The Issues Keeping These 2021-22 Razorbacks from Being a Sweet 16-Caliber Team (So Far)

Jaylin Williams

The angry mob has been awoken by the Arkansas basketball team’s recent struggles. A blowout loss to Oklahoma in Tulsa coupled with a lackluster performance in North Little Rock versus Hofstra had the fan base whipped into a frenzy heading into this past week. After a 9-0 start, Eric Musselman’s hoops squad looked a little disheveled and the pitchforks and torches are out. 

Time will tell if Tuesday night’s blowout win over Elon will settle down the fanbase. My guess is yeah, nice win, but it was Elon. 

in that first loss, Oklahoma played lights out and looked to be a very talented team. I will be curious to follow the Sooners and see where they stand come March Madness. They looked like a surefire tournament team on December 11th against the Hogs. Also, Hofstra is no slouch. The Pride lost to #15 Houston in overtime and lost a 2-point game to #20 Maryland earlier this season on the road. That’s a veteran team with several transfers from name-brand schools that has a shot at winning their league and getting in the tournament as well. 

Losing happens. It’s hard to truly complain about a 10-2 record heading into league play at Mississippi State on Wednesday night. The cause for concern among Arkansas basketball fans is the depths of poor play in those two losses. Coach Eric Musselman’s consternation is much deeper than that because he and his staff know there are some struggles in various areas that will be exposed in the SEC. 

And just like last season when the Hogs got blitzed by Alabama and LSU, there is a level of panic from the fan base as well as concern by Musselman. He’s already proclaimed how much tougher practices would be after the OU loss and didn’t care if that impacted future games. He’s preparing for March, not December. Were the hard practices a factor against Hofstra? Only those inside the locker room really know. Superior talent, even with what were backups playing significant minutes, was way better than what Elon could put on the court. 

The tough practices now are good in theory and worked like a charm for the 2020 Hogs on their way to the Elite 8. But after laying an egg in front of a great crowd at Simmons Bank Arena last weekend, fans expect more from Musselman’s squad in Year 3. A loss every once in a while is “OK,” but at least look good doing it. As Nolan Richardson appropriately stated after the Mike Anderson firing. ”We created a monster, and you’ve got to feed it.” Losing to Hofstra with a seldomly used former Razorback dominating down low and trailing the entire game isn’t exactly opening up the buffet line.

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Elon Basketball = Cruddy Hors D’Oeuvre

Elon was like that cruddy Hors d’oeuvre served up at a cocktail party with no meal to follow. Palatable but unsatisfying. The Hogs played well but I am not sure how sustainable that will be in the SEC. Kamani Johnson all the sudden came to life and goes for 15 and 7. Dude has hardly seen the floor until that game. Same for Trey Wade who appears to lack the athleticism of most SEC forwards. A true, old school banger with limited mobility but a toughness that this team may have been missing. There is a place for the contribution of Jaxson Robinson as his outside shooting is badly needed on this squad. 

Biggest Question about Arkansas Basketball Transfers

What in the world has happened to Au’diese Toney and Stanley Umude? Those two have slid to the back of the line as they played very few minutes against Elon. The Razorbacks will need both of those guys to play significantly better than they have as of late if another deep NCAA run is in the cards. They have too much experience and too much production at their previous stops not to contribute.

The 2021-22 version of Razorback basketball has some glaring weaknesses that were apparent in that early season run to the top 10. Some were to be expected with a lot of new faces on the roster replacing the loss of NBA lottery pick Moses Moody and dependable transfers in Jalen Tate and Justin Smith. Others seem to be a recurring issue with certain players and what appears to be a lack of on court cohesiveness in the players getting most of the minutes. 

Eric Musselman is keenly aware of the issues, and it’s definitely plural, and I have every reason in the world to believe he has attempted or is attempting to address them. No detail is left to chance that it will just work itself out with Musselman. Between all the analytics and what he and everyone else see with their own eyeballs, he knows the Razorbacks have plenty to work through as they hurdle towards SEC play. 

He’s rolling up his sleeves and getting after it in practice, even if it means getting roughed up in the process:

Issues for 2021-22 Razorback Basketball Team

Top of the list seems to be the Razorbacks in ability to shoot the basketball. Actually, their ability to shoot is high; the ball going through the actual basket is another matter. JD Notae is a bonafide dynamic scorer from anywhere on the court. The trick is he typically requires a high volume of shots to get his points. Bad shots, questionable shots and wide open misses have plagued Notae thus far this season.

