LITTLE ROCK — Just 19 days ago, the Arkansas Razorbacks were on the thinnest part of the Bubble with a good NET ranking and a postseason resume that was the picture of extreme contrasts.
At 13-5 and 5-4 in the SEC, and fresh off a 4-point loss at Oklahoma State in the SEC / Big 12 Challenge, the Hogs were projected as a First Four play-in 11-seed in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s 68-team NCAA tournament field projection published on Feb. 2. Arkansas’ NET (No. 33 at the time) and other analytics were good, but the resume revealed an 0-5 record against the NET Top 50 with those losses coming by an average margin of 13.8 points, only one Quad-1 win (against a mediocre-at-best Auburn team that has lived below the NET Top 50 and below .500 throughout SEC play), two Q2 wins, and a gluttonous 10-0 record by a sizebale average-margin of victory in Q3/4 games.
Fast-forward 19 days, and Arkansas has cobbled together 4 consecutive wins (7 when counting league-only games, 3 of which preceded that OSU road loss) that along the way included the Razorbacks’ adding their first two NET Top 50 wins of the season, running their Q1 record to 4-4 and their Q2 record to 3-1, debuting at No. 24 in the most-recent Associated Press Top 25, improving their NET ranking to its current No. 25, and moving up to a projected No. 6 seed in Lunardi’s most-recent Bracketology (updated Friday, Feb. 19).
Currently sitting at 17-5 overall and 9-4 in the SEC for a second-place tie with LSU, Arkansas is 3.5 games behind first-place Alabama with potentially 4 more games to play (including home games next week against both ‘Bama and LSU) before the SEC tournament. In a season that saw the Razorbacks looking really good against the have-nots of college basketball and not good enough against teams that appear headed for NCAAT at-large bids, Arkansas has clearly mapped a new course while authoring its own narrative — at the right time, the best time, of the season — as it is undoubtedly the hottest team in the SEC right now and among the hottest in all of college basketball with the postseason just ahead.
Here are the storylines that have emerged (not necessarily listed in order of importance) …
* To Justin Smith, or to not Justin Smith, that’s never been a question. Because there’s been no mistaking that Smith was/is the interior enforcer for the Hogs, and it’s no suprise that with him in the lineup the Razorbacks are 16-2, but only 1-3 without him. He’s meant so much to this team, a point that has been amplified over the last 8 games as the sturdy, bouncy, resourceful 6-7 transfer from Indiana has blossomed into one of the most difficult matchups in the SEC. His numbers in that stretch — 12.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.3 steals — speak plainly enough to his value, but it’s the eye test during games that speaks loudly as to his worth to the Hogs. A dependable rebounder (6.4 per game is 10th in the league, including 2.9 offensive boards ranking tied for 3rd in the league), always a tough and versatile defender, and a key component to Arkansas’s flow and efficiency on offense, Smith has diversified to become a handful for opponents to deal with as an isolation-game offensive threat.
That was most evident in Arkansas’ most-recent game, a 75-64 home win over Florida on Tuesday, when Smith was constantly fed the ball in the low block with the green-light to back his man down into several finishes in the paint. Generally speaking, team defense and defensive playmaking are better when Smith is in the lineup, the ball movement and sharing, offensive rebounding, second-chance points, points-in-the-paint, turnover efficiency is all better on the offensive end when Smith is in the lineup. He’s both a glue-guy and an emerging go-to guy.
* Collectively, the three available freshmen are now consistently part of the Top 7 rotation. This was ALWAYS going to be the best path for these Hogs to be the best they could be during the 2020-21 season. Opportunities for larger freshmen roles and more freshmen minutes in the blowout-friendly non-conference portion of the schedule were missed — and two of the quartet that ESPN ranked as the 5th-best recruiting class in the nation didn’t get off the bench twice each in the non-conference — and that lack of opportunity and preparation reared its head when Smith went down with an ankle injury during the SEC opener at Auburn as the Hogs struggled to a 2-4 league start with thumpings handed out by Missouri, LSU, and Alabama. Freshmen being ready for primetime — for example, understanding and executing the nuances and details in an Eric Musselman-designed system that demands more than many college systems — can prove to be a work in progress, but a huge part of that calculation is relative to other personnel options on the roster as well as lessons learned from an injury loss a season ago (Isaiah Joe, when there was no depth of talent options to turn to) and the possibility that covid-19 might deplete player availability throughout the season.
