With 16 games under their belt and 11 more to play, Arkansas Razorback basketball is primed to make a run down the stretch. Second-year coach Eric Musselman has led the team to a 12-4 record thus far, including 4-4 in conference play. The season seemed to be headed in a downward spiral after back-to-back losses to LSU and Alabama by 16 and 31 respectively.
In these games, the Hogs looked lost and dysfunctional as a team. No one was creating good looks for themselves or others as shooting percentages and team assists plummeted. Fortunately, in their next two games, the Razorbacks bounced back, earning a slim two-point victory over Auburn before efficiently blowing the doors off of Vanderbilt.
Musselman and the Hogs have adjusted to the midseason adversity and seemingly settled into their respective roles. The rotation is starting to shorten as the Hogs approach the final stretch of their season. KK Robinson is out for the season due to injury, and the forward rotation seems to be solidifying, even if it is matchup dependent.
Arkansas Razorbacks Basketball: Player Roles
Moody is currently projected to go right around the later part of the lottery in the 2021 NBA Draft, or roughly pick 10-15. So far, the freshman phenom is certainly living up to the hype. He is this team’s offensive leader. He may not be the loudest voice or the flashiest player, but his numbers don’t lie.
Moody is leading the team in scoring at 17.3 per game while shooting roughly .455, .363, and .819 from the field, 3-point line, and free throw line respectively. His offensive arsenal is limited only by untapped potential, but his impact doesn’t stop there. Even when Moody struggles with his jump shot, he grabs around 5.9 rebounds per game including several tenacious and timely offensive rebounds leading to second-chance opportunities.
Moody has been a day-one starter on this team, and that’s not changing any time soon. He stuffs the stat sheet, gets to the free-throw line, takes charges, grabs offensive rebounds, and contributes just about everything a coach can ask for from his star freshman prospect.
Tate has surprised a lot of people this season, including myself. I expected a significant role-player fighting for minutes with his defensive and versatility, what I got was a bonafide starter that does all of the little things exceptionally well. Despite his sometimes-awkward play style, Tate has run the offense all season and led the team in assists with 4.7 per game.
The most impressive part of Tate’s game has been his shooting. Last season with Western Kentucky, the lanky guard finished as a sub-25% 3-point shooter. Not ideal. This season with the Hogs, however, Tate is hitting from behind the arc at a 39% clip, good for third on the team overall and first among Razorbacks attempting more than 1.1 three’s per game!
The only negative evaluation of Tate is his ability to break down a defender off the dribble and create dribble penetration. He’s not the quickest or fastest player, and I firmly believe his efficiency would sky-rocket if he had another “true point guard” playing alongside him, but Tate has exceeded expectations as the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball lead ball-handler this season.
Smith has proven to be one of the most valuable pieces in Musselman’s rotation this season. He’s a paint beast. Smith leads the team in total and offensive rebounds, along with scoring just under 11 PPG. His impact, however, is another prime example of one that cannot be confined to a box score. Yes, his numbers are good, but his defensive presence, ability to run the floor and all-around versatility make him an invaluable piece to this Arkansas Razorback basketball team.
In the four games Smith missed after having ankle surgery, the Hogs went a subpar 1-3. They were outrebounded by double digits twice and allowed their opponents to shoot 45% or better from the field three times. Given, two of these games came against ranked opponents, Missouri and Tennessee, but the outcomes may have looked a little different had Justin Smith been available.
Perhaps the most underrated player on this team, Desi Sills never gives up. Often, he shows up exactly when the Hogs need him most, a superhero of sorts. Earlier mentioned was Tate’s lesser ability to consistently penetrate the defense; Sills makes up for that from his typical off-guard role.
Time and time again when the Razorbacks need a momentum-changing play, Sills comes barreling through the lane, absorbs any contact, and often still finds a way to put the ball through the hoop. It has been implied that Sills is the embodiment of Eric Musselman on the court, and those who watch him play know this to be true. His energy is unmatched.
His tenacity and grit make him a good player, but his leadership and skill set make him a great player. Sills is also leading the team in steals per game with 1.5 per contest, as well as shooting 33.3% from behind the arc this season on 3.4 attempts per game. There was a disappointing stretch of games in which Sills seemed to lose confidence in his ability to drive the ball, but any thought of hesitation vanished when he took over late against Auburn, again converting on a crowd-shaking and-1 opportunity just when the Hogs needed it most.
Notae’s play has been relatively shaky in terms of production, but no one can argue the talent. Earlier in the season, Notae went on a 10-game stretch in which he scored 12 or more points in each game, including three 20-point performances, twice against SEC opponents. Many times this season, he has been the clear go-to scorer down the stretch of close games, thanks in large part due to his ability to shoot from deep, finish in the paint, or draw a foul.
However, it hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies for Notae this season. He’s shooting only 39.1% from the field on over 11 attempts per game, as well as being second on the team in turnovers per game with 2.1. Notae’s skill and talent are there every single night, but it doesn’t always translate to the stat sheet or win column.
