The Razorbacks put together an ideal start to their season, finishing 8-0 in non-conference play before heading to Auburn, AL, to open SEC play. The Hogs averaged 90 PPG as a team while winning all eight non-conference games by a double-digit margin of victory. It must be noted, most of the Razorbacks’ first eight opponents were lower-tier teams in comparison to what the SEC has to offer. This strength of schedule, or rather lack thereof, raised questions about how good this team could really be.
That is, until they showcased their talents against an SEC opponent Wednesday night.
Razorbacks Win SEC Opener
Auburn came into their contest against the Hogs with a 6-2 record, losing to Gonzaga and UCF in late November. The Tigers rode a five-game win streak into SEC play, including an impressive three-point win over Memphis. Then they ran head-first into a wall of Razorbacks.
Tigers Catch Fire
The Tigers managed to stay alive thanks to the sheer volume of 3-point shots. They shot an unearthly 15/29 (51.7%) from distance, nearly doubling the Razorbacks’ total 3-pointers made. On the season, the Tigers have shot only 34.6% from distance as a team.
This should raise some concern for the Razorbacks in terms of their perimeter defense, but it’s also important to note the level of difficulty on some of the made shots by Auburn in this game. Several of their shots were well contested, almost to the point of being blocked or drawing a foul, but still found a way to drop through the basket.
Eric Musselman will almost certainly draw up some adjustments for the Hogs’ next game, but there’s only so much that can be done when the opposing team gets that hot. Fortunately, the Razorbacks still found a way to not only win but win by double-digits, keeping their early-season streak alive.
The Razorbacks have seen too many close games fall through their fingers due to poor free-throw shooting in recent years, as have many other teams. Much like field goals in a football game, it’s easy to forget how important free throws are until the team starts missing them. As a team, the Hogs shot 77.4% (24/31) from the free-throw line, including three different players combining for a perfect 100% (14/14) on the night.
With Justin Smith out due to injury, Jalen Tate on the bench with foul trouble, and the lead slowly diminishing at the hands of Auburn’s 3-point barrage, the Razorbacks leaned heavily on their free-throw shooting to close out the win. JD Notae led the team in free throws made and attempted with seven and nine respectively.
Auburn, as has been the case for several years, is a very athletic team capable of going on runs if given the opportunity to run in transition. The Hogs, however, managed to take care of the ball all game long, turning the ball over only nine times, limiting the transition opportunities for Auburn in an already high-paced game.
On the other hand, Arkansas turned Auburn over 19 times, creating scoring opportunities throughout the game. This disparity is not uncommon for a Musselman-led team, as he tends to focus on team defense through unconventional methods of practice. One such method was highlighted during a timeout when commentator Jimmy Dikes demonstrated a Musselman-designed drill in which players hold bricks over their heads when closing out to a jump-shooter, theoretically making it easier for them to closeout without brick during real games.
Notable Razorback Performers
As tough as he is, Sills is continually proving that he’s more than just a hard-nosed basketball player. He’s a bucket-getter, a momentum-swinger, a leader, and a hooper. The junior guard put up a career high 23 points along with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block across 35 minutes of action. He led the team in 3-pointers made with four of his seven attempts finding the bottom of the net.
It’s also not always about the final stat sheet, but rather when certain plays are made at certain moments in a game. Time after time this season, Sills has swung the momentum in the Razorbacks’ favor with timely shots. We saw this happen again against Auburn after they made two consecutive 3-pointers to cut the lead to a single point. Sills raced down the court and found his way to the front of the rim, simultaneously halting the run and extending the Razorbacks’ lead.
The love-hate relationship continues between Hog fans and JD Notae. In the first half, Notae took some untimely shots resulting in bad misses. Thankfully, the flow of Arkansas’s offense did not falter much, but his decision making early in the game caused a small uproar among Razorback twitter users.
However, the second half was a different story. Notae hit back-to-back triples, found his way to rim, commanded the tempo down the stretch, and made nearly 78% of his free throws. Every team needs a go-to scorer, and it seems like Notae is stepping seamlessly into that role for Musselman’s Hogs. Through only 27 minutes of action, he contributed 21 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, and 2 blocks, an incredible stat line for the Hogs’ 6th Man. If Notae is able to consistently fill the go-to scorer role for the Hogs, he could be in for a big season as the Hogs head into the thick of conference play.
Razorbacks Road Ahead
Up next for the Hogs is back-to-back matchups against the only two ranked SEC teams. First up is a home matchup against borderline rival #12 Missouri.
The Tigers came into their last game against #7 Tennessee at 6-0 and looking for a strong start to conference play. However, that wasn’t quite the case as they found themselves down by 20 points at the final buzzer.
They shot an abysmal 18.8% from behind the arc, 36.4% from the field, and only 60.0% as a team from the free throw line. The poor shooting combined with 21 turnovers was too much to overcome as the Tigers dropped their first conference game to the Volunteers.
On the flipside of the same game, the Volunteers are 7-0 on the season, including 1-0 in conference play after their victory over the Tigers of Mizzou. Tennessee managed to force 21 turnovers in that game while having three different players score at least 11 points.
This should prove to be an incredibly tough stretch for the Razorbacks, but also a much-needed test. Auburn was a good team, but their absurd 3-point shooting kept them closer to the Hogs than they likely should have been. If Arkansas truly wants to know what they’re made of, it’s time to play against the best. Going 2-0 over the next week is ideal, but even finishing 1-1 would go a long way in proving the Hogs belong amongst the contenders in this conference.
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