By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Trust me, there is no archive in your memory bank that can recall an Arkansas Razorbacks non-conference schedule as watered-down and suspect as the 2020-21 version: No games away from home combined with no high-major opponents.
And with all due respect to the serious scheduling cause-and-effect challenges because of Covid-19, head coach Eric Musselman’s second non-conference slate was deliberately kept simple when it was reconstructed. While other SEC programs maintained respectable non-conference matchups despite the pandemic, Arkansas chose a simpler path. It makes sense on some levels. Brand new team with only one returning player with significant high-major experience as a Hog was, perhaps, the chief reason to dumb down the out-of-conference play.
Despite hitting a few snags in its last three games, Arkansas (8-0) ran through and gobbled up a junk-food diet of low- and mid-major teams to go unbeaten for the SEC’s best non-conference record heading into league play, which begins in a matter of days (Dec. 29 for some teams, and Dec. 30 for others). For Arkansas, the Wednesday, Dec. 30, league opener at Auburn will mark the team’s first road game of the season.
In this holiday version of the Hoop Hogs notebook, we’ll look back at the non-conference portion of the season with takeaways before we look ahead to SEC play.
Even before a road game at neighboring Tulsa was scrapped due to covid issues within the Golden Hurricane’s program, the Hogs had scheduled themselves a stroll down easy street in November and December. An 80-point demolition of the worst-rated team in college basketball on opening day was the first of six consecutive lopsided victories at home before the Hogs were spooked a bit last week in two more home games before putting down Oral Roberts (by 11 points) and Abilene Christian (by 13 points).
Coming into Sunday games, Arkansas’ non-conference slate included three opponents that have yet to defeat an NCAA Division 1 team (Mississippi Valley State, Southern, and Central Arkansas are a combined 0-18), and only two that have winning records (North Texas at 4-3 and Abilene Christian at 7-2). One final non-conference game remains — a Jan. 30 road meeting against Oklahoma State in the annual Big 12 / SEC Challenge — but by then Arkansas will have played half its SEC games (9 total).
The Razorbacks have matched last season’s unbeaten start through eight games (which was the program’s best through as many games since the ’97-98 season), and now they are set to play for their best start to a season through nine games since the ’93-94 eventual national champion Hoop Hogs started out 10-0. Last season, a road loss in overtime at Western Kentucky foiled a chance at a 9-0 start, and this season as stated above Arkansas’ next game is on the road in the league opener against Auburn on Wednesday.
Musselman is 20-1 in non-conference games coaching at Arkansas (that’s 3-0 against high-major opponents and 17-1 against low- and mid-major opponents).
So, what can one take away from the non-conference portion of the schedule and apply it to the cause of projecting ahead? In truth, there may not be much given that the lens through which we looked revealed competition that was nowhere near equitable to the Hogs in collective talent, depth, size, length, and athleticism. Still, we’ll do our best.
* Rebounding. The league’s worst team on the glass a season ago is the best so far, topping all three glass categories in the SEC: total rebounds (46.6), defensive rebounds (32.0), and offensive rebounds (14.6) per game. Nationally, Arkansas is 4th in total rebounds per game (and No. 1 among teams that have played more than three games) and 7th in rebounding margin (plus-13.2 per game). The Hogs have won all but one rebounding battle and have been plus-20-plus on the boards three times. Although the caveat of that success being that it’s relative to the quality of the competition, it stands to reason the Hogs will be a much better rebounding team in league play than they were last season. The trade-off might be turnover margin, which last season’s smaller team thrived in (plus-4.5 per game) while this team has been average at best to this point against lesser competition (plus-2.0 per game).
