Razorbacks Host Top 25 Matchup
After yet another postponed game at the hands of COVID issues amongst the Texas A&M basketball team, Eric Musselman and company turn their attention to Alabama. This will be the first time the Razorbacks host Top 25 matchup since the #17 Rebels of Ole Miss visited Bud Walton arena on February 5th, 1998 to face the #14 ranked Hogs. Arkansas would win that contest 100-87.
Razorbacks Rolling through SEC
Following a dominant, double-digit win against the Florida Gators, the Hogs are riding a 7-game conference winning streak, as well as winning seven of their last eight games overall. After a rough patch early in the season in which the Hogs lost four of five games to start SEC play, something has seemingly clicked for Musselman’s squad.
What that is exactly is hard to pinpoint, but we lean towards believing it’s a collection of things. Justin Smith returned from injury, Jalen Tate has been shooting above his career average from distance, Connor Vanover is finding his rhythm, and Musselman has shored up his desired rotation to name a few factors. Though with players stepping up and Musselman finding his players’ optimal roles, it’s been an intangible factor that has ultimately led to seven straight conference wins.
Keys to Razorbacks’ Recent Success
This isn’t to say that the collective play of the team hasn’t been stellar, or that other players haven’t stepped up when needed, but three players have stood out above the rest over the Hogs’ 8-game run.
In the Razorback’s SEC opener against Auburn, Justin Smith went down with an ankle injury after playing only 12 minutes. Initial reports indicated Smith could miss several weeks with the injury, putting a fairly large obstacle between the Hogs and the NCAA Tournament if they didn’t figure something out fast. Miraculously, Smith blew the initial projections out of the water and missed only four games in which the Hogs went 2-1 without him in the lineup. Even in his first game back, a game in which he was limited to 18 minutes, the Hogs would still lose by double digits, making it a four-out-of-five game losing skid.
However, since that 18-minute performance, Smith has ramped back up to 32.8 MPG while averaging 12.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.6 APG, and 1.3 SPG over the last 8 games. Along with his impressive stat sheet performances, Smith’s defensive presence, offensive aggressiveness, and overall versatility improve any lineup he’s a part of.
It’s been a tale of two halves for the fan-favorite big man. His unique combination of stature and shooting ability made him a compelling prospect from the start, but for Musselman’s game plan and fans watching at home. Despite getting off to a hot start during non-conference play, Vanover hit a wall once SEC games started.
Over the course of the Razorbacks’ first seven SEC games, Vanover averaged 13.6 MPG, 5.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG, and 0.6 BPG while shooting 32.4% from the field and 17.6% from the 3P line. Needless to say, he wasn’t much a factor as the Hogs opened conference play 3-4. In fact, he had a stretch of four games in which he played 3, 8, 2, and 9 minutes, totaling only 5 points in 4 outings.
Then something clicked. Starting with the Razorbacks’ big win over Vanderbilt, Vanover found himself being more efficient and effective, leading to a significant increase in playing time. Over the Hogs’ last seven games, including one non-conference game against Oklahoma State, Vanover has seen his averages sky to 21.0 MPG, 9.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG, and 2.9 BPG while shooting a staggering 53.8% from the field and 36.4% from behind the arc.
Vanover has looked more confident and aggressive around the rim on both sides of the floor, challenging shots and dunking the basketball with a new-found ferocity. His unusual size and skillset can prove to be a matchup nightmare for teams, and his confidence boost has played a major role in the Hogs’ current conference win streak.
Similar to Vanover, Davis got off to a slow start in the Hogs’ first three conference games. He played only 12.7 PPG and totaled only 10 points total on 45.5% FG shooting. He brought tremendous energy every time he was on the court, but Musselman was still “tinkering” with his regular rotation for a lack of better phrasing.
Then, in the Razorbacks’ win over Georgia, Devo scored a career-high 20 points over 36 minutes of action, along with grabbing 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals with shooting splits of .643/.500/1.000 from the field, 3P line, and FT line respectively. Since this breakout performance, Devo is averaging 10.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, and 1.2 SPG. However, his most valuable asset rarely shows up on the stat sheet.
Devo plays winning basketball. He hustles after 50/50 balls. He hounds opposing guards the full length of the court. He always knows the right places to be to intercept passes or create easy looks for himself at the rim. Devo is the perfect “glue guy” for this Razorback team, doing all the dirty work and not caring what shows up on his stat sheet.
As alluded to earlier, the most important aspect of the current win streak can not be pinned on any single player or coach. The most important part of winning college basketball games is exactly that: winning. No matter what opponents have thrown at the Hogs in recent games, they’ve found ways to win.
Moses Moody has had a few poor shooting performances. Desi Sills injured his shoulder and hasn’t been the same scoring threat since. The Hogs have won games in which they trailed at halftime. They’ve win games in which they saw a massive lead dwindle to single-digits in the closing minutes of games. None of the Hogs’ wins are the same, as that is a deadly weapon to have when you think about it. Finding a way to win ball games down the stretch in a variety of situations is the best way to prepare teams for post-season scenarios.
The Razorbacks have learned to never quit fighting no matter how far they’re behind with their 19-point comeback win over Auburn. They’ve learned to maintain a lead despite losing control of what could have been a blowout when they beat Kentucky by one point despite leading by 12 with just over 6:00 on the clock. Musselman has even led his team to a victory in which the game was close from wire to wire when the Hogs beat the Tigers of Missouri.
Razorbacks Host Top 25 Matchup
Now it’s time for the Razorbacks to once again turn their attention to Alabama, a team that beat them by 31 points in Tuscaloosa earlier this season. In their first meeting, the Crimson Tide made 41.7% of their 3-point attempts, including five makes from star Alabama guard, John Petty Jr. His five triples put him in the Alabama history books with the most all-time 3-pointers made. Over Petty’s last seven games, he’s averaging only 10.7 PPG, down considerably from his season average of 13 PPG.
However, the Tide as a team is still riding a 3-game win streak including four of their last five. In their second most recent game, the Tide put up a staggering 115 points against a struggling Georgia team. The Tide are hot, the Hogs are rolling, and the stage is set for an epic SEC clash as the Razorbacks host Top 25 matchup in Bud Walton arena on Wednesday, Feb 24th at 8:00 PM CT.
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