Basketball

Razorbacks Win Game 1: Takeaways

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The Hogs opened their 2021-22 season with a double-digit, come from behind victory over the Mercer Bears by a score of 74 – 61. Coach Musselman seemed to test out a few different lineups and schemes throughout the game, including an unconventional small-ball starting five. How much of that will stick moving forward, and how much was simply Game 1 experimentation?

Notae’s Big Night

JD Notae is good at basketball. That might be the understatement of the night. The 6-1 senior opened his season with a monster performance. He poured in 30 points on 42% shooting to go along with 7 steals, 5 3-pointers, 2 assists, and 2 rebounds in his 39 minutes of action. Notae noted after the game that despite growing up less than an hour away from Mercer’s campus, the Bears did not offer him a scholarship out of high school, making this game somewhat personal for him.

Will Notae’s 30-point night be a common trend moving forward? It’s very possible. He has the green light to shoot from anywhere and the offensive talent to keep the Hogs in most games. However, it shouldn’t be an every-night occurrence, not because we don’t want JD scoring, but because the Hogs have too much firepower to have to rely on one player like they did with Mason Jones a few seasons ago.

Transfer Evaluation

Au’Diese Toney was known to be a major addition to this team, but I don’t know if anyone expected him to have this sort of impact right away. He scored 18 points on 7-9 shooting from the field and 4-6 from the FT line in 37 minutes of play. More impressively, he pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds, 5 of which were offensive. His contributions on the glass on both sides of the ball will be the biggest key to Toney staying on the court.

Chris Lykes also impressed in his 26-minute debut, scoring 16 points on 57% shooting including going 1-1 from distance. He added a pair of rebounds, an assist, and drew a foul on two separate 3-point attempts, finishing 7-8 from the charity stripe on the day.

Stanley Umude earned the start, but only saw the court for 17 minutes in Game 1. He was fairly efficient, shooting 43% from the field while adding six points, three rebounds, and an assist. Umude is a player who averaged 20+ PPG for an entire season at South Dakota, making his progression and comfortability within Musselman’s system a key story for the Hogs’ success moving forward.

Returning Leaders

Two of the three returning freshmen from last year’s team earned the start, with KK Robinson and Devo Davis joining the pair of 6’6 transfers in Umude and Toney and the human flamethrower, JD Notae.

Robinson looked solid in his debut, adding a pair of rebounds and zero turnovers in his nine minutes of action. Notae and Lykes’ hot shooting made it hard to take either player off the court last night, effectively limiting Robinson’s role. His role on this team is still somewhat up in the air and something to keep an eye on moving forward.

Davis on the other hand seemed to struggle to find open looks on offense. He finished the game without a single FG or FT attempt, but he managed to contribute in other ways. He played stellar defense all game long, grabbing three steals and four rebounds in his 34 minutes of action. Davis was known for making highlight plays last year, but could often get ahead of himself and lose control of the ball or his own body control. This tendency doesn’t seem to be completely overcome yet. He dished out only one assist to go along with a team-high five turnovers on the night.

Jaylin Williams was ruled eligible for this game after dealing with back spasms for several days, though he didn’t appear in the starting five as expected. Instead, he came off the bench to still play 30 minutes. He scored only four points on 25% shooting, including 0-2 from distance, but he managed to put up a quietly impressive stat line. Williams contributed 8 rebounds (3 offensive), 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 1 steal despite struggling to score. He led the team in both assists and blocks, a result of a combination of skills that make Williams unique amongst college big men.

Rounding Out the Rotation

Trey Wade and Kamani Johnson are a pair of tenacious forwards that will be fighting for the 8th spot in the rotation, and both made their Razorback debut against Mercer, even if only briefly.

Wade saw the court for seven minutes and didn’t record a single counting stat or shot attempt, but rather provided more of a rest for the trio of Umude, Toney, and Williams who look to soak up most of the big-man rotation minutes.

Johnson only saw one minute of action but managed to provide a rebound and an assist before exiting the game. Even if he’s not a staple in the rotation, Johnson’s physicality and skillset are invaluable to have off the bench as an insurance of sorts in case of foul trouble or injury to the forwards ahead of him in the rotation.

Did Not Plays (DNPs)

Three scholarship players who have a shot at rotation minutes did not see the court at all on Tuesday night. Perhaps the most surprising and intriguing is returning 7’4 big man, Connor Vanover. The big man’s struggles against bad matchups are well documented, but it was rare last season for Vanover to not touch the court at all, especially early in the season. Will this be a common theme this season, or did Muss bench Vanover solely due to the elite shooting of Mercer’s big men?

The other two players who had a chance to play but didn’t get the opportunity in game one are a pair of freshmen – redshirt Texas A&M transfer Jaxson Robinson and true freshmen Chance Moore. Robinson impressed the crowd with his size and shooting ability during the Hogs’ red-white scrimmage but did little to guarantee himself minutes in either exhibition game.

It’s a similar story for Moore, the only true freshman on the roster. He played himself into some “oohs” and “ahs” from the crowd during the red-white game but has yet to earn his way up the playing time ladder. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Moore likely won’t reach that peak at any point this season, not due to a lack of his own talent, but simply due to the plethora of talent at the wing position ahead of him.

Defensive Woes

Only two years removed from having one of the top perimeter defenses in the country from a statistical standpoint, the Hogs allowed Mercer to hit 13 of their 31 3-point attempts, good for 42% on the game. This seemed to be a culmination of hot shooting from a well-coached Mercer squad and a lack of defensive intensity early in the game from the Hogs.

At one point in the first half, the Hogs trailed by 10 points, making this their 6th consecutive win in which they trailed by double-digits, including three NCAA Tournament games last season. This is a trend that needs to be corrected and fast. The Hogs can only depend on so much Musselman Magic in their halftime adjustments before leads become too large to overcome. This is not something I’m overly concerned about, but slow starts are definitely a key point to keep an eye on.

Offense Stalling Out

After an impressive start from Notae to open the game, the Hogs’ offense stalled out allowing Mercer to build up a double-digit lead. The Hogs went on a scoring drought from the 8:35 minute mark to the 1:14 minute mark in the first half, scoring only two points during those 7+ minutes.

Thankfully, right out of the halftime break, JD Notae and Stanley Umude propelled the Hogs on an 8-0 run to tie the game less than a minute and a half into the second half. This drought was relatively easily overcome once the Hogs picked up their defensive intensity, but offensive stalls like this will become much more concerning and difficult to overcome against SEC or other Power 5 teams.

What’s Next?

Up next on the Hogs’ schedule is a pair of non-conference opponents in Gardner Webb (Sat, 11/13) and Northern Iowa (Wed, 11/17) both in Bud Walton Arena. Neither of these teams are up to par with SEC competition, but they’re both recent NCAAT teams capable of knocking off a Power 5 opponent. These should both be easily winnable games that provide the Hogs different looks, and potentially adversity, that will help this team gel together sooner rather than later.

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