Certainly, there is more than one way to prepare and help develop young players, and regardless of the how and why regarding the journey to where they are now, the freshmen responded well once thrust into the fire and the coaching staff deserves its share of credit for the significant youth-movement impact on what is turning into one of the best seasons at Arkansas in the last 20 years.
A day-one starter, shooting guard and Little Rock native Moses Moody is one of the top freshmen in the country, arguably the best in the SEC, and he has consistently been the best player on the team — 16.2 points per game ranks 8th in the SEC, 5.6 rebounds ranks 18th in the SEC, 44% field goal shooting ranks 8th in the SEC, 82.4% free throw shooting ranks 4th in the SEC. Combo guard and Jacksonville native Davonte “Devo” Davis gradually earned the trust of the staff and has been one of the catalysts for the Hogs’ league success going all the way back to the SEC-opening win at Auburn on Dec. 30. Davis moved into the starting lineup 4 games ago, and in Arkansas’ last 8 games he’s averaged 10.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.1 steals in 26.0 minutes per game while shooting 50% from the field and 80% from the free throw line. His 20-point, 7-rebound, 6-assist effort against Georgia back in early January stands as one of the best SEC freshman performances of the season. With Davis, the stats don’t do justice to his energy infusion, presence as a defender while being the team’s best slasher and best 50/50 ball warrior, and his instinctive ability to be a disrupter to the opponent while turning that into something positive for his team. Big man and Fort Smith native Jaylin Williams, described by the staff in the preseason as ready for a 6th-man type of role while pushing for a starting spot, has been as important to Arkansas’s recent success as just about anyone. Since the start of SEC play, the Razorbacks are 5-1 when Williams plays 20 or more minutes, and 4-4 in the other 8 games (includes the loss at Oklahoma State) when he managed to average only 10.1 minutes per game. For proper context, the success when Williams plays 20 or more minutes reveals that stat to NOT be a hollow one. In other words, he’s not getting more minutes because the team is running up blowouts in those wins, rather he’s getting more minutes because he’s critical to winning the games that are not blowouts. In that 5-1 result when he plays at least half the game, 4 of those wins were by 2 points at home over Auburn, 1 point on the road over Kentucky, 5 points in overtime on the road over then-No. 10 Missouri, and 11 points in a close home win over Florida. Williams is one of only two players on the team with 3 games of 10 or more rebounds and his per-40-minutes glass work is 11.4 rebounds. He’s a plus-passer for a big, he leads the team in drawn charges (11), he and Davis are arguably the floor-burn kings on this team in terms of full-body-diving for loose balls, and Williams’ low-post defense was a thing of beauty against one of the best big men in the league, Florida’s Colin Castleton, on Tuesday. In Arkansas’ last 3 games, Williams has averaged 25.0 minutes and 6.3 boards per game while leading the team in rebounding twice.
* Resiliency. For a team that devoured cupcakes in the non-con while being devoured by the SEC’s top-shelf teams in the early going, the Hogs have enjoyed overall success (5-2) when looking at the games that were truly close and competitive down to the end. Two wins over Auburn — by 12 points and by 2 points — were close late before Arkansas won the grind possessions to emerge victorious, two road losses against NET Top 50 teams Tennessee and Oklahoma State literally were decided on final possessions, and the most-recent three wins at Kentucky, at Mizzou, and home against Florida probably best illustrate the resiliency of this team. Let’s look at the captain of Arkansas sticktoitiveness — senior combo guard Jalen Tate — to tell this story. In the 81-80 win at Kentucky, it was Tate who battled for an offensive rebound, drew a foul on his putback attempt in the paint, and calmly sank both free throws that proved to be the game-winners with 4.3 seconds remaining. A game later, the Hogs’ 86-81 overtime win at Missouri, Tate made two huge defensive plays in the final minute of the extra period, blocking a layup attempt off the glass on one possession followed by a deflection on a drive that resulted in a steal. Then against Florida in a game where the Hogs coughed up a 15-point second-half lead while laboring on offense for multiple possessions down the stretch, it was Tate who ended a late lead-changing seesaw with a pull-up jumper at 2:16 for a 3-point Hogs lead that would only grow from there. And by no means was Tate alone in pitching in with late clutch performances as Smith, Moody, Davis, Williams, Connor Vanover, Desi Sills, and JD Notae all helped steer the Hogs to close-call wins. But as the season winds down toward postseason, it’s Tate who joins Smith and Moody to form a formidable trio that has led the team to a 16-2 record when they’re all in the lineup, similar to last season’s big three that saw the Hogs go 16-4 when Mason Jones, a healthy Isaiah Joe, and Jimmy Whitt, Jr., were all on the floor together.