* Perimeter and interior defense. Arkansas boasted the nation’s best three-point field-goal-percentage defense (27.2%) last season, but this time around the Hogs are 38th nationally (27.5%). If the 0.3% difference seems trivial, remember that last season’s numbers included 23 games played against high-major competition whereas this team has yet to play a single high-major opponent. Coupled with a stout defensive rebounding showing to close out defensive possessions, the Hogs’ have been better defending in the paint as they average a league-best 6.4 blocks per game and have held opponents to 41.3% shooting inside the 3-point arc. It translates to a stingy 36.2% overall field-goal-percentage defense that ranks No. 11 in the nation. Arkansas’ last 3 opponents — Central Arkansas, Oral Roberts, and Abilene Christian — each exposed some holes in the Hogs’ D, specifically the ability to spread the floor and put Arkansas’ lateral-movement-challenged bigs into pick-and-roll situations that opened up good looks from three and driving lanes to the mid-range and to the basket. Again, once the Razorbacks begin facing SEC talent that is comparable in talent, depth, size, length, and athleticism, what seems to be a trend now may fade into a footnote by February. According to kenpom.com’s advanced statistics, Arkansas ranks No. 33 nationally in adjusted defense.
* Perimeter and interior offense. Statistically, the Hogs have been good shooting the ball (46.9% overall from the field is good for 6th in the league; and 34.9% from 3 is good for 5th, and 72.8% from the free throw line is good for 6th). But again, relative to the level of competition, the results fall short of reasonable expectations. Maybe the two most deceptive stats are the Hogs’ 90.0 points per game that is tops in the league and 10th nationally among teams that have played more than two games, and average scoring margin of 28.4 points per game that ranks 4th nationally. Deceptive because it stands to reason this Arkansas team will be locked into many more grind games than not in league play.Collectively because of the elevated frontcourt ball skill, this is the best Hogs’ unit in years in terms of face-up shooting and passing. Despite the size transformation, Arkansas — like it was last season — remains a team that scores most of its interior points via its backcourt. Where last season’s team had three go-to / closer-type offensive threats, this team may have no more than two. There is no true point guard on this Arkansas team, and the collective decision-making from the backcourt has been suspect on some levels in most games. According to kenpom.com’s advanced statistics, Arkansas ranks No. 46 nationally in adjusted offense.
* Rotation and roles. A top 6 rotation of guards Moses Moody, Desi Sills, Jalen Tate, and JD Notaealong with frontliners Connor Vanover and Justin Smith has clearly emerged. That group averages between 20.3 and 29.4 minutes per game, while the foursome of Vance Jackson, Jr., KK Robinson, Jaylin Williams, and Davonte “Devo” Davis has plugged into the 7-through-10 portion of the rotation with Jackson seeing the most court time out of that group at 15.8 minutes per game. Moody is the team’s leading and most efficient scorer and he’s tops on the team in minutes played, while Notae playing off the bench in a 6th man role has been the most explosive scorer and most skilled shot creator. Tate is the team’s primary handler and facilitator, while Smith has been the lone frontcourt player to provide consistent scoring production around the basket. Vanover has been the team’s top defender for multiple reasons — although there have been games when the personnel matchups limit his usage — while Sills has provided leadership and consistent production. Musselman has opted for experience when it comes to playing time and roles, a philosophy that applies in his choice to turn to the 6-9 Jackson for primary frontline support off the bench despite the fact that the senior graduate-transfer has contributed only 2 steals and 2 blocks in 126 minutes played while shooting only 36.6% from the field, including 31% from 3. Williams, Davis, and Robinson are each getting just north of 10 minutes per game (Davis and Williams have each missed two games due to coaching decisions) but all three have shown flashes that suggest if given the opportunity the talent is there to earn more minutes and even unseat more veteran players.
Non-conference season honors
* Team MVP — this is easy, it’s 6-foot-6 freshman guard and Little Rock native Moses Moody, who has started every game and is the only Hog to score in double-figures every game (including 20-plus-points twice). Already a recipient of one SEC Freshman of the Week honor, Moody leads Arkansas in scoring (16.9 points per game, ranks 6th in the SEC and 2nd among league freshmen); his 51.2% field goal shooting leads Arkansas and is 8th best in the SEC (tops among freshmen and second among guards); his 41.7% shooting from 3 ranks 11th in the league (second among freshmen); he’s third on the team in rebounds per game (5.6) and his 19 offensive rebounds are tied for 5th most in the SEC and is the most among league guards; he’s tied for second on the team and is tied for the 9th-most steals in the SEC (10), and his 34-of-43 free throw shooting (79.1%) is good for league ranks of 2nd most makes, 3rd most takes, and 14th in percentage. He’s one of only two players in the Hogs’ top 6 rotation with fewer than 10 turnovers on the season (9), and his 29.4 minutes per game leads the team. Moody is ranked No. 6 nationally in Win Shares (1.9) according to sports-reference.com, and his efficiency and plus/minus of +178 when he’s on the floor is the best on the team, upholding what the eye test seems to reveal: The team plays its best when Moody is in the game. He’s not the picture of the typical shot-creator, but he’s got a Scotty Thurman-esque craft at getting to his comfort spots, finding and running to gaps in the defense, scoring opportunistically as a slasher and in transition, and using his 7-foot-plus wingspan to get off contested shots with touch from the perimeter or finish off putbacks at the rim.
