LITTLE ROCK – The 8-seed Arkansas Razorbacks will be looking to make program history when they face 4-seed UConn Thursday in Las Vegas in one of two NCAA Tournament West Region Sweet 16 matchups. A victory would send the Hoop Hogs to an unprecedented third consecutive Elite Eight berth.
Arkansas (22-13) and UConn (28-7) are set to tip off around 6:15 p.m. CT on Thursday in a game that will be nationally televised by CBS.
By getting this far in the Dance, the hogs have made amends for a regular-season and SEC Tournament that came nowhere near meeting preseason expectations for a team that entered 2022-23 with a national top 10 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
With the added context that the program enjoyed back-to-back Elite Eight runs in the two previous campaigns, hope and expectations are renewed for a third Elite Eight appearance in ’22-23, and perhaps beyond for a roster that, despite injuries, remains the biggest, longest, most athletic, and most talented to date under fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman.
For more on the head-to-head history of the two schools, how both arrived to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, common opponents, and a drill-down scouting report on the Huskies, click here for my Hogville preview, because in this space we’re going to go deeper to look at five keys for the Razorbacks to survive-and-advance.
1. Carry the fight!
In its two previous games, the Hogs were most often the aggressor by attacking the paint, glass, rim, and 50/50 ball in wins over 1-seed Kansas (72-71 in the Round of 32) and 9-seed Illinois (73-63 in the first round).
There’s no reasonable way to look at the following — Arkansas’ collective dominance a) on the glass (79-63, including 26-10 on the offensive boards for a combined 21-7 advantage in second-chance-points); b) in the turnover battle (29-22 leading to a 32-20 edge in points-off-turnovers); and c) grinding to get downhill for paint and rim finishes or free throws (42 two-point field goals on 95 two-point attempts, a plus-4 edge in total free throws attempted but a plus-8 in total free throws made) — and conclude that Arkansas was anything but the tougher, more determined team in both matchups.
By limiting its own three-point-shooting volume, only 11 attempts against Illinois, and only 2 attempts in the final 12-plus minutes against Kansas, during which the Razorbacks outscored the Jayhawks 31-20 to close the game, the Hogs looked more like close-range brawlers than on-their-heels counterpunchers.
UConn presents different challenges matchup and personnel-wise than Kansas and Illinois, but from this vantage point the Hogs appear to be more athletic, quicker, and faster once again. And regardless of the matchups, Arkansas must continue to play to its strengths on offense, which is getting downhill.
The Huskies are an elite offensive and rebounding team, and like the Hogs, they’re top-20 in defensive efficiency, all making it even more imperative that Arkansas continue to punch first and hardest with the relentless attacks on the paint, rim, glass, and 50/50 balls.
2. Devo and RC4 must maintain focus, execution, and production.
Junior guards Davonte “Devo” Davis (20.5 points per game) and Ricky Council IV (19.5 points) were the offensive catalysts and leading scorers in both first-weekend games, and though others are capable, this combination has been the best at working their way to the rim for finishes and/or drawing fouls, and both have been elite as backcourt rebounders.
Davis has consistently been productive on the glass throughout the season, while Council has really stepped up this part of his game by averaging 8.0 boards through two tournament games.
As a pleasant reminder of what that duo accomplished against Kansas, Davis had 21 of his game-high 25 points in the second half and he also ripped down 8 boards. Council finished with 21 points, including 10-of-11 free throw shooting) as he scored 11 of the Hogs’ final 13 points.
Davis, Arkansas’ postseason veteran who’s raised his play this time in March in previous seasons, too — has been locked in at both ends as he continues to be an effective menace on defense, while Council has shown improvement in this tournament on that side of the ball.
It’s critical both remain on a similar path moving forward, especially given uncertainty regarding the health/physical status of talented freshmen Anthony Black and Nick Smith, Jr. If either or both projected 2023 NBA Draft lottery picks raises their play to levels resembling some of their best work in the regular season, in concert with Davis and Council playing at high levels, it will spell significant problems for UConn.
Led by perimeter sharpshooters Jordan Hawkins, Tristen Newton and Alex Karaban, plus versatile wing Andre Jackson, Jr., the Huskies have an edge in shooting skill, but with more quickness and athleticism plus bully-ball capabilities, the Hogs’ backcourt has its advantages.
3. Free throw efficiency and end-of-game execution.
As referenced above, Arkansas had a modest edge in combined FTAs and its advantage was more pronounced in FTs made, but when contrasting the Hogs pre-tournament at the free throw line with the Hogs during the tournament, they’ve improved by nearly 10 percentage points, 69.0% jumping to 43-of-55 for 78.2%. That efficiency gets even better late in tournament games, a combined 16-of-18 in the closing minutes (88.9%).
Council was a HUGE part of that free-throw revival, making 21-of-23 collectively in the two games (91.3%), which included him making a combined 13-of-14 in the closing minutes of those games (92.9%).
That kind of foul line volume and efficiency, especially late in games, is almost a staple of successful tournament teams, so it’s been a surprising and welcome development for a Razorbacks squad that was a poor free throw shooting bunch too often in their first 33 games.
