Eric Musselman Shows He Can’t Wait To Get Away after Vanderbilt Nail-biter

Eric Musselman
Craven Whitlow

Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman doesn’t need a ton of time to find the right buttons to press in tight turnarounds. In 2018, with his former team, he led Nevada back from double-digit deficits in win consecutive NCAA Tournament games. He more often than not pushed the right buttons both in games and between games in the Razorbacks’ three deep runs in March Madness the past three seasons.

And, on Wednesday, he was up to his magic once again. With his team down 14 points at halftime of the SEC Tournament opener vs Vanderbilt, Musselman allowed his guys to hold a players-only meeting and fire themselves up. In the second half, the Razorbacks’ renewed aggressiveness paid off with trip after trip to the free throw line paving the way to an eventual 90-85 win in overtime.

Battle led the charge in racking up fouls on Vanderbilt while Tramon Mark scored all 18 of his points in the second half. Makhi Mitchell and Trevon Brazile played like true bigs, while Devo Davis broke out of an extended shooting slump to score 12 points.

Making the Right Calls in Arkansas vs Vanderbilt

From a tactical standpoint, Musselman made the right calls on defense. First off, the Hogs schemed to take away the scoring of Tyrin Lawrence, who barbecued Arkansas to the tune of 21 points a few weeks ago in Bud Walton and had been on a four-game heater.

“Our game plan coming in was we didn’t want Lawrence to go off and have a big game,” Musselman said in the post-game press conference. “I thought our team did a really good job on him, especially keeping him off the foul line. 14 free throw attempted in Bud Walton; tonight, three free throws attempted. We know that [Ezra] Manjon went off, had a great game. But we felt like that wing scorer was something that we could ill afford tonight.”

In the SEC Tournament opener, Musselman also decided to deploy a type of defense that the team hadn’t yet done well.

“We changed up our defense” at halftime, he said, adding: “We started trapping. What we call our hitch… We have not really done it this year because we haven’t been very good at it, quite frankly. Our past teams have done it and done it really, really well.”

Looking ahead to Arkansas vs South Carolina, the Hogs can ill-afford the same kind of slow start against the Gamecocks, which beat them at Bud Walton 77-64 on Jan. 20, 2024. South Carolina finished the season a very salty 25-6 and 13-5 in conference and will demand one of Arkansas’ best efforts all year to defeat.

Musselman knows this. After the Vanderbilt game, he went on “SEC Now” and explained plan for his staff and team the rest of Wednesday night and Thursday morning to prepare for South Carolina while Tramon Mark sat there mostly like this:

“We’ll get back to the hotel, and we’ll start our prep. There’ll be a walk-through tonight,” Musselman told co-hosts Peter Burns, Pat Bradley and Daymeon Fishback, “There’ll be film tonight. There’ll be a second film session and possibly a third. We’ve got to get ready for what’s one of the best teams in the country that’s really well coached.”

“A team that understands their roles, but also a team that we felt like when we played South Carolina in Bud Walton, that we were not right at the time. I think that we’re playing much better basketball right now, and so are they.”

Not long after that, even before the commercial break, Musselman was already taking off his headset and getting out of his chair, smiling wide as stood by the podium, clearly itching to leave. The co-hosts called him out for it, and everyone had a good laugh.

As far as the different looks Arkansas could give South Carolina, a shortened bench has simplified some of the job for Musselman.

The Razorbacks have settled into a main seven players with Jeremiah Davenport supplying spot minutes in an eighth man role. The first time these teams played, 13 different Hogs saw the court, including 10 with at least five minutes of action.

South Carolina earned a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament by claiming the No. 5 seed, so this will be their first game of the tourney. The matchup between the Razorbacks and Gamecocks is scheduled to tip off at 2:30 p.m. CT on Thursday, March 14th, though it won’t start until roughly 25 minutes after conclusion of the first game of the day which starts at noon. So, don’t be surprised if tip-off is closer 3:00 p.m. It will be televised on the SEC Network.

Previewing South Carolina in SEC Tournament

The Gamecocks are led offensively by junior guard, Meechie Johnson. The 6-foot-2 scorer is averaging 14.4 points and 3.0 assists on the season along with 4.2 rebounds and 0.9 steals per game. He’s also shooting 32% from long range and attempting nearly four free-throw attempts per game.

Arkansas, however, flexed their adept ability to limit opposing teams’ star players – especially guards – the first time these teams met. The Hogs held Johnson to only 8 points on 2-of-7 from the field and only allowed him to get to the free throw line three times.

Instead, it was South Carolina’s second leading scorer and perhaps a familiar name to Arkansas fans from last year’s transfer portal mayhem that did most of the damage against the Hogs, senior transfer BJ Mack. The 6-foot-8 big man tallied 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists while shooting 60% from the field and 3-of-4 from long range.

Arkansas was among the finalists in Mack’s recruitment before he ultimately chose South Carolina. On the season, he’s averaging 13.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists on roughly 32% from beyond the arc. His 18 points against Arkansas were his fourth most against an SEC team all season.

Zachary Davis (6-8, So.) was South Carolina’s second leading scorer in their earlier victory over Arkansas, contributing 12 points and 4 rebounds on 63% shooting from the field. He averages only 5.7 points on the season and has only scored double-digits against an SEC opponent four times this season.