* Defensive MVP — Connor Vanover, the 7-3 sophomore stretch-5 from Little Rock, has been a force in the paint. His 7.6 rebounds leads the team (9th in the SEC) and his 20 total blocks is tops in the SEC, but it’s his length and constant threat to erase shots that has forced teams into altering numerous shots every game, which is a big reason Arkansas ranks as the 11th best team in the nation in overall field-goal-percentage defense. Additionally, Vanover’s defensive value translates into offense as he has shown the ability to quickly gather and outlet defensive rebounds and convert blocks into offensive possessions. Averaging just 20.3 minutes per game, Vanover has four games of 9 or more rebounds (including a career-high 16-rebound game). He also had 6 consecutive multiple-blocked-shot games to begin the season before failiing to block a shot in the Hogs’ last two outings as teams have begun to bring their frontliners away from the paint more often to force Vanover to follow them to the perimeter. Vanover is averaging 8.6 points while shooting 51% from the field, including 11-of-27 from 3 for 40.7%, and a perfect 6-of-6 from the free throw line.
* Offensive MVP — JD Notae, the 6-1 junior combo guard who sat out last season after transferring from Jacksonville, is Arkansas’ second-leading scorer at 14.3 points per game (14th in the SEC) in a 6th man role off the bench playing 21.9 minutes per game. His per-40-minutes scoring is tops on the team (26.1 points per 40 minutes), and though his overall 41.3% field goal shooting (including 30.2% from 3) come across as under-performing and streaky, you have to consider how good he’s been in the few occasions that teams were competitive agains the Hogs: Exhibit A was against North Texas with the game tied 19-all, Notae got an offensive rebound and dished to Moody for a layup-and-1, then Notae scored 7 straight points to cap a 10-0 run in a 1:50 span for a 29-19 Arkansas lead as the Hogs maintained a double-digit advantage from there before ultimately winning by 15 points; Exhibit B was Notae scoring 17 of his game-high 22 points in the second half as Arkansas blew open a 6-point lead midway through the final 20 minutes for a 25-point win over Central Arkansas; Exhibit C was Notae starting the second half and promoting a faster pace and determined drives to the basket as he scored all 15 of his points in the final 20 minutes to help Arkansas erase a 12-point second-half deficit in defeating Oral Roberts by 11 points; and Exhibit D was Notae scoring 17 of his 19 points in the second half, including three made three-pointers in the final 5:12 of the game when Abilene Christian had made a hard-charging comeback to erase a 22-point deficit to trail by only 9 points in a game that eventually resulted in a 13-point Hogs’ win. Notae has averaged 18.6 points off the bench in Arkansas’ last three games, with 49 of his total of 56 points in that stretch coming in the second half. Musselman compared Notae to NBA 6th man legend Vinny “The Microwave” Johnson, a member of the famed Detroit Pistons mini-dynasty “Bad Boys” of the late 1980’s, who earned his nickname because his offense was quick to heat up once he came off the bench. But Notae is more comparable to a more recent NBA 6th man phenom, guard Jamal Crawford who despite not starting was one of the best closers in the league in many years. On a team that came into the season identifying got-to guys and closers as question marks, Notae is the leading candidate for that role moving forward. A big question mark has been decision-making, so when games that are one- or two-possession margins down the final 2-3 minutes, will Notae read situational basketball smartly and correctly in terms of when to create his own shot or get off the ball and defer to others when the defense gives up other options?