Part of that success late in games cashing in at the free throw line means getting there in the first place, or getting crunch-time field goals, so end-of-game strategy and execution often boils down to having the chops to play to your strengths and attack your opponent as opposed to playing the clock.
The hogs had mixed results in that regard against Illinois and Kansas, with the Razorbacks struggling while playing the clock with stall-ball against the Illini before going early in shot clocks with determination to get to the rim in the late stages against Kansas. We prefer the latter against UConn and any other matchup if Arkansas survives and advances deeper into the dance.
Unlike Arkansas teams in the previous two years, these Hogs do not have shooters proficient at scoring behind the arc or in the mid-range, and when you run clock down sometimes those are the only shots left, so it benefits this team to attack and not passively move the ball around the perimeter trying to burn clock.
4. More frontline X-factor contributions.
Jordan Walsh and Kamani Johnson have been as active and effective as any other Hog while being the best among the team’s frontliners in the tournament and their contributions have translated in complementary ways as X-factors at both ends of the floor. More of that, please.
Walsh’s stellar defensive play carries with it a high-volume of fouling, but his ability to get deflections, force turnovers, and wall-off drives using his length and purposeful aggressiveness has been invaluable.
He hounded and frustrated Kansas’ first team All American and Big 12 Player of the Year Jalen Wilson, especially late in the game and did the same against the Illini’s versatile forward Coleman Hawkins.
Walsh scored 10 points against Kansas and his three-pointer capped an 11-0 Arkansas run that put the Hogs ahead, 52-51, with under 9 minutes to play. Scoring around the basket and getting to the free throw line have also been part of Walsh’s offensive work.
Johnson attacking the glass, especially on offense — 15 combined rebounds in a collective 31 minutes against Illinois and Kansas — with timely and clutch putbacks have energized this Arkansas team while infusing a physical toughness.
He carves out space in the paint, and even with two, three, sometimes four defenders crashing the glass and hanging on him he finds ways to win those physical, scrappy hustle plays for offensive rebounds.
Senior big man Makhi Mitchell has been solid and reliable, but foul prone and will be counted on more than ever as he’ll assuredly be tasked with alternately defending two-time All Big East big men Adama Sanogo (6-9 junior forward) and Donovan Clingan (7-2 freshman).
Arkansas senior 6’10 center Makhel Mitchell could be called on to play more of a role than he has to this point in the tournament and senior forward Jalen Graham offers offensive firepower against slower frontline matchups so he might get a look, too.
5. Matching up with two-way elite UConn.
Arkansas has faced only one other opponent all season long that ranked in the top 20 in both of KenPom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, and that was Alabama. The Hogs were close late but lost both games in their SEC home-and-away series against the Tide (No. 2 overall in KenPom, including No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 18 in adjusted offensive efficiency).
Meanwhile, UConn (No. 4 overall in KenPom, including No. 3 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 14 in adjusted defensive efficiency) defeated Alabama by 15 points, 82-67, at a neutral site in November.
Matchups make games and there are plenty that would seem to favor UConn. The Huskies are far better than the Hogs in three-point shooting volume and efficiency, same goes for offensive rebounding, facilitating, and free throw efficiency when looking at the full body of work.
UConn has size and savvy on the frontline, shooting skill and depth in the backcourt and eventually those factors and more help this team shore things up at both ends to blow close games open in the second half, while winning by an average margin of nearly 14 points through 35 games.
What can Arkansas take away?
The Hogs (No. 18 overall in Kenpom, including No. 14 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 50 in offensive efficiency) are top 5 in D1 in limiting teams to 5.1 made triples per game (UConn averages 9.1 makes per outing at an efficiency 36.4%), which means if Arkansas can hold the Huskies down in volume and/or efficiency while simultaneously winning the turnover battle (the Hogs are 30th in D1 with 8.4 steals per game) and converting miscues into scores, all of a sudden the hogs can turn the game into a rock fight inside the arc and on the glass, where they’ve been up to the challenges so far.
Yes, UConn’s bigs can and will do damage on the offensive glass and they’re efficient scoring in the paint, but the Hogs should be able to penetrate and slash on their offensive end for close-range looks while competing for their share of offensive boards and putbacks, all the while challenging those Huskies bigs and hanging some fouls on them.
After winning on the glass in a big way in their previous two tournament games, the Razorbacks’ goal here is to at minimum remain competitive in rebounds at both ends as well as staying close in second chance-points.
Both teams are top-10 rim-protectors in D1, but UConn is a much better passing team which could get the Hogs’ back-line of defense out of position trying to chase ball movement.
Being quick, aggressive, and smartly physical to challenge pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, simultaneous on- and off-ball screens, and low-post sets will be critical to Arkansas making UConn uncomfortable on offense. Help rotations, recovery, and closeouts must be on time and in the right spots.
All of it’s a heavy lift to be certain, which is why the Hogs must be aggressive on offense and disruptive on defense while outworking the Huskies in hustle plays.