Balanced. Consistent. Steady.
A few words to sum up the first eight games of the Men’s Basketball campaign thus far.
Some stats to provide context:
- 2019-’20 provided three players who averaged between 8 and 20 points/game, (Joe 16.9, Whitt 14.0, Sills 10.6)
- 2020-’21 has provided six players averaging between those same barriers, (Moody 16.9, Notae 14.3, Sills 13.0, Smith 12.5, Tate 9.9, Vanover 8.6)
Give me this team any day of the week over the one from last year. Imagine having to scout and game-plan against a team with so many different scoring options. Bottom line, Arkansas is a really tough team to guard. The Hogs rank 6th in the country (out of 347 eligible teams) in offensive efficiency at 1.19 points/possession. They also rank 3rd in average scoring margin at 28.4. These numbers are skewed by the Mississippi Valley State game with the Hogs beating the Delta Devils by 80 in a 142-point explosion by the offense. Taking that game out, the Razorbacks still average 82.6 PPG, which would be good for 2nd in the SEC behind LSU (88.5).
Defensively, Coach Musselman has the best rim protecting team since 7-footer Steven Hill was in Fayetteville. Arkansas leads the Power 5 in blocks per game with 6.4. A good chunk of those can be credited to Connor Vanover, as he has 2.5 blocks/game. Even when the California transfer isn’t swatting shots, he is able to alter many others. The 38.2% opponent FG% is good for 11th in the country. Another substantial difference from last season is the rebounding. Remember some of the abysmal performances we had on the boards? The Importer (aka Coach Muss, shoutout Jon Rothstein) changed that notion in a heartbeat. Arkansas currently leads the country with 46.6 rebounds/game. Last season? 31.6. Jeepers.
All of these stats are slightly inflated with a soft slate early on, and deservingly so. Our schedule ranks 170th in the country according to Team Rankings, which isn’t as bad as you may think. Assistant Coach and schedule producer Anthony Ruta said the goal for the schedule was to play teams who would finish in the top three in their respective conference and teams who border the Natural State. While MVSU will likely finish last in their conference (and probably any other conference), a good chunk of teams the Hogs have faced will be battling for an automatic bid in the Big Dance come March.
Before we get into the predictions, I want to talk about a few players who have stood out. Moses. Moody. The Little Rock native and four-star leads Arkansas in minutes/game (29.4) and points/game (16.9). And for good measure, he is also averaging 5.6 rebounds/game. Moody looks so poised on the floor and makes everything look easy. Let’s enjoy him for the 20ish games he has remaining in a Hog uniform before he gets selected in the 2021 NBA Draft.
With so many talented players on the roster, Coach Musselman admitted there just won’t be enough minutes to make everyone happy. KK Robinson is one of those guys who would be averaging 20-25 minutes on most teams in the SEC. Instead, he is averaging just a hair over 10 minutes/game. He shoots the three ball well (41.7%), leads the team with just north of a 2:1 AST:TO ratio, and is knocking down 75% of his free throws. The four-star from Oak Hill is deserving of more minutes.
Desi Sills is still a dawg. Oh yeah, he is still tougher than a well-done steak at Western Sizzlin’, shoutout Pinto. Leading the team in steals/game at 1.9, he is the energy Arkansas needs as they start SEC play on the road tonight in Auburn, AL. Even though he is 3rd on the team in points/game (13.0), the kid from Jonesboro is the main character of the Razorbacks movie.
Let’s do some predictions, shall we?
@ Auburn 12/30 LOSS (0-1)
Even though no fans will be present in Auburn Arena, the COVID-19 guidelines for visiting teams can be a bit of a twist. Having to adjust to a different arena/hotel environment with all of the funky guidelines has been part of the logistical nightmare all teams are facing. Seating charts on planes and busses is a new challenge Coach Musselman and the staff has had to work on. With this being the first true test AND going out on the road for the first time, Bruce Pearl and the Tigers clip the Hogs on opening night.
Missouri 1/2 LOSS (0-2)
A sellout of 4,000 (ha) Razorback fans will welcome 12th ranked Missouri into Bud Walton for the home opener on Saturday. These Tigers have the most impressive resume thus far, boasting wins over Oregon, Wichita State, and Illinois. Cuonzo Martin returns the most pieces of any team this year and the chemistry has shown with the undefeated Tigers. The lack of a tough non-conference can be attributed to this loss as all of the new faces on the Hogs need a few more tough, gritty games to really get going.
@ Tennessee 1/6 LOSS (0-3)
If Missouri isn’t the best team in the conference, then it is Tennessee. Talking about balance, the Vols boast SEVEN players averaging between 7 and 14 points/game. Thompson-Boling Arena has not been friendly to Arkansas, as it has been almost four years (1/3/2017) since their last victory. With this being Rick Barnes’ best team since the 2018-’19 team that won 15 conference games, I have to give the advantage to Rocky Top.
Georgia 1/9 WIN (1-3)
The Bulldogs managed to win five conference games last season with a future #1 draft pick in Anthony Edwards carrying the load. Without the newest Minnesota T-Wolve, there is no telling how many games they may win this year. I am going to stick to my preseason prediction of Georgia finishing 14th in the league this year. Hello, win column.
