By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks’ five-game SEC winning streak came to an abrupt halt at home on Saturday with a loss to league foe Mississippi State, and now the Hoop Hogs find themselves looking to bounce back on the road in their home-and-away rematch against Texas A&M.

The Hogs have won their last two road games — against Kentucky and South Carolina — following an 81-70 home win over the Aggies on Jan. 31, but a 70-64 home loss against MSU on Saturday has the team searching once again for the winning formula.

Arkansas (17-8, 6-6 is tied for 7th place in SEC, NCAA NET No. 23) is 2-5 on the road as part of a 6-6 mark in all games played away from its home at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The Hogs are 2-1 in February games played so far in 2022-23 as part of a 15-2 record in February games going back to the ’20-21 season.

Texas A&M (18-7, 10-2 for 2nd place in SEC, NCAA NET No. 34) has won three consecutive games since that 11-point road loss to Arkansas on the last day of January.

The Hogs and Aggies — both hovering dangerously close to NCAA Tournament Bubble projections (UA as a 9-seed and A&M as a 10-seed) — will square off at 8 p.m. CT on Wednesday (ESPN2) in College Station, Texas.

Against Mississippi State, Arkansas welcomed back freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr. in a matchup that the Hogs’ had letdowns on both ends of the floor following their most complete game in an 88-73 road win over Kentucky in its previous tilt on Tuesday, Feb. 7.

The Razorbacks had ongoing defensive assignment busts (including several on inbounds plays) as the ‘Dogs appeared to be the aggressors while shooting 27-of-57 from the field (47.4%), including 6-of-10 (60%), and 10-of-16 at the free throw line (62.5%). Defensively, MSU held the Hogs to 21-of-48 shooting from the field (43.8%), including 4-of-18 from 3 (22.2%), and 18-of-26 at the foul line (69.2%).

MSU won points-in-the-paint (36-28), turnovers (13-12), points-off-turnovers (16-9), rebounding (33-31, including 10-8 on the offensive glass), second-chance-points (11-8), and bench scoring (16-9). The Hogs won fastbreak scoring (18-24).

The Bulldogs led by 8 points at halftime and by as many as 16 points early in the second half before the Hogs mounted a comeback to pull within 60-57 with just over a minute to play. But in the final 1:13, MSU made 2-of-3 field goals and 6-of-6 free throws to hold off the Arkansas charge.

Freshman guard Anthony Black, who has put together an all-league body of work with six regular season games remaining, was the lone bright spot on offense as he tallied a game-high 23 points (8-of-13 field goals, including 2-of-5 from 3, and 5-of-6 free throws), 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 1 block.

Junior guards and double-figure scorers Ricky Council IV and Davonte “Devo” Davis combined to shoot only 3-of-17 from the field. Council did make 11-of-13 free throws to finish with 13 points, and each pulled down 6 rebounds.

Smith played less than a handful of minutes in the first half before playing the majority of the second half on his way to 5 points (2-of-7 field goals, including 1-of-4 from 3), 1 rebound, and 1 assist in 17 minutes with a boxscore plus-3. While Council and Davis struggled to create space to get clean looks on shots or get to preferred driving angles against MSU’s national top 5-rated defense, Smith used his quickness, skill, and savvy to generate open shots for himself. He also played well overall defensively and moved the ball smartly in both transition and halfcourt sets.

Arkansas is 106-59 all-time against Texas A&M and has won 2 of the last 3 meetings between the two schools, although the Razorbacks’ last win in College Station was in January 2019 during the ’18-19 campaign.

After playing at TA&M on Wednesday, Arkansas returns home to host Florida at BWA on Saturday (1 p.m. CT, Saturday, ESPN2).

Muss musings

On the many versions of the ’22-23 Hog squad: “Well, I think that obviously with Nick coming back, you know he played 17 minutes, which is 17 more minutes than obviously when he wasn’t in uniform. This is kind of like, it’s almost like our sixth team that we’ve built with when you look at you know the first team we had Nick and TB through that Texas exhibition game in the summer. Then there was that team with no Nick through Maui. Then the team with Nick and TB against San Jose State for the one game we had the roster together, just the one game. Then a fourth team with no-TB and Nick. Then a fifth team with no TB and no Nick. And a sixth team now with Nick. So how minutes, roles, how that gets defined is going to be based on how guys are playing and how the team is playing. We knew that any time a player comes back there’s an adjustment for not just the player that’s been sitting out but for the other guys as well. So you know, I mean, not a lot of teams are making that adjustment this late in the year and obviously we are. So hopefully we’ll play better than we did against Mississippi State.”

On the continued growth of Arkansas star freshman guard Anthony Black: “I think he keeps getting better on both sides of the ball. Obviously we need him to score certain nights. There’s other nights we need him to distribute the ball. He’s had to try to break presses, both man-to-man presses and zone presses. He’s made timely three-point shots for us, so I think Anthony’s done an incredible job. He does a great job in the training room with what we call pre-hab. He’s in there always with our trainer. You need that when you play a lot of minutes. You need to get in the training room and try to take care of your body as much as possible.”

On conversations with players (Devo Davis as the latest example) following an off game: “I think as a coach, you always want to try to talk to your players after games, both individually and collectively as a group. So when we talk about film today, we’ll go through different things as a group and certainly it’s important for me to talk with guys individually, whether it be pre-practice, post-practice, discuss matchups, discuss prior games, whatever it may be. But Devo, he’s been around long enough and he’s had such an impact on us, both sides of the basketball this year, so I’m not really overly concerned with him bouncing back.”