He’s only shooting 42% from the floor and 29% from three. That’s on 83 attempts from beyond the arc. Greenlight to launch or not, Notae takes a lot of shots in what seems to be outside the flow of the offense. The same could be said for Chris Lykes as he only shoots 39% from the floor and 34% from beyond the arc. Connor Vanover has made one three pointer all season yet keeps firing when he plays his rare minutes. Other key players also struggle to shoot from deep as Devo Davis is 33% and Umude 23%. Musselman’s offensive sets generate the looks but the Hogs have struggled knocking down those shots. Muss swears this year’s team has shot the ball well in practice, but it hasn’t translated yet. 

Hofstra sure didn’t respect the Razorbacks’ ability to shoot as they sat in a zone daring the Hogs to make jump shots. And it worked as the Hogs only made 3-14 in the first half while falling behind. Arkansas had much better shooting in the second half which was keyed by a flurry of threes while the game was out of hand. 

The Hogs have to fix the shooting woes or they can expect to see more and more zone. Arkansas ranks 13th in the SEC in 3 point shooting percentage. That’s only ahead of Missouri, which misses 3 of every 4 they take. 

Good news is there are guys on this team who are capable of scoring against a zone from inside or outside the mark. Notae and Davis can penetrate gaps in the zone for short pull-ups and layups. Toney can work weak spots along the baseline. There are options to fix the shooting woes. 

Do All Razorbacks Have the Green Light?

This 2021-22 team also falls victim to poor shot selection which leads to low shooting percentages. This could be the by-product of a group of very talented transfers who were scorers at their previous schools. An offense that used to flow through them no longer does so the “I’m going to get mine” mentality kicks in and poor shots soon follow.  

Wild driving shots. Out of range or off balance three pointers. Musselman’s NBA style offensive sets count on the ability to isolate mismatches and scorers making shots. Although it’s hard to tell without knowing the intricacies of Muss’ playbook, it appears a lot of shots are just taken when someone feels open versus within the framework of the offense. 

The shot selection could also be attributed to lackluster point guard play. Neither Notae nor Davis are point guard material despite being groomed for that role. They are both very good, proven college basketball players but not point guards in the classic sense. The point guard, much like the quarterback in football, tends to lead and distribute to the playmakers. Davis and Notae are both playmakers first, the type who set up shots for teammates a distant second. Chris Lykes is also a score-first point guard who often gets the ball to other scoring options late and/or not in position to score. 

KK Robinson seems to be the only true point guard on the roster and has played sparingly. His limited time on the floor versus Hofstra seemed to go well but he wasn’t sharp against Elon. I’m curious if his minutes go up as Musselman searches for better play from the point. Davis doesn’t look comfortable there and his slashing, broken play scoring ability he survived on last year has faded. Notae is a scorer. Plain and simple. Not a point guard. 

Finding a true point guard option to distribute to the right guy at the right time could significantly improve the Razorbacks’ ability to score the basketball against better competition. Especially if they see more zone as the ability to drive to draw defenders then kick to a shooter who in turn knocks down the shot is crucial to bring a team out of a zone. Who is that on this roster? We still don’t know after 12 games. 

Cohesive Arkansas Basketball Defense

Doesn’t it seem every team the Hogs play has a career night shooting the 3-ball? Already, several teams have hit over a dozen three balls against the Hogs. Last season, Arkansas was remarkably good defending the three and thus far this year, the trend is in the wrong direction. Basketball defense is about connectivity and communication and of course “want to”.

I don’t see the same amount of effort to close out or stick like glue on the perimeter and when the Hogs do, they seem to get beaten off the dribble routinely. The inability to stay in front of ball handlers is an issue. Notae leads the league in steals, but watch how many of those are back picks where the offensive player gets past him and he swipes the ball from behind. Some of that is probably intentional but I’m not sure I buy that it’s always planned.  

Musselman has even upgraded his defensive mantra from hands in the eyeballs to hands above the eyeballs given his squad’s inability to disrupt opposing shooters. But there have been some nights where the 3-point defense seemed to be pretty decent and the opponents’ shots were just falling. Northern Iowa comes to mind as those dudes lit the Hogs up for 17 threes. Wide open, closely guarded…didn’t matter. 

