Arkansas vs Vanderbilt: Khalif Battle, Devo Davis Coy on End of the Road Talk

Khalif Battle, Davonte Davis, Devo Davis, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Vanderbilt, SEC Tournament
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

With a loss in its regular-season finale against Alabama – a hard-fought game which the Hogs led by 15 points in the first half – the Arkansas basketball team ended the season tied for 11th in the SEC, earning it an earlier start in the SEC Tournament than it’s used to.

As the No. 12 seed, the Razorbacks will be one of the first four teams to play on Wednesday night and would have to win five games in five days to win the event. After going 6-12 in SEC play, a lot of teams Arkansas could face in the SEC Tournament would be considered revenge opportunities, but there are few that the Hogs likely want another shot at as much as the Vanderbilt Commodores – the first team up on Arkansas’ tournament schedule.

The Razorbacks lost to Vanderbilt at home on Feb. 27 despite being in the midst of their best stretch of the season from a competitive standpoint. They had just come off of their first back-to-back SEC wins against Texas A&M and Missouri and had a chance to truly build some momentum coming into the final week of the season.

However, their lackadaisical play caused them to face a huge deficit in the second half. The Hogs fought back, including a pair of triples late to make it a one-possession game, but they ultimately fell to the Commodores, resulting in the worst SEC loss – and arguably the worst loss overall – in the Eric Musselman era.

This first-round Arkansas vs Vanderbilt matchup is scheduled to tip off at 6 p.m. CT Wednesday and will be televised on SEC Network.

Previewing Vanderbilt Basketball

The first time these teams met, Vanderbilt got virtually whatever it wanted in the paint. The Commodores outscored Arkansas 44-26 in that area and even attempted one more free throw than the Hogs – who are one of the top free throw attempt teams in the country.

Arkansas is only 3-8 (.273) when it shoots as many or fewer free throws than its opponent. When the Hogs attempt more than their opponent, they have a .600 winning percentage at 12-8 on the season.

While 12-8 doesn’t seem like a great record at first glance, it’s actually somewhat impressive when considering the Hogs are 15-16 on the season. With the inconsistencies of this team, one stat providing such a glaring difference in win percentage shouldn’t be ignored.

Tyrin Lawrence led the charge from the charity stripe with 10 makes on 14 attempts on his way to 21 points the first time these teams met. The 6-foot-4 guard averages 14.1 points and 5.0 rebounds on the season along with 5.7 free throw attempts per game. He also leads the team with 1.4 steals per game.

Ezra Manjon (5-11, Sr.) is the Commodores’ usual leading scorer, and he put on a show in his first matchup with the Hogs. He tallied 22 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and shot 50% from the field – which is quite impressive as a sub-6-foot-tall guard – to lead Vanderbilt to a road win.

The Razorback game plan should be very much focused on keeping these two guards out of the paint and containing them as scorers – both from the field and from the free throw line. Musselman deployed El Ellis on Mark Sears at times against Alabama, which might not have been the best option considering Devo Davis and Tramon Mark were both available, but perhaps other matchups dictated the decision. It will be worth paying attention to which Hogs draw these assignments this time around.

Ven-Allen Lubin (6-8, So.) also gave the Hogs fits as Vanderbilt’s third-leading scorer – both in this game and on the season. He’s averaging 12.0 points, 6.2 assists, 1.0 blocks and shooting 53% from inside the 3-point line on the season.

Against Arkansas, he was a major part of why the Hogs allowed so many paint points. He went 9 of 10 from inside the arc and made his lone free throw on his way to tallying 19 points and 12 rebounds, including 5 offensive rebounds.

This Vanderbilt team is not particularly good at moving the ball offensively, but rather operates as more of an isolation team. The Commodores average 8.5 assists per game against SEC teams (dead last in the conference) and only assisted on 7 of their 29 made field goals against Arkansas. By comparison, Arkansas averages 11.2 assists in conference play and assisted on 12 of its 23 made shots against Vanderbilt.