Recapping Arkansas-v-Texas A&M 1.0

Arkansas shot well, defended the rim despite getting crushed on the offensive glass, and used a late run to expand a 4-point lead to an 11-point win, 81-70, on Jan. 31 at BWA in Fayetteville.

Davis and Council each scored 19 points, and on his birthday senior center Makhel Mitchell started and came within reasonable range of registering a triple-double — 9 points, 13 rebounds, 7 blocks, and 1 steal in 32 minutes — as the Hoop Hogs limited the Aggies to 2-of-14 field goal shooting in the final 3:28 while expanding a four-point lead with a 13-6 run to close things out for the final 11-point winning margin.

Arkansas’ block party — 13 swats in all — helped offset significant turnover struggles (17 compared to A&M’s 8], and the Hogs dominated transition scoring (21-10) and bench scoring (17-0) while enjoying a rare second half of shooting more free throws than their opponent (10-of-17 for 58.8% compared to A&M’s 7-of-12 for 58.3%). Arkansas finished the game 19-of-28 on free throws (67.9%) while A&M shot 14-of-24 (58.3%).

The Razorbacks shot 28-of-56 for 50% from the field on 16 assists while simultaneously holding their opponent to below 35% shooting from the field (the Aggies were 26-of-76 for 34.2%). Arkansas also won the three-point shooting battle — 6-of-18 for 33.3%  compared to A&M’s 4-of-12 for 33.3%.

Arkansas and A&M battled to a draw in points-in-the-paint (38-all), and though the Aggies were plus-11 in offensive rebounds (24-13) and got up 20 more field goal attempts (76 compared to UA’s 56) they were only plus-4 in second-chance-points (19-15). A&M used the aforementioned plus-9 advantage in turnovers (17-8) for a plus-8 edge in points-off-turnovers (16-8).

A&M’s starting five provided all of the team’s scoring with three players in double-figures as junior big man Henry Coleman III led the way with 18 points and 15 rebounds. Guards Wade Taylor IV (18 points) and Tyrece Radford (17 points) had matching 6-of-19 field goal shooting nights, and the Aggies fell well below their free throw shooting efficiency on the season (74.5% coming in, only 58.3% against the Hogs).

“You never want someone to win the possession game, ever, let alone win the possession game by 20,” Musselman said. “We made some conscious efforts in the last game that made us susceptible to offensive rebounds, and on the flip side it might have gotten the ball out of certain players’ hands for them. It might have sped the game up slightly a little bit more. We’ll obviously need to do a better job, a significantly better job, defensively in blocking out.

“Like I said, Coach (Buzz) Williams is a great coach. He’s going to make adjustments. There’s zero doubt in my mind he will tweak things and make adjustments, and we certainly cannot go into this game with the exact same game plan either … There were some holes of things we gave up in Game 1 even though we did win the game and led for most of the game. We have to do better in a lot of areas with this being a road game.”

Texas A&M ranks No. 33 in Division 1 according to ratings (No. 19 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and No. 69 in adjusted defensive efficiency). The Aggies rank No. 1 in Division 1 in free throws made per game (19.0), No. 2 in free throws attempted (25.5), and 65th in free throw shooting percentage (74.6%).

Hoop Hogs national and SEC honors

Arkansas junior wing Ricky Council IV was one of 50 players named to the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Oscar Robertson Trophy mid-season watch list that was released on Jan. 19. The honor is awarded in the postseason to recognize the national player of the year in college basketball.

Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., was named the USBWA National Freshman of the Week, the SEC Freshman of the Week, and Dick Vitale’s National Diaper Dandy in early December after leading the then-No. 9 Hoop Hogs in combined scoring (21.5 points per game) to go with 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 steal in the team’s wins over UNC-Greensboro (Dec. 6) and Oklahoma (Dec. 10).

The previous week, Council was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 22.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.0 steals while shooting 71% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 100% at the free throw line to pace the Hoop Hogs in wins over Troy (Nov. 28) and San Jose State (Dec. 3).

The week before that, Arkansas freshman guard Anthony Black was named SEC Co-Freshman of the Week after averaging 22.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.7 steals while shooting 55% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 86% at the free throw line in the Hoop Hogs’ 2-1 run / 3rd-place finish in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii (Nov. 21-23). Black led all scorers in the event and was named to the all tournament team.

How Razorbacks stack up in polls, NCAA NET, analytics, and bracketology

Arkansas has been out of both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll since Jan. 23, which at the time marked the first time this season that the Hogs were unranked.

As of Tuesday, Feb. 14, the Razorbacks ranked No. 23 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 2-5 record in Quad-1 games — a road win over Kentucky, a neutral-site win over San Diego State, a neutral-site loss against Creighton, a road loss against Auburn, a home loss against Alabama, a road loss against Baylor, and a road loss against Missouri; b) a 4-2 record in Q2 games — a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home win over Bradley, a home win over Missouri, a home win over Texas A&M, a home loss against Mississippi State, and a road loss against Vanderbilt; and c) 11-1 record in Q3 and Q4 games (road loss against LSU currently counts as a Q3 defeat). The Hoop Hogs are 3rd among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Alabama an No. 3 Tennessee. The upcoming road game against NET No. 34 Texas A&M on Wednesday will count as a Q1 result.

Looking at three other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 18 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 25 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 22 according to ratings (includes No. 14 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 57 in adjusted offensive efficiency).

Arkansas was projected as an No. 9 seed on Tuesday, Feb. 14, in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field — an improvement from a projected 11-seed (fourth in the pecking order of four teams to receive the last four byes and not playing in the First Four play-in games) as of Lunardi’s projections a week ago (Tuesday, Feb. 8].