The interior defense was criticized during the recent two-game skid. Musselman pointed out Au’diese Toney’s defensive effort in those games as well as not using Connor Vanover at all against Hofstra. When a guy who couldn’t even get on the court last year for the Hogs, transfer Abayomi Iyiola of Hofstra, went for a double-double in the paint, something’s not right. He feasted mostly on easy buckets out of pick and rolls. 

Stopping that is simply about being connected on defense, communication and effort.  

Razorbacks Production from the Portal

Coach Musselman was a pioneer in his use of the transfer portal, but every year and every group is different. He’s been challenged in 2021 with Devo Davis and Jaylin Williams as the only non-transfers seeing significant minutes. Mixing and matching lineups while trying to figure out player strengths and weaknesses is what the pre-conference season is for but the problem thus far in 2021 has been the lack of progress with some who started hot and have waned. 

in the season-opening win streak, Toney looked every bit as a great pickup in the portal. He was athletic, aggressive, capable of scoring outside of the offense. And then essentially nothing the last three games. Umude has yet to show the all-around game that he was brought in to provide. Lykes has shown flashes but nothing consistent although he deserves the minutes he’s getting. His ability to drive and get to the line will help the Hogs offensively and he played very well against Elon. 

The transfers will take some time to gel as they still aren’t quite clicking with SEC play looming. 

Arkansas Basketball Road Woes?

The losses to OU in Tulsa and Hofstra in North Little Rock had some of the fanbase thinking back to those Mike Anderson days where road wins were non-existent. Even though both were neutral site games, neither was in Bud Walton Arena and the Razorbacks didn’t look like the team we had seen earlier in the year.

Fans need to keep in mind that the Razorbacks looked solid in two wins in Kansas City earlier in the season against good competition. I wouldn’t fret too much about this team struggling on the road regularly. Are they going to dominate in someone else’s gym on the reg in conference play? No, of course not. Teams that are national title contenders. The Hogs aren’t that.

But this is a very, very veteran team that has played piles of games in empty gyms and hostile environments. Road games shouldn’t be some kind of phobia like they were under Anderson. To get a good seed come NCAA tournament time, a few road wins will be essential. 

Razorbacks’ SEC Season Arrives

The Elon win put a halt to the mini-slump but how much did the team really improve? Musselman is undoubtedly still seeking more growth in some of the weak spots identified previously. The disappearance of Toney and Umede is puzzling and hopefully they shake out of their own slumps. Both have produced at too high of a level to be throttled and the Hogs will need them both to make another run to the upper tier of the much improved SEC. 

This is a talented basketball team. Maybe too talented and could use more grit and grind like Wade and Johnson seem to provide in spades. Musselman is particular in regards to the execution of his NBA-style of play. If you watch him on the sideline, he does a lot of pointing, directing and screaming. You also see some of the guys who have been in the program doing the same when a set play is called. Any Arkansas basketball fan paying attention will deduce there are players still learning during live action. 

Give this squad some time. We as fans may not see a run in the conference like last season but this team should finish in the upper half of the league, which is saying a lot. There’s too much talent and too good of a coach not to. 

Outside of Vandy and maybe Georgia, this is an excellent basketball conference again. The days of Kentucky and Florida dominating the conference and one other random team grabbing the third bid from the SEC are over. There are 6-7 legitimate NCAA tournament level teams in this league now and a few more right there on the edge. 

A winning record in conference will be an achievement in and of itself. And this version of Razorback basketball is capable. Especially with improved play from the point guard, better shot selection and getting after it on the defensive end.

Cleaning up a few things sooner than later will settle the fanbase (should anyway) and wins will soon follow. That will help Musselman exhale as well as he seems very concerned about some of the struggles of this year’s squad. Musselman coaches to a high standard and expects the same out of his team. And to that point, they aren’t there yet. Which is OK. It’s December with a lot of season left. 

But they better show some improvement before Razorback football ends and the Diamond Hogs start.

Arkansas basketball is headed for the limelight after the Outback Bowl on January 1. All eyes will be on Razorback hoops expecting improved play and wins, wins, wins. 

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