Arkansas vs UNC: Really, Hogs’ Opponent Doesn’t Even Matter So Long As This Keeps Happening

Eric Musselman
Craven Whitlow

After a thrilling, double-overtime victory against Stanford on Wednesday night, the Razorbacks seemed to run out of gas against the Memphis Tigers on Thursday evening. Not long after a seemingly improved first half on both sides of the ball, Arkansas allowed back-to-back triples to senior forward David Jones – who went for 34 points on 77% from the field, 57% from long range, and 83% from the free throw line. He did the lion’s share of beating the Hogs by himself in this one, although some iffy calls by the referees also might have played a role.

Regardless, Arkansas yet again doesn’t have much time to reflect on their loss as they get to play a consolation 3rd place game against the No. 14 North Carolina Tar Heels on Friday, November 24. The game is set to tipoff at 12:00 p.m. CT on ESPN2.

No. 20 Arkansas is 3-7 all-time against North Carolina, including 2-4 all time in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve lost each of their last four matchups against the Tar Heels, including three straight in the NCAA Tournament. Their last matchup came in Portland, OR at the Phil Knight Invitational in November of 2017.

This season, the Tar Heels are 4-1 with their lone loss coming by two points in their last matchup against Villanova in the Battle 4 Atlantis semi-finals. They’re averaging 85 points per game as a team on over 36% shooting from long range.

Previewing North Carolina

The Tar Heels are led into battle by a national player of the year candidate in Armando Bacot. Standing at 6-foot-10, the fifth-year senior got off to a blistering start to his season. He’s averaging 17.2 points and 13.2 rebounds per game on over 55% shooting from inside the 3-point arc.

Lately, though, that accuracy has taken a downturn. The star big man turned in his worst performance of the season so far against Northern Iowa in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, scoring only 10 points on 38% from the field. It’s worth noting he also had four fouls in the contest and played a season-low in minutes (22). He only had 8 points on 4 of 10 from the field in round two against Villanova, though he pulled down 18 rebounds in the contest, along with another four fouls in 34 minutes of play.

Arkansas will seek to continue its trend of earning trips to the free throw line after making 26 free throws against Stanford and 20 free throws against Memphis. If the Hogs can do that, they may be able to eliminate Bacot from the equation with early foul trouble. Otherwise, they’ll have to be disciplined in the post again, both defensively and on the boards.

RJ Davis – another senior leading the Tar Heels – stands at 6-feet and averages 15.8 points and 2.8 assists. He does a lot of his damage from the outside, shooting almost the same number of 2-pointers as 3-pointers on the season, though he’s not hitting either at a notably efficient rate. He currently sits at 40% from the field on the season.

Davis is only one of four North Carolina players averaging at least 2.0 assists per game this season. He’s joined by Cormac Ryan (6-5, Sr.) and Elliot Cadeau (6-1, Fr.) at 2.4 and 3.2 APG respectively, as well as Harrison Ingram (6-8, So.) at 2.0 APG. It’s possible that Ryan misses or is limited against Arkansas after suffering a freakish accident at the end of the Villanova loss in which he rolled both of his ankles. 

“Obviously he was in a lot of pain,” North Carolina basketball coach Hubert Davis said afterward. “But he’s walking around in the locker room. But I don’t have a definitive update on his availability (Friday) and how he feels right now.”

Regardless of Ryan’s availability, this will be another good test of on-ball pressure from the Razorback guards. One defender might not be able to effectively stifle the point of attack for the Tar Heels the way Devo Davis, Tramon Mark, and lately Layden Blocker have attempted to do.

Ingram will be an interesting matchup for the Hogs. At 6-foot-8, he’s averaging 14.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game along with his 2.0 assists, all while shooting 52% from beyond the arc on 4.6 attempts per game. His all-around game could create matchup problems for a Razorback team that still struggles to string together stops – though the defense did look much-improved for a large portion of their first two games in the Bahamas.

What to Expect from Arkansas

True freshman Layden Blocker earned the start in the game against Memphis after he made key, timely plays in the Hogs’ double-overtime victory over Stanford on Wednesday. The freshman continues to play with great energy and tenacity, especially on the defensive side of the ball and on the offensive glass, often keeping plays alive for the Hogs. He plays the type of winning basketball that is hard to keep off the court.

