The Razorbacks continued their strong start to the season with another double-digit victory, this time over North Texas (UNT). Arkansas is right where they want to be at this point in their season, sitting at 2-0 with a pair of double-digit, non-conference victories.
That’s about all the needs to be said, but we’ll dive a little deeper. The 7’3 sophomore transfer tallied 16 rebounds (14 def), 6 blocks, and 2 assists to go along with his 6 points scored. He became the first NCAA player to record 16+ rebounds and 6+ blocks since Zion Williamson on 11/11/2018 vs. Army (also had 16 & 6).
Despite not lighting up the scoreboard, Vanover was the biggest factor in this game, pun intended. He dominated the paint defensively, affecting far more than the six official blocked shots he accounted for. The Hogs looked much less imposing defensively when Vanover was off the court, allowing inside looks far more often than when the fan-favorite big man was patrolling the paint.
The Indiana grad transfer is quickly becoming one of the most important Razorbacks this season. At 6’8, his 48” vertical and shooting ability allow him to play anywhere from the small-ball center position to being the small forward in huge lineups. He showed this ability early in the game against MVSU when he started at center but quickly transitioned to the three-spot when Jaylin Williams and Connor Vanover both entered the game.
His versatility was on full display again in game two. Vanover earned the starting center role, allowing Smith to seamlessly transition to power forward where he led the team in scoring and minutes played with 18 and 36 respectively. He hit 53.8% of his shots, including 66.7% of his 3-point attempts. Smith finished with a well-rounded stat line of 6 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 assist, and 1 block.
If the senior forward can continue to hit shots from outside and contribute in all aspects of the game, he’s going to be a dangerous weapon for the Razorbacks that Muss has a hard time taking off the court.
Several other Razorbacks played well, including Desi Sills. The lone returning Razorback finished with 14 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 made 3-pointer. JD Notae contributed 16 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal despite shooting only 25% from long range. Moses Moody tacked on another 11 points and 3 steals to go along with his perfect FT shooting. He’s now 15/16 from the charity stripe on the season.
However, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies for Razorback fans watching the game.
Typically, a 69-54 victory is exactly the type of performance fans would hope for in a game where you’re only favored to win by eight points. However, after a dominant 80-point victory in game one, it was all too easy to have ultra-high expectations heading into game two, especially against another non-Power 5 opponent.
As a team, the Hogs only shot 41.8% from the field, including 27.3% from 3-point range. This performance doesn’t qualify as abysmal, but it’s not ideal either. Of the eight players that took the court, five of them shot under 50% from the field. Of those five players, two of them didn’t make a single one of their combined three shot attempts.
Once again, the Hogs struggled mightily from the charity stripe in this game. Against MVSU, Moses Moody and Connor Vanover nearly single-handedly saved the Razorbacks’ free throw percentage as they combined to go 12/13 from the line. Even then, the Hogs only shot a combined 78.8% from the charity stripe.
In game two against UNT, Moody did his best to stop the bleeding a second time, shooting 6/6 on free throw attempts. Unfortunately, the rest of the team combined to shoot 11/20 from the stripe, totaling a lackluster 55% without Moody. With the sharp-shooting freshman’s totals included, the team still only combined to shoot 65.4% from the line.
Free throws are like kicking field goals in football; it’s easy to forget how important they are until players start missing them. A poor free-throw shooting team will inevitably struggle to win close games down the stretch.
In 2019-20, 5/12 Razorback losses came by a margin of victory less than the total number of free throws missed by the Hogs. In other words, the Razorbacks missed out on more points from the free-throw line than they needed to win the game five different times last season.
After winning the turnover battle 21-7 against MVSU, the Razorbacks turned the ball over just as many times as UNT did on Saturday evening: 16 times each. From a rotation consisting of only one freshman surrounded by returning players and upperclassmen transfers, this turnover rate is far too high. Desi Sills led the team in turnovers with five, followed closely by JD Notae and Jalen Tate with three apiece. That’s two junior guards and a grad-transfer combining for 11 turnovers against a non-Power 5 opponent.
Rotation a Cause for Concern?
Let me preface this by saying head coach Eric Musselman has never given much reason to doubt him in the past, and he still hasn’t. Musselman took a depleted roster last season and outperformed everyone’s expectations. I expect him to have similar success this season. He knows more than I do about this team and basketball in general, otherwise, I would be living in his pool house during basketball season instead of him.
With that being said, the rotation and minute allocation in this game baffled me. All offseason, fans, writers, former players, and other coaches noted how much depth the Razorbacks had heading into the season. A lot of players were brand new to the team and a few of them to college basketball, but the talent was there in bunches.
Theoretically, Musselman could play 11 different guys on any given night without an overwhelming amount of drop-off in production, including the two returning players, two sit-one transfers, three graduate transfers, and four freshmen. Obviously, this won’t be the case all season as Musselman continues to narrow down his conference rotation to eight or nine guys.
However, an early-season, non-conference opponent seems like a good time to continue experimenting with different lineups and player combinations. Perhaps this is exactly what Musselman was doing; putting himself in a conference-like scenario to only play an eight-man rotation and observe what’s working well moving forward.
Musselman essentially narrowed his bench down to eight players for the contest against North Texas, but even that is a stretch. Two of the eight Razorbacks that saw the court didn’t even get 10 full minutes of action.
KK Robinson, a highly touted freshman and arguably the best true point guard on the roster, played only six minutes. He scored two points on a pair of made free throws but didn’t record another positive stat. This decision surprised me given that Sills played 36 minutes in total, and Jalen Tate shot 20% with minimal stats in his 26 minutes of action. To me, Robinson could have lightened the workload for either or both of these players with little to no drop-off.
The other victim of the shortened rotation was the grad transfer from New Mexico, Vance Jackson. The 6’9 combo forward played only nine minutes and missed both of his 3-point attempts. His shot attempts were the only stat of any kind that he recorded.
The remaining two freshmen didn’t see the court at all in the Razorbacks’ double-digit victory. Davonte “Devo” Davis is a prime candidate to have his minutes reduced come conference play, but these early-season opponents are typically a great opportunity to give young players a chance to prove themselves. Clearly, Davis didn’t fit into Musselman’s game plan for this matchup.
Jaylin Williams on the other hand was expected to be a key piece of the Razorbacks’ rotation this season. He had nothing by high remarks coming from training camp, and his size and versatility on both ends of the court make him an easy option to plug into most lineups. Williams can make the right pass, shoot from distance, block shots, and take charges. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to put any of those skills on display against UNT.
Again, I fully believe that Musselman knows what he is doing and knows this team far better than I do, or anyone else does for that matter. I expect he will continue to hone in on his go-to rotation, perhaps even experimenting with a different group of eight players in each of these early season games, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be holding the rotation under a critical eye until he finds it.
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