* Rebounding and defense. The SEC’s worst rebounding team a season ago rose to the top of the league on the glass in the ’20-21 non-conference and despite some slippage in a handful of league games the Razorbacks remain the SEC’s best rebounding team. The glass work combined with a defense that has steadily gotten better, stingier, tougher, means the Razorbacks are winning more of the blue collar battles than they are losing, and that translates to winning. The group of Smith, Vanover, Williams, Moody, Tate, and Davis are the backbone of a collective rebounding effort that leads the league at 40.4 boards per game. For a team with a much-discussed lateral mobility shortfall, the recent improvements on defense have been refreshing and timely.
Looking at the Razorbacks’ defensive performances in their previous 5 SEC games: 1) It was Ole Miss’ vaunted zone defense that was the lead-up talking point of the Hogs-v-Rebels matchup on Jan. 27, but Arkansas held Ole Miss to its season-low of 59 points and 6.3% shooting from 3 while finishing plus-8 on the glass in a 15-point home win; 2) against a bigger Mississippi State squad, Arkansas forced an SEC season-high 26 turnovers while holding the Bulldogs to 45 points and 30.6% field goal shooting while finishing plus-11 on the glass in a 16-point home win; 3) on the road against a bigger, longer Kentucky team that traditionally dominates interior and transition play against the Hogs, Arkansas was minus-9 on the glass but only minus-5 in second-chance-points while owning points-in-the-paint (32-20) and finishing plus-8 in points-off-turnovers and plus-4 in fastbreak points on its way to a 1-point win (yes, the Hogs gave up 14-of-26 three-point shooting to the SEC’s worst shooting team from distance, but the gameplan to take away everything else that had doomed the Hogs in this matchup in the past paid off in the end); 4) on the road against then-No. 10 Missouri — a team that manhandled the Hogs in the paint and around the hoop in a 13-point home loss in early January — the Hogs gave up another big three-point shooting night to a subpar three-point shooting team (13-of-32 for the Tigers), and though they were minus-5 on the glass the Hogs were plus-4 in second-chance-points, plus-8 in points-in-the-paint, plus-8 in points-off-turnovers, and plus-6 in made free throws against the best team in the league at manufacturing trips to the free throw line en route to a 5-point win in overtime (once again, the gameplan was to not get punched over and over again in the paint while yielding some open looks from 3, and once again mission accomplished; and 5) against Florida, the Hogs held the Gators to 64 points on 37.7% field goal shooting (including 19.0% from 3) while finishing plus-1 on the glass, plus-2 in points-in-the-paint, plus-6 in points-of-turnovers, and plus-11 in fastbreak points in an 11-point home win.
* Connor Vanover improving and settling into a vital role. Much like the aforementioned freshmen, Vanover factoring into the top 7 rotation was always going to be the best path for this team to be the best it could be in ’20-21. Vanover turned heads in the non-conference with long-distance three-ball splashes and putback dunks mixed in with flashes of rebounding and rim-protection dominance in stretches of games, but after his big 17-point, 5-rebound performance in the win over Auburn in the league opener on Dec. 30 followed by some struggles in losses against Mizzou and Tennessee, Vanover saw his playing time diminish to 21 total minutes over the course of four consecutive games when the Hogs went 2-2. Things began to turn for Vanover when he played 18 minutes in a 21-point road win over Vanderbilt, and what has followed has been his best basketball of the season spanning the last 6 games during which he has averaged 10.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks in 21.5 minutes per contest while shooting 53.1% from the field, including 35% from 3. What separates his recent play compared to some of his best performances earlier in the season is that Vanover has adjusted to SEC size (muscle bulk) and athleticism enough to win his share of battles in the paint while continuing to be a matchup problem for opponents on the perimeter. Whether he’s pushing 30 minutes of playing time like he did in recent wins over the Mississippi schools or seeing the floor for only 12 minutes like he did in the win at Mizzou, Vanover has been productive and effective (both inside and out, and at both ends of the floor) while helping the Hogs to their best basketball play of the season. Part of the equation has been the complementary usage of Williams as a change-of-pace at the 5-spot, taking pressure off Vanover to be more than he is as he offers value in ways that Williams does not.