@ LSU 1/13 LOSS (1-4)
During quarantine, I watched “The Scheme”. This documentary on HBO highlights college basketballs’ slimiest head coaches (Will Wade, Sean Miller, Rick Pitino) as they try to attract players to their school by forms of money and bribery. After watching, I was quite shocked how Coach Wade still had a job in Baton Rouge. Nonetheless, L$U has a very talented team and they return a lot of pieces from last years squad. They also have one of the best freshmen in the country in Cameron Thomas. This one will go down to the wire, but the Fighting Tigers experience is the difference in this one as Arkansas still searches for their first win away from Fayetteville.
@ Alabama 1/16 WIN (2-4)
Nate Oats is looking to rebound after a mediocre Year 1. The comeback win in Tuscaloosa last season is the confidence boost this team needs to pull out a similar victory. Watch out for Davonte Davis to have a stat-sheet-stuffing type performance and be a key element for the first road victory of 2020-‘21.
Auburn 1/20 WIN (3-4)
After the clunker to open conference play, Musselman and Co. get revenge on the Tigers with a convincing victory to win back-back games for the first time in conference play. Auburn snuck out of Bud Walton with a win last year but they won’t be able to replicate those results in 2021.
@ Vanderbilt 1/23 WIN (4-4)
Good news, the Commodores are trending up. Bad news, they still have a long way to go. NBA legend Jerry Stackhouse won’t let Vanderbilt finish last in the conference like they did last year, but they will still be playing on the first day of the SEC Tournament in Nashville in March. Hogs by a lot.
Ole Miss 1/27 WIN (5-4)
The Razorbacks are hitting their stride as they lock up No. 5. Kermit Davis finished with more losses than wins in his second year in Oxford. The seat isn’t warm, but it’s lukewarm. Hogs run all over the Rebels.
@ Oklahoma State WIN
Taking a break from conference play, the Hogs travel to Stillwater for the annual Big 12/SEC challenge. The storyline of this game will be former Montverde teammates Moses Moody and Cade Cunningham going head to head. The Cowboys have not looked impressive in the early going and I see Arkansas sneaking away with their first road win in this challenge since it began in 2013-’14.
Mississippi State 2/2 WIN (6-4)
After losing their first three, the Hogs have rattled off six wins in seven opportunities. They have also been declared Mississippi state Champs (in football too) after defeating Mississippi Valley State, Ole Miss, and now Mississippi State. Losing double-double machine Reggie Perry is great for the rest of the league and bad for Ben Howland. Could be a rough season in Starkville.
Texas A&M 2/6 WIN (7-4)
Arkansas is allergic to losing. For those counting at home, this is the 6th in a row. The longest conference winning streak since Bobby Portis and the 2014-’15 squad won seven consecutive. Still in early February, the Razorbacks have already amassed the conference wins from the previous season. A big matchup in Rupp Arena looms just around the corner. But for now, Hog nation is buzzing (sorry Buzz) with excitement.
@ Kentucky 2/9 LOSS (7-5)
John Calipari has his toughest task at hand. The Cats have limped to only one victory as they head into conference play. Kentucky is still Kentucky though, and they will figure out how to play together by the time this game rolls around. This could very well be an Arkansas team ranked in the teens and favored in this matchup, but Coach Cal gets the win over Coach Muss to halt the winning streak.
@ Missouri 2/13 LOSS (7-6)
Arkansas has lost its last four games in Mizzou Arena. Something about this Missouri team scares me. They are really tough, play great defense, and have a lot of depth. They want to slow it down and play an ugly game. The Tigers steal another one from the Hogs in Columbia.
Florida 2/16 LOSS (7-7)
The Gators have owned the Razorbacks in hoops, winning the last 11 regular season matchups. The last victory for UA was the electric 2013 matchup. Goosebumps. Not wanting to speculate on Keyontae Johnson’s future status, but I would be surprised if he returns to the court. Without him though, they are still a very talented ballclub led by Scottie Lewis. The Gators will play inspired basketball this season.
@ Texas A&M 2/20 WIN (8-7)
College Station is the best medicine for the Hogs to get back in the win column after back-back-back losses. The Aggies play good defense but it won’t be enough to slow down the onslaught of Moody, Notae, and Sills.
Alabama 2/24 LOSS (8-8)
The Crimson Tide play at a fast pace. They rank 54th in the country in possessions/game. Arkansas has struggled with teams who play at a fast tempo (UCA 14th, Oral Roberts 44th). With no ruckus crowd to contain Alabama, the Hogs struggle defensively and lose their 2nd straight in Bud Walton.
LSU 2/27 WIN (9-8)
Gut-check time for the Razorbacks. This feels like a game Coach Musselman comes up with a outside-of-the-box pep talk to give the guys a jolt of energy they need to finish out the final two games of the regular season. Mission accomplished, as Arkansas gets revenge from the defeat they suffered in Baton Rouge in January.
@ South Carolina 3/2 WIN (10-8) (19-8)
March basketball is finally here. This game will determine who clinches the 5th seed in the SEC. Frank Martin and the Gamecocks stole one in Fayetteville last year, so it’s only fitting for Coach Musselman to steal one back in Columbia.
Arkansas will be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017-’18 and the first time under second year head coach Eric Musselman. They have the pieces to make a sweet 16, something they have not accomplished since 1995-’96. 19 great games are on the horizon to distract us from the global pandemic consuming the country right now. The Hogs are headed in the right direction.
PROJECTED FINAL SEC STANDINGS
- SOUTH CAROLINA
- TEXAS A&M
- OLE MISS
- MISSISSIPPI STATE