The Arkansas Razorbacks are 10-5 (0-3) with all five losses coming within their last six games. After an Elite Eight appearance and what looked like another impressive transfer portal haul, the Hogs have proven to be one of the biggest disappointments in college basketball so far this season.
However, there is still a lot of season to be played and games to be won. Arkansas still has 16 games left on their schedule to try to accumulate enough wins to push them into the NCAA Tournament – a task that becomes more daunting with each and every loss. They get a subpar Missouri squad at home this week, a game that is likely to be their first SEC win if all goes well (fingers crossed).
What has happened to the tough “find a way to win” basketball team from last season? Obviously, there are a few major names missing from last year’s roster, but what has caused this Eric Musselman-led team to hit such a downhill spiral? Why are they losing games that most basketball fans in the country expected them to win not long ago? If I had the definite answers to those questions, I’d be in the locker room with the team and not writing this article – so take these thoughts for what they’re worth.
First and foremost, it doesn’t take a basketball coach to see the number of turnovers Arkansas has committed. In fact, a non-basketball fan could watch a Razorback game and notice how often a pass is stolen or a guard loses the ball trying to drive into the paint. The Hogs rank only 6th in the SEC in fewest turnovers per game, and 8th in the conference in fewest total turnovers. Thankfully, they also rank highly in assists per game (3rd) so the team’s assist to turnover ratio doesn’t come across too poorly, ranking 4th in the SEC.
Regardless, the Hogs are averaging 12.7 turnovers per game on the season, and an atrocious 16.0 turnovers per game so far in SEC play. When the Hogs turned the ball over 16 times against Mississippi State, it was relatively easy to point towards their missing point guard in JD Notae who sat out against the Bulldogs due to an undisclosed illness. Then Arkansas seemed to at least step in the right direction when turning the ball over only 14 times against Vanderbilt, though still an unacceptable number. Then, in a single-digit loss in which the Hogs trailed by one point with just over a minute to play, the Razorbacks as a team turned the ball over a season-high 18 times against what has been, to this point, not an overly impressive defensive team.
There isn’t one singular player driving up the turnovers either; it’s a team effort in not properly taking care of the ball. Three different players average at least 2.1 TOPG (JD Notae, Devo Davis, Jaylin Williams), and three more average between 1.2 – 1.8 TOPG (Stanley Umude, Chris Lykes, Au’Diese Toney). This essentially makes up the core six players for the Hogs so far this season averaging a combined 10.9 turnovers per game.
The Razorbacks score the 4th most points per game in the SEC – 30th in the country – but it doesn’t matter because they allow nearly as many points per game as they score. Arkansas allows 258th ranked 72 points scored per game. When looking at power-five caliber opponents (Cincinnati included), that total jumps to nearly 77 points per game compared to only scoring an average of 72 points in those six games combined.
The main culprit of Arkansas’s defensive woes comes on the perimeter. It’s not that our big men are lock-down paint defenders, but rather that they don’t often have to defend post players because opposing guards do what they want on offense for the most part. Razorback guards have struggled mightily to both stay in front of ball handlers and contest 3-point shots – areas at least somewhat related to each other. When a defender gets beat off the dribble, it’s natural for help-side defenders to sag into the paint and defend the high-quality shots at the rim. More often than not, this has led to open 3-point shooters having their way against late Razorback closeouts.
Coach Musselman has done a good job at maintaining his rotation this season and adding in various tweaks in terms of player minutes, combinations, and size on the court. There’s no direct proof that a change in the lineup or rotation would instantly mitigate the team issues we’ve already discussed above. In fact, this section isn’t calling for change at all, but merely posing questions that will soon be answered by Musselman and staff as the season progresses.
Jaxson Robinson started the season with a minimal role off the bench, only playing spot minutes here and there or garbage-time minutes against lesser opponents. Then, he went on a three-game stretch of 47% shooting from long range, catapulting him into the Hogs’ starting five. Since that 3-game stretch, however, Jaxson has only made one of his last six attempts over the course of two games, dropping his season 3-point average to 33% and his SEC average to 23% in three games.
His spot in the lineup is dependent on his ability to stretch the court, though there are not many tall guards pushing for his spot in the lineup with Devo Davis struggling and Lykes quickly becoming strictly a back-up to JD Notae. Could we see more of Au’Diese Toney at the guard position? Will Robinson pick up his shooting again heading into the thick of conference play? Could we see an unexpected face like KK Robinson soak up more guard minutes? Time will tell.
Kamani Johnson was not considered a lock for the rotation through the preseason or non-conference slate, but he’s quickly becoming harder and harder to keep off the court. Not only did he help spark the Razorbacks’ furious but futile comeback attempt late in the Texas A&M game with four offensive rebounds and 83% free-throw shooting, he’s also posting a team-leading 22.8% rebound percentage.
In other words, Johnson is grabbing 22.8% of the rebounds available to him while he’s on the court. For reference, Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky is the only player in the SEC posting a higher rebound percentage at 29.2%. The next closest player is Colin Castleton of Florida with an 18.7% rebound percentage. Will Kamani see his minutes increase? Almost definitely. Will he become a vital layer to the Hogs’ success and maybe even a starter? Time will tell.
Razorbacks’ Road Ahead
The Razorbacks get a struggling Missouri team in Bud Walton Arena this Wednesday night, a game that looks likely to be Arkansas’s first conference victory of the season according to ESPN’s BPI and the Hogs’ tendencies to win most of their home games in any given season.
After that, the road doesn’t get much easier as they hit the road to face a tough LSU team currently ranked #12 in the country. ESPN’s BPI currently gives the Hogs a 10.5% chance to win that game on the road given the way they’ve been playing lately.
Each win is an important piece of the resume, but Arkansas is already facing must-win scenarios early in January. 2-3 more losses before February might leave the Hogs without enough winnable games on the schedule to weasel their way into the Big Dance come March.
Main image credit: