Razorback Basketball: The Turning Point

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What appeared to be a lost season from before conference play even started has turned into yet another improbable run for Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman. His team started 9-0 against teams with an average NET Ranking of 183rd. They picked up two quality wins against Kansas State (68th) and Cincinnati (69th) during this relatively weak non-conference schedule before losing their first game to Oklahoma on the road. This loss was frustrating but not devastating, though it did lead to the worst part of their resume to date.

After the loss to Oklahoma, Arkansas would continue on to lose four of their next five games to teams with an average NET Ranking of 70th, including home losses to Hofstra (in Little Rock) and Vanderbilt, both ranked outside the Top 90 NET. The season was clearly in jeopardy after the Hogs dropped a nail-bitter against Texas A&M (52nd) to finish off a three-game SEC losing streak, putting the Hogs at 10-5 (0-3) on the season.

Rotation Shakeup

Despite losing the game to the Aggies, Arkansas put together a momentum-swinging run late in the game. They went on a 10-0 run to cut the lead to only one point with a minute left before senior guard Quenton Jackson hit a 3-pointer for the Aggies that all but sealed their victory. However, the Razorback run was not for nothing. They lost this particular battle, but it changed the course of their war ahead.

In a head-turning move, coach Musselman rolled out a “supersized” lineup consisting of the SEC leading scorer JD Notae alongside essentially four forwards – Au’Diese Toney (6-6), Trey Wade (6-6), Kamani Johnson (6-7), and Jaylin Williams (6-10). Though this lineup appeared to lack offensive firepower on paper, they quickly made their presence felt defensively, leading to easier offensive opportunities.

The Hogs outscored the Missouri Tigers 87-43 in Bud Walton Arena, more than doubling their opponent for the first and only time so far this season. They forced the Tigers into 23 turnovers, shot a better percentage from the field, free-throw line, and 3-point line, and out-rebounded, out-assisted, and out-scored their opponents, dominating every facet of the game.

In fact, since that four-minute mark in the Hogs’ first meeting against the Aggies when their 10-0 run began, they’ve outscored their opponents 380-295 over the course of five games plus those four minutes. Arkansas has beaten its last five opponents by an average 16-point margin of victory and held its opponents under 60 points in four of its last five games. Their lone game to not accomplish this feat was an overtime victory in which the Texas A&M Aggies scored only 73 points with an extra five minutes worth of opportunities – the game was tied 64-64 at the end of regulation after the last-second three from Texas A&M.

To open their season, Arkansas allowed their opponents to shoot a combined 43-99 (43%) from long range in their first three contests. After those first three games, opponents still shot over 34% from distance to bring Arkansas’s season total 37% 3-point shooting allowed. In their last five games, the Razorbacks are holding opponents below 26% shooting from long range, never allowing a single team to shoot 31% from long range during that stretch.

The new-found lineup has created new-found defensive intensity and efficiency for the Razorbacks, and it doesn’t look to be letting up anytime soon.

Individual Standouts

Jaylin Williams

The current win streak cannot be discussed without also discussing the recent performance of Jaylin Williams. The 6-10 sophomore has found a new gear on both ends of the floor for the Razorbacks. In his last five games, his scoring jumped from 7.0 PPG to 15.0 PPG, including 17.0 PPG in his last three contests. During this stretch, he’s shooting an absurd 51% FG, 44% 3P, and 89% FT, including hitting 50% of his long-range attempts over his last three games.

His ability to shoot the ball has forced defenders to respect and guard him further away from the rim, in turn opening up driving and passing lanes for himself and his teammates. The ability to shoot from distance is essential in today’s basketball landscape, and the sudden bump in confidence for his outside jumper has played a major role in the Razorbacks’ recent success.

Williams’ rebounds per game have also jumped from 8.5 to 10.2 in the current five-game stretch. He’s rebounding better, stealing the ball and blocking shots at a higher rate, and still making the small, “winning basketball” plays like drawing charges, setting good screens, and making the extra pass to open teammates.

JD Notae

With the new “supersized” lineup that the Hogs have grown accustomed to, JD Notae is the clear focal point offensively. None of the other forwards are true ball handlers – aside from perhaps 6-10 center Jaylin Williams – so Notae has spent a lot of time with the ball in his hands recently. His overall minutes per game has gone down slightly during the Hogs’ win streak, though this can mostly be attributed to foul trouble in a couple of games. His scoring has jumped from 18.8 PPG during his first 14 games to 19.4 PPG over his last five contests. His assists per game have also seen a significant boost along with his free throw shooting.

When the Hogs first started their current winning streak, Notae’s 3-point shooting seemed to all but disappear entirely. He shot 6-26 (23%) in the first four wins of the current streak, including a 2-13 (15%) performance between the South Carolina and Texas A&M victories. However, the Hogs have continued to find new ways to win basketball games, primarily through their defensive intensity and ability to get to the free-throw line. There does seem to be light at the end of this shooting-slump-tunnel however, as Notae shot 40% from long range against the Ole Miss Rebels in his last outing, making him 30% over his last two games. As his shooting returns to form, this Razorback offensive attack will become nearly as deadly as their defense.

Trey Wade

Wade does not always provide eye-popping numbers on the stat sheet – though he is capable of doing so. He had a monster game earlier this season against Missouri, the first of what is currently a five-game winning streak for Arkansas. He put up 17 points on 70% shooting while adding five rebounds, three assists, three steals, and two blocks to his final tally. He hit his only 3-point attempt and did not commit a single foul.

In the three games following this stand-out performance, he averaged only five points and two rebounds per game, but his versatile defensive presence cannot be understated in the Hogs’ victories over LSU, South Carolina, and Texas A&M during that three-game stretch. He also shot 56% from the field, 67% from 3-point range, and 100% from the free-throw line during that stretch, providing just enough of a spark in his own way to contribute to wins.

Then, in Arkansas’s most recent game against Ole Miss, Wade once again found himself in double-digit scoring while stuffing other parts of the stat sheet. He poured in 12 points, five rebounds, four assists, and a block while shooting a perfect 5-5 from the field, including 2-2 from behind the arc.

Wade has quickly become the “glue-guy” that does whatever the Razorbacks need during a given game to help secure the victory. Is the defense shutting down Notae and Williams? Wade can help you score. Did the opposing coach switch to a zone? Wade can distribute the ball and knock down a high-post jumper. Is an opposing forward giving us fits? Wade’s defensive versatility can likely slow him down enough for our offense to catch up.

Razorback Road Ahead

Arkansas’s next game is a home matchup against West Virginia in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. This will be the first of two Quad 2 opportunities remaining on the Razorbacks’ schedule along with a home game against Mississippi State the following Saturday. If the Hogs can represent the SEC well against West Virginia, they have a real chance to stretch their winning streak to eight consecutive games before top-ranked Auburn comes to town in a couple of weeks.

This starts a string of seven Quad 1 opportunities in Arkansas’s last eight games, a road game at Missouri being the only break in the daunting home stretch. Arkansas is currently 1-3 against Quad 1 opponents, their only win coming on the road against LSU. The Hogs will end their season on the following stretch of Quad 1 games (Team Name | NET Rank):

vs Tennessee | 12th

@ Florida | 45th

vs Kentucky | 9th

vs LSU | 10th

@ Tennessee | 12th

Losing their first three SEC games of the season could potentially derail the Razorbacks’ tournament hopes unless they find a way to add a couple of Q1 wins to their resume down the stretch. Regardless, the NCAA Tournament will likely be in play for Arkansas until the very end despite the grueling home stretch in their schedule.

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