The Little Rock native finished the game against Memphis with seven points and three rebounds on 50% from the field and 75% from the charity stripe, but it was intangible plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet that often kept Arkansas alive, giving them a chance to win late in the game.

Devo Davis took on the role of primary scorer early in the game again, though this time around he was much more efficient. He started the game 3 of 5 from the field, including 2 of 2 from long range, to provide 8 quick points for the Hogs early in the game. He lost some of his offensive touch later in the game, finishing with 12 points on only 25% shooting from the field and 33% from long range.

His ability to adapt to what the Hogs need in any given game continues to impress, but the Hogs are not at their best when Davis has to be the primary offensive facilitator. That’s a huge reason why they brought in players like Khalif Battle and El Ellis this offseason, but neither has proven to be a reliable lead ball handler to this point in the season.

Battle did find his rhythm again in the game against Memphis after a poor offensive outing against Stanford. He hit three triples and went 8 of 11 from the charity stripe on his way to a team-high 21 points off the bench.

Arkansas seemed to be more cohesive on both sides of the ball, but they continued to struggle to defend in transition. Memphis got virtually whatever they wanted on far too many fast break opportunities. This has been a common factor in nearly every game Arkansas has played so far; whether the Razorbacks become a more dangerous team or not later in the season will in part depend on figuring out this glaring Achilles Heel.

What to Watch in Arkansas vs UNC

North Carolina averages 25.2 free throw attempts per game as a team, and they’re connecting at a 76% clip from the charity stripe. By contrast, they’re only allowing 16.2 free throw attempts to their opponents on 16.0 personal fouls per game but had by far their worst game of the season against Villanova when they have up an astounding 36 free throw attempts to the Wildcats. 

Coming into their matchup with Memphis, Arkansas was tied for first in the country with 31.0 free throw attempts per game. They struggled with efficiency early in the season, but they’re a relatively good free throw shooting team along with their high number of attempts. The foul and free throw battle will be a major key to watch in this contest.

Aside from comparing stat sheets, the Razorbacks came into this season with one of the most experienced rosters in the entire country, including multiple players who have three or more years of college experience. With such a roster, one would think that certain issues like slow starts, turnovers and  disciplined defense wouldn’t be big problems.

Unfortunately, those are the exact issues plaguing the Hogs this season. At this point, it doesn’t really matter who is taking the court opposite the Hogs, as Arkansas is hurting itself with the same mistakes game after game. They’re allowing teams to beat them down the court after missed shots and turnovers. They can’t hold on to the ball offensively. They’re taking ill-advised shots early in the shot clock. They’re not closing out well on 3-point shooters, either allowing them to get an uncontested shot over their head or jumping past them and leaving the rest of their teammates to defend 4-on-5.

The struggles of this year’s team are different from the issues that have plagued previous Arkansas basketball teams under Musselman. “We’ve seen offense come and go at times. A couple of the teams have struggled to rebound at times,” Ben Brandon Tweeted. “What is alarming this year is the inconsistent effort (getting beat down the floor, giving up multiple offensive rebounds in a single possession, OOB plays leading to wide open layups, etc.).”

North Carolina is a good team with several high-quality players who do a lot of things well, but the Hogs have to worry about the guys in their own huddle before the other team at this point with the same problems consistently causing them issues game after game.

Arkansas vs UNC Prediction

The Hogs are continuing to learn from their close games in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, but they’re also developing increasingly tired legs. Both sides of the ball seem to be coming together piece by piece, though they still struggle to consistently string together good possessions.

This continues against North Carolina in another aesthetically frustrating game. The positive thing: Musselman teams generally know how to win ugly games. Whether it be foul trouble, shooting struggles, or overcoming a hot hand on the other team, Musselman-led teams often find new ways to win.

Arkansas strings together another somewhat sloppy performance with flashes of the potential this talented team possesses, and this time around it’s just enough to pick up a Top 25 win in their last game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

Arkansas wins, 78-71.

How to Watch

Date: Friday, November 24

Location: Imperial Arena (Nassau, Bahamas)

Tipoff Time/TV Schedule: 12:00 p.m. CT (ESPN2)

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