Overall, it was Arkansas’ inability to defend the 3-point line that really hurt them the last time they faced the Gamecocks – particularly in pick-and-pop scenarios when it was Mack shooting from long range. South Carolina went 9-of-18 from long range, led by three each from Mack and Ta’Lon Cooper – who also finished in double-digit scoring with 11 points.

South Carolina also did a great job of moving the ball against the Hogs. They rank No. 47 nationally in assists as a team and No. 28 in assist-to-turnover ratio. Against Arkansas, they recorded 20 assists on 28 made shots. Arkansas only tallied four steals against the Gamecocks in their first matchup, something they’ll surely be focusing more on this time around.

What to Expect from Arkansas

Despite a poor defensive effort against one of the worst scoring teams in the country, Arkansas found their footing offensively after getting back to their bread and butter of getting the ball into the paint, either through drives from Battle and Mark or getting the ball to Mitchell in the post.

Battle led the way offensively with 24 points on 42% from the field and 13-of-14 from the charity stripe. The first time Arkansas played South Carolina, Battle scored three points in only five minutes of action. This was during a stretch of games in which Battle played only seven total minutes three straight SEC games.

Over his last eight games, Battle is averaging 37.1 minutes per game and contributing 27.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.5 steals while shooting 47% from the field and 91% from the free throw line on 13 attempts per game.

Needless to say, the transfer guard will be a key factor for the Razorbacks offensively in any of their remaining games, starting with the matchup against South Carolina.

Mark tallied 18 points in the win on efficient shooting, but it’s been the continued emergence of Mitchell that has really opened things up for Arkansas on both sides of the ball. He joined Mark with 18 points to go along with 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks, and 2 steals against Vanderbilt while continuing his impressive turnaround as a free throw shooter.

Over his first 105 career collegiate games, Mitchell shot an abysmal 58% from the charity stripe. In his last 13 games, however, he’s hit 58 of 72 free throw attempts, landing him at 81% from the line down the stretch of the season – including a 4-of-6 effort against the Commodores.

The first time Arkansas matched up with the Gamecocks, Mitchell tallied only four points and one rebound in roughly five minutes of action. His matchup with star forward BJ Mack will certainly be one of the deciding factors in this game, much like his heavy-weight bout with Vanderbilt’s Ven-Allen Lubin was a key theme in their last game.

Trevon Brazile was also a welcome addition to the Razorbacks’ game-plan. He’s continued to fit in relatively seamlessly since returning with injury by being more aggressive as an offensive rebounder and running the floor on fast break opportunities. It doesn’t hurt that he also went 3-of-6 from long range on his way to 13 points, 12 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 steals, and 1 assist in the win over Vanderbilt.

Brazile was slated to be an All-SEC player before the season started, but him settling into more of an off-ball, non-focus point role while guys like Mark, Battle, and Mitchell shoulder the majority of the playmaking seems to have provided the perfect opportunity to thrive on this team. His consistency and ability to influence games without needing the ball in his hands will be a major key to watch moving forward.

Arkansas vs South Carolina: What to Watch

By falling all the way to the bottom four seeds in the SEC Tournament, Arkansas put themselves in an extremely difficult position needing to win five games in five days to achieve their ultimate goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament.

This task becomes even more difficult when considering how short Musselman prefers to keep his rotation. That hasn’t necessarily been the case for much of this season, but over the last 10 games or so the Hogs have settled nicely into an eight-man rotation.

While it’s nice to find some consistency in the rotation, it’s unfortunate that it has often come due to some injuries and reported academic issues late in the season. This includes Keyon Menifield Jr who didn’t even make the trip to Nashville to “work on academics.”

Arkansas’ ability to keep fresh legs night after night could quickly become a trend to watch considering each of their next two games (assuming they defeat South Carolina) would be against teams playing their first games in five or more days.

Of course, if it was up to Musselman, he’d always have his best players on the court. But that may not be a realistic option as the minutes pile up for guys like Mark and Battle over the course of the week. It will be worth paying attention to whether or not some other guys – such as Layden Blocker, Jalen Graham, Jeremiah Davenport, or even Joseph Pinion – see extended opportunities against South Carolina and beyond.

Arkansas vs South Carolina Prediction

Arkansas came alive late against Vanderbilt, seemingly finally understanding that their entire season was hanging in the balance of the game in front of them. The Hogs will keep that same energy – especially considering they won’t have much time to come out of the gameday mentality – as they face off with South Carolina.

Mark and Battle will once again lead this team into battle offensively, though a surprise effort from a role player like Ellis or Davenport would go a long way in round two of the tournament.

Arkansas finds a way to extend their season by at least another day while exacting revenge against the Gamecocks. “Arkansas has definitely grown since [the first meeting],” South Carolina guard Meechie Johnson told Natty State Sports. “The talent is there for them.”

Arkansas wins, 78-73

How to Watch

Date: Thursday, Mar 14

Location: Bridgestone Arena (Nashville, TN)

Tipoff Time/TV: 25 minutes after conclusion of the first game, likely around 3:00 p.m. CT (SEC Network)

KenPom: South Carolina has a 71% chance of winning, favored by a score of 75-69.


Check out more on Arkansas basketball from BoAS here:

Evin Demirel contributed the intro to this article.


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