A grueling, hard-fought second-round battle resulted in a 53-48 Razorback win over the Aggies of New Mexico State, advancing the Hogs to their second consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance. This is the first time since 1995 and 1996 that Arkansas has made back-to-back appearances in the Sweet Sixteen.
For achieving this elusive goal, the Hogs are rewarded with playing the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Legendary head coach Mark Few has his team playing in the third round NCAA Tournament for the 11th consecutive season – not including the canceled tournament in 2020.
At 28-3 on the season, the Bulldogs boast the No. 1 ranked offense in the nation according to KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AOE), the No. 9 defense by KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (ADE), and the highest scoring average in the country at 87.8 points per game.
Gonzaga also fields one of the more imposing frontcourt duos in NCAA history in 7’0 freshman phenom Chet Holmgren and 6’10 junior Drew Timme. Holmgren projects to be the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Timme is the current WCC Player of the Year while also pacing his team in scoring at 18.2 points per game.
However, not all hope is lost for Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks. They struggled mightily to score against an average defense in New Mexico State, a major concern heading into a matchup with a top 10 defense, but the Hogs also managed to hold the Aggies to under 50 points in their last game, proving once again how stout their defense can be!
Now, Arkansas looks to knock off top-seeded Gonzaga to advance to a second consecutive Elite Eight for the first time since 1994 and 1995.
1) Limit Andrew Nembhard
While the national spotlight has fixated on the dynamic duo in Gonzaga’s frontcourt, it’s an experienced and cerebral guard in their backcourt that truly pulls the team together. Nembhard, a 6’3 senior, is at his best with the ball in his hands.
He shoots better off the dribble, finds open teammates in pick-and-roll situations, and controls the pace of the game from the point guard position.
During wins this season, the former Florida Gator shoots nearly 48% from the field and 41% from long range while averaging 12 points and 6 assists. In losses, however, Nembhard’s percentages drop to 31% and 10% respectively while scoring only 8.3 points and dishing roughly 5.0 assists per game.
The Razorbacks will need to find a way to take Nembhard out of his rhythm and make life difficult for the transfer point guard. Enter Au’Diese Toney.
Toney did an exemplary job of limiting New Mexico State’s top scoring threat, Teddy Allen, in the Razorbacks’ last matchup. Similar to Nembhard, Allen thrived with the ball in his hand. He rarely put up shots without taking a rhythm dribble first, and Toney executed a game plan that didn’t allow Allen to find those rhythm dribbles often. Implementing a similar game plan against the Bulldogs’ point guards could sway the tides in Arkansas’ favor.
2) Stay Physical with Chet Holmgren
Holmgren is one of the most unique players to ever set foot on an NCAA court. Standing at 7’0 with a 7’6 wingspan, he also possesses a unique skill set and IQ on both sides of the ball, making him a threat from every inch of the court.
The starting center averages 14.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, but the most impressive aspects of the seven-footer’s game are his 39% 3-point shooting and 3.7 blocks per game despite only fouling 2.6 times per game.
However, in his last seven outings, Holmgren has seen his impressive long-range shooting drop to a measly 16.7%. The Hogs field a physical brand of defense led by forwards Trey Wade, Stanley Umude, and Au’Diese Toney. If their physicality forces Holmgren into being a spot-up shooter, that’s a major win for Musselman’s team.
The freshman is also blocking more shots than ever in that same seven-game span, however – 4.7 per game. But, he’s also fouling considerably more than usual at roughly 3.7 per game.
Holmgren’s tendency to over-pursue shot-blocking opportunities often leads to fouls or leaving his defensive assignment open on the backside of the defense. Razorback guard JD Notae will have to be aware of the shot-blocking big man when he gets into the paint, either bating him with pump fakes, finishing through contact, or finding his open teammates for open jump shots.
3) Don’t Allow Timme to Force Foul Trouble
Drew Timme, the other half of Gonzaga’s formidable frontcourt, is averaging over 18 points per game, and a large part of those points come from the free-throw line where he averages nearly six attempts per game in his last seven contests.
Fortunately for the Hogs, even if Timme does find his way to the charity stripe, he’s only a 67% shooter on the season (62% in his last seven games). The issue doesn’t come with giving away the free points, but rather in finding a way to win with players like Jaylin Williams or Stanley Umude in early foul trouble.
The easy answer is for Williams to be disciplined defensively and not jump at pump fakes in any direction – something Timme excels at on the low block – but that’s easy said than done.
It’s not implausible to think that we could see Kamani Johnson’s first appearance in this NCAA Tournament, or even Connor Vanover for the first time in 18 games should both big men struggle to contain Timme.
If the Hogs execute their game plan well, it likely won come to that. Several times this season, opposing big men have torched the Razorback for season-highs in points, rebounds, or both. Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, Auburn’s Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith, Florida’s Colin Castleton, and Vermont’s Ryan Davis combined to average 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game while shooting nearly 57% from the field in their games against Arkansas.
They all five share one thing in common, though: their teams lost despite their performance.
The game plan shouldn’t be to stop Drew Timme at all costs but to stay disciplined and stay out of foul trouble while mitigating Gonzaga’s biggest post threat by locking down the perimeter defensively.
4) Stay Home on Shooters
Relating directly to staying disciplined on Drew Timme is staying home on Gonzaga’s elite shooters. As a team, they shot 37% from beyond the arc on over 22 attempts per game. In their last 20 games, Arkansas is holding its opponents to 29% from behind the arc, including holding two of their last four opponents under 25% from 3-point range.
Rasir Bolton, a 6’3 senior, leads the Bulldogs in 3-point percentage, hitting 47% of his 4.3 attempts per game. He, along with other shooters like 6’7 guard Julian Strawther, do a fantastic job of moving without the ball. The combined threat of Holmgren and Timme often allows Bolton and company to find open holes in the defense to let it fly from distance.
Gonzaga is also a very good off-ball cutting team. The Razorbacks’ help-side defenders will have to be laser-focused to defend both the 3-point arc and the back-door cuts while Gonzaga’s dynamic duo attacks the paint.
Yes, this is as simple as it gets. Arkansas has to find a way to score the ball. Their 53 points against New Mexico State was easily their lowest point total of the season, beating out their 58-point performance against Tennessee earlier in the season.
Fortunately for Hog fans, the game following their sub-60 scoring performance against the Volunteers was an 82-point outburst in Gainesville against the Florida Gators. In that game, Arkansas shot 46% from the field, 39% from distance, and made 17 out of 20 (85%) free throw attempts.
That was Florida, though, who ranks 81st. in ADE. Gonzaga ranks 9th. The Gators did possess a 6’11 big man averaging over two blocks per contest, but Castleton doesn’t quite live up to Holmgren’s defensive capabilities.
Arkansas will need scoring output from multiple players if they stand a chance against the Bulldogs – relying on JD Notae for the vast majority of their scoring load won’t be enough. Stanley Umude and Jaylin Williams will both need to find ways to contribute offensively, and the Hogs will likely need an extra boost from a fourth scorer like Devo Davis, Au’Diese Toney, or Chris Lykes.
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