* Glue Guy Award. The three elder statesmen who have consistently provided leadership, production, and resolve share in this honor. They are 6-1 junior combo guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro, 6-7 senior grad-transfer combo forward Justin Smith, and 6-6 senior grad-transfer combo guard Jalen Tate. All three understand their roles the best and deliver in ways that keep the wheels moving forward on a team still striving for consistency heading into league play. Sills — the preseason All SEC second-team pick — has played his role beautifully while having his best start to a season in his three years at Arkansas, averaging 13.0 points (3rd on the team) on 52.9% field goal shooting, including 37.9% from 3, and 67.9% free throw shooting to go with 3.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 15 steals (tied for 2nd most in the league) in 26.4 minutes per game. Smith is Arkansas’ first option inside offensively as he averages 12.5 points (4th on the team) and 7.5 rebounds (2nd on the team and 10th in the SEC) per game. His shooting pecentages (44.0% overall from the field, including 15.4% from 3, and 60% from the free throw line) are subpar, but his effort and timely production (including 26 combined rebounds in Arkansas’ last two games that were both competitive) have been right on time. Tate, slowed by an ankle injury of late, is averaging 9.9 points, 4.6 assists (5th in the legaue), 4.6 rebounds, and 1.0 steal while shooting 50.8% from the field, including 38.9% from 3, and 66.7% from the free throw line. Tate is the team’s primary handler and facilitator, and aside from Moody he’s the one guy whose absence is felt most at both ends of the floor when he’s not in the game.
Quick look ahead to SEC play
The Wednesday opener at Auburn (6-2) is fast-approaching, followed by the league home-opener against No. 14 Missouri (6-0) on Saturday. A 2-0 week is the obvious goal and would go along way toward rendering the lack of a competitive non-conference as a moot point; a 1-1 week would be a fantastic start given that it would include EITHER a coveted road win over a league opponent OR a win over a nationally ranked team; and finally an 0-2 week would not be disastrous but it would serve to illuminate the importance of placing some real hurdles along the way in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
For a team that has not played on the road yet — yes, yes, making the point has become a broken record — Arkansas will go on the road 10 times in its last 19 games (includes the Big 12 / SEC Challenge at Oklahoma State) before postseason play that will also be away from the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. Crowd noise won’t be as daunting on the road due to attendance restrictions because of the pandemic, but going on the road is a multi-faceted challenge for visiting teams.
The Hogs have five home-and-away league series — against the aforementioned Tigers of No. 14 Mizzou and Auburn, plus Alabama (currently 5-3), LSU (currently 5-1), and Texas A&M (5-1) — with all but the Aggies currently ranked in the top half of the league in my weekly SEC Power Rankings. Road games at No. 8 Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt and home games against Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State add to the complexity of the challenges and opportunities in building a worthy postseason resume.
With only one make-up date for postponed games there is an added layer of uncertainty regarding what the Hogs need to accomplish the rest of the way to position themselves for NCAA tournament at-large bid consideration. Assuming all 19 remaining regular-season games will be played, the Hogs likely need to go no worse than 11-8 heading into the SEC tournament to have solid footing for an at-large bid. Anything worse than that looks like, at best, bubble city from this vantage point. Against high-major competition as Head Hog, Musselman is 11-11.
Analytics, polls, NCAAT projections
Arkansas entered Sunday ranked No. 17 in Sagarin / USA Today ratings, No. 29 in ESPN’s BPI (Basketball Power Index), and No. 35 in KenPom.com’s rankings. In ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s update on Thursday (Dec. 24, 2020) to his projected 68-team NCAA tournament field, he slotted the Hogs as a 9-seed, a 1-spot drop from the previous week. Last week (Monday, Dec. 21), the Hogs received 54 voter points in the Associated Press’ weekly Top 25 poll voted on by 65 media members that cover college basketball, which was 50 points mroe than the previous week and effectively put the Hogs at No. 29 nationally. The NCAA’s initial NET rankings for ’20-21 have yet to be released but are expected to debut on Jan. 4.