Muss Left Second Guessing a Cardinal Rule of Basketball after Arkansas vs Kentucky

Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Kentucky
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

It was a vastly different game stylistically, but unfortunately for Arkansas, it suffered the same fate in its rematch with Kentucky as it did in January.

The Razorbacks blew a nine-point lead in the second half of a high-scoring affair at Rupp Arena and the No. 16 Wildcats pulled away late for a 111-102 win to sweep the season series.

Ultimately, a few critical turnovers and a seven-minute stretch without a field goal, as well as some easy buckets for Kentucky, were the difference.

“We made the decision that we were going to run today,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said. “The couple turnovers (and) baseline out-of-bounds defense, those are the two areas that I thought changed the complexion of the game. And then the 42 free throws attempted, really hard to overcome.”

Similar to after the first Arkansas vs Kentucky matchup, a low-scoring game won by the Wildcats 63-57 on Jan. 27, Musselman actually spoke highly of his team even in defeat.

Despite being given less than a 10% chance to win by KenPom, the Razorbacks started to pull away midway through the second half in a wild game that saw 17 lead changes and 12 ties, 

However, a layup by Tramon Mark with 8:42 remaining, which made it 86-77, was Arkansas’ last bucket until Mark made a jumper with 1:38 left. The Razorbacks did make 10 free throws in between, but it wasn’t nearly enough to hold off Kentucky’s vaunted offense.

“Thought we played as hard as we’ve played all year,” Musselman said. “The effort, the focus, the belief — all of those things were as good as they’ve been. It was a locker room that pregame thought they were going to win. Halftime, thought they were going to win, and throughout the course of the huddles. Thought we showed great toughness. Thought we got on the floor for loose balls.”

It was a stark contrast to Tuesday’s ugly loss to Vanderbilt, which was Arkansas’ first Quadrant 4 loss during the Musselman era, and further illustrated the frustrating inconsistency of this year’s team.

To their credit, though, the Razorbacks haven’t mailed it in despite these final three regular-season games being virtually meaningless when it comes to impacting postseason play. Their only hope of continuing their season beyond the SEC Tournament is to win the event to earn the league’s automatic bid to the Big Dance.

“We just came ready to play tonight,” Tramon Mark said. “Everybody that stepped on that floor was ready to play and they were ready to go. We all saw it. We had great energy in the locker room, great energy in our huddles. We just couldn’t get it done tonight.”

As he concluded his postgame radio interview with Chuck Barrett, though, Musselman was left second guessing a central tenet of the game he has lived and breathed for more than five decades.

Almost always in the game of basketball, effort trumps all. But on this particular afternoon, it might have been partially to blame for Arkansas’ downfall.

“I don’t know if any team could play any harder than we did,” Musselman said in his postgame radio interview with Chuck Barrett. “Maybe we played too hard and that’s (how) we put them at the line 42 times.”

Of course, that might have also been Musselman’s subtle way of complaining without actually complaining about the officiating. After all, Arkansas attempted only 28 free throws compared to Kentucky’s 42.

Offensive Explosion

The Razorbacks’ offense had sputtered throughout the season, but that wasn’t the case Saturday.

Led by big performances by Khalif Battle (34 points) and Tramon Mark (23), Arkansas racked up their most points in SEC play, easily surpassing the 91 points scored at Missouri earlier this season.

It’s only the sixth time Arkansas has lost a game in which it reached triple digits, with the last time being the famed No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup with UNLV at Barnhill Arena in 1991, a game it lost 112-105.

“We scored enough points to win,” Musselman said. “If you go on the road with 102 points, we scored enough points to win today.”

The only real bad part of the game, from an offensive standpoint, was that aforementioned stretch of 7-plus minutes in which Arkansas failed to make a field goal.

During that time, the Razorbacks went 0 for 8 from the floor, including five missed layups.

“I feel like we were getting good looks and then we stopped getting good looks, so I just feel like we probably got away from some stuff,” Mark said. “But in general, the whole game we were getting good looks. We were getting the shots we wanted… Just, they weren’t falling at the right times.”

Even with that stretch, Arkansas shot 53.1% (34 of 64) from the floor, its third-best shooting percentage of the year. The Razorbacks had been 11-0 when shooting at least 48%.