Despite averaging 13.7 PPG on the season, Notae has only scored 12 total points in the last three games combined while shooting 4-20 (18.2%) from the field. He still averaged 16.7 minutes per game in that stretch and managed to contribute 2.3 rebounds, 0.7 assists, and 1.0 steals. If this Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team wants to continue improving, they need Notae to shake out of this cold stretch and return to the dynamite scorer he can be.
Did you know Connor Vanover is 7’3? If you didn’t just listen to an SEC Network broadcast of an Arkansas Razorbacks basketball game, I promise you’ll be reminded. Despite his rare combination of height and shooting ability, Vanover has struggled to remain relevant in several conference matchups this season. Four times in eight SEC games, Vanover has seen less than 10 minutes of action.
Why you might ask? It seems to be entirely matchup dependent and based on what the opposing big men are capable of doing offensively. If a team, like Alabama for example, fields five players that can shoot from distance, Vanover becomes somewhat of a defensive liability, which in turn becomes too much for his offensive weaponry to make up for. In these situations, freshman backup Jaylin Williams has absorbed the bulk of the center minutes, playing 20+ minutes in each of the four games.
Because of this, Vanover’s role has become entirely matchup dependent. When facing a more traditional (non-shooting) big man, Vanover provides rim protection, rebounding, outside shooting, and something for the announcers to talk about. When playing against more modern-day (shooting) big men, Vanover becomes not much more than a topic of conversation, as he plays only 5.5 minutes per game in these scenarios.
The third and final graduate transfer on the list, Jackson has had the definition of an up-and-down season. He started with 15 points in 15 minutes including 4-6 from 3-point range in the season opener. Then, Jackson promptly shot 5-25 (20%) from distance over the course of his next eight games. The shooting slump was unexpected and did little to build his confidence heading into conference play.
Starting in the Razorbacks’ matchup against Tennessee, Smith’s second game missed due to injury, Jackson seemed to finally find his rhythm. He shot 3-6 from long range and finished with 14 points and 9 rebounds. Since then, Jackson has hit 10 of his 21 3-point attempts, good for 47.6% over the last six games.
However, Jackson seems to be another situationally used player, much like Vanover. Despite his hot shooting, he only played five minutes in the Razorbacks’ second game against Auburn, finishing with three points and an assist. When the defense is the primary goal for a lineup, it’s not uncommon for Musselman to extend Smith’s minutes or shift to a smaller, quicker lineup utilizing Moody at the power forward position. If the offense is the most imminent team need, Jackson is the forward for the job.
Before SEC play, Williams averaged around 8.6 minutes and 2.1 points per game. During conference games, however, Williams is averaging 17.6 minutes and 3.8 points per game. Beyond the stat sheet, Williams has proven to be the best charge-taker on the roster, as well as a true “glue guy,” or someone that fills in the cracks and does the dirty work without always lighting up the scoreboard.
The freshman has finally started to notch out a more permanent role on this team, but it still seems to be matchup dependent. As mentioned in the Vanover section above, Williams bumped his playing time up to 23.5 MPG during the Hogs’ four-game stretch in which Vanover didn’t match up well with the opposing big.
When the other teams’ center is dynamic on offense, Williams is the best option to play alongside or behind Williams at the center position. His 6’10 frame combined with high IQ, charge taking ability, shot-blocking ability, and offensive versatility make him an intriguing player this season and a potential star in future seasons.
Davis is a Razorback star in the making. No one plays with more heart, energy, and passion than the third freshman in the rotation. Davis has played an average of 20.4 minutes against SEC opponents while averaging 6.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. His numbers are continually improving, but his true value comes from plays hard to measure.
Davis has become one of the Hogs’ primary defenders, and he does it well. His effort and intensity combined with length and quickness make him a fantastic perimeter defender. In fact, the only thing holding him back is being too eager and picking up too many fouls.
If the 6’4 guard can learn to let the game come to him more often than forcing the issue, he will truly become an Arkansas Razorbacks basketball legend during his time on The Hill. Until then, he’s become a vital piece to this year’s guard rotation, and Hog fans should take pleasure in getting to watch his growth and development.
Henderson, only the second returning player on the roster, has been fighting for minutes all season. When KK Robinson was still available, Henderson appeared in only three of the first seven games this season. Since then, in SEC play, he’s appeared in every game if only for a couple of minutes.
The 6’8 forward averages 4.1 minutes per game in conference play, but that comes in large part due to his 15 minutes played against Alabama. If not for that game, he would be averaging only 2.3 minutes in conference play. He’s scored a total of 7 points this season along with 14 rebounds and 5 blocks.
Henderson’s role is essentially spot minutes in certain situations to either help keep the other big men out of foul trouble or provide another able defender. The athletic Arkansas native is a great option to have at the end of the bench, but that is, essentially, all his role is for this current team: the end of the bench.
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