To put this into practical terms, the Hogs have to limit Vanderbilt’s ability to drive the ball. Whether this looks like a unique pick-and-roll coverage or perhaps more help defense from off-ball defenders, Arkansas has to find a way to get the ball out of the hands of the Commodores’ two lead guards.

Musselman noted that the coaching staff had been focused on Alabama up to the point of the game and hadn’t looked again at Vanderbilt, but still remembered some key points off the top of his head from the last time the two teams met.

“[Vanderbilt] is a team that competes,” Musselman said. “They’re well-coached. They understand their roles. They have three stars. We have to do a much better job on their center than we did last game. We’ve got to do a much better job on their two guards, Manjon and T-Lawrence.”

“They have three stars and you’ve got to try to contain those guys. Then you’ve got to understand the other guys in their rotation and their strengths and try to take away somewhat of their strengths.”

What to Expect from Arkansas Basketball

Overall, Arkansas played one of its most well-rounded games of the season in the regular-season finale against the Crimson Tide. Five different players scored in double figures and the team shot just under 45% from the field on the road.

“The object is to win, but I can’t fault our effort,” Musselman said. “We played really, really hard. I’ve been saying it for quite some time that we’re getting better. We looked like a better basketball team, although we didn’t win.”

Khalif Battle sort of continued his hot scoring streak in the Hogs’ season finale against Alabama. He “cooled off” some to the tune of 22 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal and 1 block, though he only shot 31% from the field and went 1 of 6 (17%) from beyond the arc.

Fortunately, he still drew 11 free throw attempts and hit all of them to keep the Hogs alive. His ability to draw free throws allows the Hogs to get easy points, lets one of their leading scorers see the ball go through the basket a few times and often puts the other team in foul trouble early in the game. The total free throw count will be a trend to watch in a neutral court setting.

The first time Arkansas played Vanderbilt was in the second game of Battle’s historic hot streak in which he scored 141 points over the course of four games – the most by any SEC player over the last 20 years. Battle drew 12 fouls on Vanderbilt defenders in his first game against them and attempted 17 total free throws.

It’s reasonable to expect this exact statistic to be toward the top of the Commodores’ scouting report in Round 2 of Arkansas vs Vanderbilt. Obviously, Arkansas will need other scorers to step up if Battle is limited by Vanderbilt’s defense, but it will also be important for the Razorback guard to stay aggressive even if he’s not getting the same number of foul calls he’s recently grown accustomed to.

His ability to drive opens up lanes for everyone else on the court. It also allows him to then expand his scoring game to perimeter shots. Battle is a very good jump shooter and can create space for himself, but that space becomes a lot easier to create when the defense is just as concerned about the dribble-drive attack. If Battle stops attacking, his jump shots – and everyone else’s since their off-ball defenders won’t have to help as much – become much more difficult.

What to Watch: Arkansas vs Vanderbilt

The Razorbacks have looked like a team with renewed life for a while now despite still losing as many games as they’ve won over their last six contests. Two of those losses were on the road and by single digits to two of the best teams in the SEC.

Another one of those losses was at home to Vanderbilt, however.

That being said, it’s still incredibly difficult to predict which Arkansas team is going to show up on any given night. Perhaps the positive side of this train of thought is that the Hogs seem to show up to play their best basketball when the lights are the brightest.

This was clearly the case against Purdue and Duke, but even in three losses to Kentucky and Alabama the Razorbacks have looked like a competitive team that at least belonged in the same conversation as the elite teams they were facing. Even the first half of their loss to Tennessee provided a glimpse of how competitive this Razorback team could’ve been all season.

If there was ever a moment when the lights are the brightest, it’s in the SEC Tournament where it’s win-or-go-home – not just for the tournament, but for the season. Not only do they have to win this tourney to get into the NCAA Tournament, it’s very likely the Hogs could miss out on the NIT – especially with a second loss to Vanderbilt in their final game.

