs -9.5
- Gonzaga vs. Arkansas over-under: 155 points
- Gonzaga vs Arkansas money line: Bulldogs -475, Razorbacks +360
- The Bulldogs are 0-4 against the spread in their last four NCAA Tournament games
- The Razorbacks are 14-5-1 ATS in their last 20 overall contests
“I’m not going to lay points with Gonzaga. If you’d bet them in both the games so far in the tournament, oh, it was a heartbreaking beat. It was a terrible beat against Georgia State. They’re up 26, a 3 and 2, they win by 21. They were 22 and a half.”
“And then they eke out of win against Memphis. What is going on with Gonzaga in the first half? Unbelievable in the second half, average at almost 55 points a game in the second half. So what they need to do is take both second halfs, put them together. I like them in this spot to go out and win the game, because of [Drew Timme]. He’s got a little dirty Joe Dirt mustache out there and he’s been balling.”
“The only thing he’s not doing is making free throws. A little bit alarming, because he shoots around 66%. He’s 10 of 21 from the free throw line. But you know what I love about him? When things get tough, he goes, ‘Hey, boys. Give me the ball. Throw me the ball. I’m going to dominate.'”
“When I look at Arkansas’s roster, they’re just going to have no one who can compete with this guy down low, nonetheless, Chet Holmgren. So size advantage, pace advantage. I don’t think Arkansas is able to go out there and get 85, 90 points.”
“Eric Musselman wants to play slow. Mark Few wants to play fast. I just wonder, Mark Few wins this game, does he take his shirt off and have water splashed all over him? I’m betting Gonzaggy here on the money line to advance. Take a fixed amount out, put it in a parlay. Parlay only, that way you can only lose what you put up. I think they move on, but I wouldn’t lay points.”
Arkansas vs Gonzaga Prediction
Despite flexing their defensive muscles and having a bounce-back game offensively, Arkansas simply won’t have the firepower to keep up with the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Key players for the Razorbacks will fall into early foul trouble trying to defend such a high-powered offense, and Gonzaga’s size and raw talent will ultimately prevail despite a valiant effort to the final buzzer from the Hogs.
Chet Holmgren will provide too much of a mismatch for any of the Razorbacks’ 6’6 and 6’7 forwards, while Drew Timme shows off his full offensive arsenal in the post. It’s also worth noting that Gonzaga will be playing in their own time zone on Thursday while Arkansas will be adjusting from Eastern time back to Central time before finally traveling all the way to Pacific time within the span of five days.
Gonzaga wins 79-74.
How to Watch Arkansas vs Gonzaga
Arkansas Razorbacks (27-8)
Gonzaga Bulldogs (28-3)
Where: Chase Center, San Francisco, CA
Date: Thursday, March 24th, 2022
Time: 6:09 PM CT
TV: CBS / NCAA.com / March Madness App (Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson)
Online: NCAA Tournament Central
Radio: Learfield Razorback Sports Network (Chuck Barrett and Matt Zimmerman)
Arkansas vs Gonzaga Game Notes
- Arkansas has not played in San Francisco since Jan. 2-3 in 1948. Arkansas is 1-1 all-time in San Francisco – playing on back-to-back nights of the San Francisco Tournament.
- Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman spent eight years living in the Bay area. From 2002-04, he was head coach of the Sacramento Kings. From 2006-07, he was head coach of the Golden State Warriors. From 2007-10, he remained the area, working as a radio/TV analyst. Both his sons — Michael and Matthew — grew up in the area and attended Monte Vista HS (Danville, Calif.).
- Assistant coach Keith Smart spent 10 years coaching the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors. In fact, his “home-base” is still Dublin, Calif., (east of Oakland) where he still owns a home.
- The Arkansas basketball program is 0-5 vs the nation’s top-ranked team in the NCAA tournament including losses to North Carolina (2008 2nd Rd), UMass (1996 Sweet 16), UCLA (1995 NCAA Championship Game), Indiana State (1979 Elite 8), Kentucky (1978 Final Four). via Razorback
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