* Getting over the hump. This is usually an in-game talking point for teams that either do it or don’t, and often a few plays in a handful of games help determine the difference in an NCAAT team and one that stays home after conference tournament action. What the Hogs have done in turning points in games to handle their business more often than not was covered above in th resiliency portion of this article, so what we’re talking about here is getting over bigger humps — specifically Kentucky and Florida in the same season for the first time in 8 campaigns. When then Hogs entered the SEC in ’91-92 under Nolan Richardson’s guidance, they immediately plopped down alongside Kentucky as the standard for excellence in the league spanning most of the rest of the ’90s. But Richardson’s departure coincided with the beginnings of the Billy Donovan era of excellence in Gainseville, and for most of the first 20 years of the 21st century its been Big Blue and the Gators headlining the league’s accomplishments on the larger college basketball stage and landscape. Even in the Razorbacks’ handful of nationally relevant seasons in the last 20 years, they were mostly unsuccessful toppling Kentucky and Florida (certainly rarely in the same season) and they never managed to play into the second weekend of any NCAAT (a.k.a Sweet 16 or better). Is the ’20-21 sweep that ended a 7-year drought against the ‘Cats and an 8-year regular-season drought against the Gators an anomoly fueled by a rare down season in Lexington coupled with a good-but-not-great season for the Gators in which they are managing to carve out an NCAAT resume despite not having preseason league player of the year pick Keyontae Johnson? Maybe, but in year’s past when it appeared Arkansas had an edge against one of both teams they simply could not get over the hump. The fact Arkansas not only got over the hump this season is made sweeter by the fact it’s been part of a 7-game league winning streak that has the program on the cusp of one of its top 2 or 3 finishes this century. Carryover into future season’s remains to be seen, but for now the UK/UF-combo-of-losing hump has been conquered.
* Coaching. Simply put, if the season ended today second-year head coach Eric Musselman should be in the conversation for SEC Coach of the Year, and he may deserve to be there in a couple of weeks when the regular-season comes to an end. Even if Alabama’s Nate Oats wins it, and that would certainly be well earned, Musselman should be in the conversation by virtue of returning only one player with significant league experience and positioning the program among the best in a respected SEC that currently has 6 teams projected to make the Big Dance with none being currently considered on the Bubble. Musselman’s game-planning, in-game adjustments, opposition scouting, ability to re-define his team’s strengths and weaknesses based on what’s needed, and marketing/branding is a packaged combination that puts him in his own category as a coach. After starting 10-15 in league games, Musselman is now 17-15 in SEC competition and he’s 37-17 overall as Head Hog. His ability to drill down in game prep to, for example, design strategies and then get his team to understand them in quick-turnaround fashion, and then get them to execute those strategies to take away the oppositions’ best players or neutralize or eliminate opposition team strengths (just two examples) has become perhaps his greatest contribution as a coach impacting wins and losses. Off the court, his creative marketing/branding of himself, and thus the program in many ways by association, has heightened exposure for the Razorbacks while also often serving as inspiration for his players as he dials up clever button-pushing motivators when he sees they are needed. Non-conference scheduling served a need to create confidence-building wins while at the same time establishing an eventual strong NET rankings foundation, and though perhaps that translated into some early painful head-knocking in SEC play, the journey to where Arkansas is now may have been worth all the pains to get here. Coaches get credit, and they should, for the successes of their teams, and conversely they should be held accountable for the losses and struggles. For Musselman and his team so far in ’20-21, there are more of the former and less of the latter, and with a few more chapters to be written this has a reasonable chance of landing as one of the best seasons, if not the best, at Arkansas in the last 20 years.