On the flip side of this coin, the Hogs have struggled in “trap game” situations where storylines and looming matchups distract from the team in front of them. This happened a few times in the non-conference schedule even though Arkansas was able to pull out wins in most of those games due to sheer talent, but the biggest example of the Hogs falling into a trap scenario was none other than their first game with Vanderbilt.

They had just won back-to-back SEC games for the first time all season. They were playing their best basketball of the year. Kentucky was the next game on the schedule and the Hogs had already lost to the Wildcats by single digits at home. It was the perfect storm for Arkansas to not take Vanderbilt – a team with only 7 wins on the season at the time – seriously and come out slow and lazy.

This is what transpired, to an extent. The effort and focus were not at the same level it had been for the Hogs’ recent stretch of games when these teams first faced off. Combine that with Vanderbilt’s unusual zone and all three of their best players contributing in big ways offensively and it took everything Arkansas had to even keep it as a one-possession game.

SEC Tournament the End of the Road?

It’s also worth remembering that any given game from here on out could be the last game for virtually any of the Razorbacks currently on the roster.

Six different Razorbacks will run out of eligibility at the end of the season, and there’s always the possibility that others could test the NBA Draft or their other options in the transfer portal.

Even though it might be too late for his recent hot streak to potentially put him on NBA scouts’ radars, Khalif Battle is one such player that could test those options. He did, however, seem to imply that he wasn’t done being a Razorback after the Hogs’ last win, saying he’s “a Razorback until the end.”

Of course, that was a bit coy considering he didn’t specify until the end of what, exactly. This season? His remaining eligibility?

Devo Davis took a similar approach when recently asked about potentially using his COVID year to return for a fifth season at Arkansas. He said he was taking everything “day by day” before making a final decision.

He made a few posts on social media before senior night that could be taken as a farewell of sorts, but anything could happen with the Arkansas native.

Arkansas vs Vanderbilt Prediction

The last time Arkansas basketball played a revenge game, it put together one of its best overall performances of the season against the LSU Tigers. Sure, this game was at home and had the extra oomph of being senior night and the final game in Bud Walton this season, but it’s clear the Hogs took that game personally.

“I think it’s extremely important as you play a team multiple times, that you look and review things that you did well and things that you didn’t do well,” Musselman said.

Arkansas is now 21-11 when playing against a team for the second (or third) time in a season under Musselman. This includes going 12-3 when facing an opponent for the second time after losing to them the first time. When asked why Musselman is so good in “revenge” games after the LSU win, Battle didn’t waste words:

“It’s personal.”

The Hogs will take this to heart, rallying to avoid overlooking the Commodores for a second time this season. Regardless of the fate of their season hanging on the outcome of this game, Arkansas will be out for revenge against a Vanderbilt squad that has now beaten them three times in a row for the first time in the two programs’ head-to-head history.

Khalif Battle will continue his scoring charge while Makhi Mitchell and the other Razorback bigs do a better job at limiting Vanderbilt in the paint defensively. Arkansas basketball knows every game from here on out determines whether they live to see another day, and it shows in this first round victory.

Arkansas wins, 84-71.

How to Watch Arkansas vs Vanderbilt at SEC Tournament

Date: Wednesday, March 13

Location: Bridgestone Arena (Nashville, Tenn.)

Tipoff Time/TV: 6 p.m. CT (SEC Network)

Betting odds: Arkansas favored by 6.5 points, according to Asian betting sites like here in Vietnam

ESPN BPI: Arkansas has a 74.7% chance of winning, favored by 7.1 points.

KenPom: Arkansas has a 71% chance of winning, favored by a score of 77-71.

Arkansas vs Vanderbilt Notes

  • Arkansas is 5-1 versus the Commodores in the SEC Tournament, including a 2-1 mark in games played in Nashville.
  • The Razorbacks are 4-3 in the SEC Tournament under Coach Musselman, including 1-0 against Vanderbilt.
  • The last time the Hogs and Dores faced off in the SEC Tournament came in Nashville in 2020 when Arkansas won 86-73 prior to the tournament being canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (via Razorback Communications)

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Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman previews the SEC Tournament matchup with Vanderbilt:

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