Included in that percentage was a 7-of-17 (41.2%) showing from beyond the arc. Arkansas had been 7-0 when shooting at least 40% from deep.

“Today we made progress,” Musselman said. “We played our best offense, did a great job focusing on the foul line in a very tough environment. Defensively, we weren’t that good, but [Kentucky] has done that to other teams, especially in their own building.

“We had a chance to beat a team that has a chance to win the national championship. Did we lose? Absolutely, all the credit goes to Coach Calipari and Kentucky, but in that locker room that we represent, I’m extremely proud to be associated with their effort and the way they battled tonight.”

Battle’s Hot Streak Continues

It’s hard to imagine anyone in the country is on a hot streak better than the one Khalif Battle is experiencing.

The Temple transfer dropped another 34 points against Kentucky, marking the third straight game he’s eclipsed 30. The only other player in Arkansas basketball history to accomplish that feat was Mason Jones, who did it against South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn in 2020.

Despite making just 1 of 4 attempts from beyond the arc, Battle hit that mark by going 8 of 16 from the floor and 17 of 18 from the charity stripe.

It’s actually Battle’s fifth straight game in double figures, as he also had 18 against Mississippi State and 15 against Texas A&M before his 42-point effort against Missouri and 36-point encore against Vanderbilt.

“I just see his confidence,” teammate Tramon Mark said. “I just see him being more aggressive when he drives the lane. He shot 18 free throws, 17 of 18 free throws. I just see him being aggressive and confident and he’ll keep getting those calls and keep knocking down free throws, knocking down shots.”

A strong case could be made that it’s the best three-game scoring stretch in UA history, as the fifth-year senior has scored 112 points on 58.3% shooting from the floor, 45.8% shooting from deep and 91.8% shooting from the free throw line.

For a comparison, Jones scored 104 points on 52.5% / 40.0% / 71.1% shooting splits.

Up Next for Arkansas Basketball

The Razorbacks return home for their final game at Bud Walton Arena on Wednesday, hosting a rematch with LSU at 6 p.m. CT. It will be televised on SEC Network.

Back in January, Arkansas was crushed by the Tigers in Baton Rouge, losing 95-74. Despite winning that game, LSU is just 16-13 overall and 8-8 in SEC play. That includes a 75-61 win at Vanderbilt on Saturday.

Other Arkansas Basketball Tidbits

  • The Razorbacks received three technical fouls during the game, first on head coach Eric Musselman and then on Makhi Mitchell and Davonte Davis. Two Wildcats – Rob Dillingham and Aaron Bradshaw – were also hit with technicals.
  • In addition to its hot shooting from the floor and from deep, Arkansas also made all 21 of its second-half free throws and finished the game 27 of 28. At 96.4%, it was the Razorbacks’ best percentage in a game with at least 20 attempts in school history, surpassing 95.2% (20 of 21) against SMU in 1978.
  • Big men Trevon Brazile and Chandler Lawson each fouled out during the game. Despite being deemed healthy enough to play by Musselman two days earlier, Jalen Graham didn’t travel with the team so he could “work on academics,” according to a statement by the UA. That forced Jeremiah Davenport to step up on the boards and he matched a season high with five rebounds. “I thought Davenport had his best rebounding game of the year,” Musselman said. “We needed him to rebound the ball today because, out of necessity with the fouls.”
  • Kentucky’s Rob Dillingham missed the game against Arkansas in Fayetteville because of an injury, but managed to score 15 on Saturday. That included 11 points in the final 7 minutes of the game. “He’s an NBA draft pick, he’s fast, he makes really difficult shots,” Musselman said. “I thought we did a good job taking away his three-point shot. … Coming into the game, an NBA first-round pick, you can hold him to five field goals, we’d probably be fairly happy.”
  • Saturday marked Arkansas’ final regular-season game on CBS under the network’s deal with the SEC, which expires at the end of this academic year. ESPN will own the rights to all games beginning next season. The Razorbacks went 15-20, including 5-13 against Kentucky, in games on CBS since 1994-95.

Arkansas vs Kentucky Highlights

Postgame Interviews

Arkansas vs Kentucky Box Score

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