Hogs must improve at the rim to keep pace in SEC race

Arkansas freshman Moses Moody / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Sometimes it takes a loss for coaching points to come clearly into focus for players. Hopefully that will happen for the Arkansas Razorbacks after a decisive 81-68 loss to No. 13 Missouri last Saturday.

Coach Eric Musselman had mentioned in Zoom interview sessions that his Razorbacks were too careless with their concentration on shots around the basket in the weeks prior to last Saturday’s blowout by the Tigers.

The head Hog accentuated the same point with even greater emphasis on Monday’s Zoom interview session about 25 minutes before he put his team through the paces for the first time after Arkansas’ first loss of the season.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Tennessee
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 6
Where: Knoxville
Current Record: 9-1

Next four games

Jan. 9 – Georgia (2:30 p.m. SEC Network)
Jan. 13 – at LSU (8 p.m. ESPN2/U)
Jan. 16 – at Alabama (2:30 p.m. SEC Network)
Jan. 20 – Auburn (8 p.m. SEC Network)

If Muss said it to the media, no doubt, he said it loud and clear to his Razorbacks in practice, meetings, text messages, and other conversations prior to the Missouri game.

But when a team is getting slaps on the back for being undefeated, sometimes coaching points are missed, taken for granted, or go though one ear and out the other.

Either way, the Razorbacks shot an epically bad 26.8 percent from the field — which included 25 percent behind the 3-point line — in their loss to Missouri. I honestly can’t recall a worse shooting performance for a game by Arkansas.

That shooting percentage made the friendly environs of Bud Walton Arena as chilly as the North Pole.

Hog fans have to hope that shooting performance was an aberration, something that’s not going to happen again this season, because I dare say there’s not an opponent in the SEC that the Razorbacks or any other team can beat while missing basically three of every four shots taken.

Musselman pointed to a team-wide lapse in shot selection, settling for a 3-pointer instead of making the extra pass, the degree of difficulty of some shots attempted, and the attempt to score when crowded in near impossible circumstances as difficulties the Razorbacks created for themselves beyond an already sturdy and experienced Missouri defensive effort.

In a real sense, the Razorbacks made it hard on themselves in the way they attempted to execute offensively, and they couldn’t find their way out of that mode for the entire game.

It didn’t help that the Hogs’ rebounding efforts went right out the window with some of the poor shots they flung into the ether.

The Tigers punished the Hogs on the glass, outrebouding Arkansas, 51-36.

A lot of that had to do with the loss of Arkansas’ enforcer Justin Smith. The 6-7, 230-pound graduate transfer, who played his first three years at Indiana, not only missed the Missouri game but could be out up to six weeks with a lower leg injury that required surgery.

Sounds like Smith has a high ankle sprain in which sometimes a screw can be surgically implanted to promote healing, but that’s just a guess.

Smith was a force on the boards averaging 7.1 rebounds. His presence on the glass helped all other Hogs even 7-3 Connor Vanover, who is averaging 7.3 rebounds a game. Smith’s blocking out created easier rebounding opportunities for Arkansas’ guards, who are now going to have to go to the glass hard instead of leaking out for fast-break opportunities.

With Smith relegated to cheering from the bench, it was alarming how young and spindly the Hogs became against the mature and tough Tigers.

With just a minute and a half of playing time, 6-9 grad transfer Vance Jackson Jr. offered little more than moral support to Arkansas’ effort.

When asked about Jackson’s lack of playing time, Musselman suggested there were only so many minutes in a game for so many Hogs to play before saying that while Jackson’s 3-point accuracy is appreciated, he needs to provide more effort on the glass and better defensive play for his minutes to increase.

With Smith out, the Razorbacks not only need for Jackson to get the message but also for such stalwarts as Desi Sills, JD Notae, and Vanover to take advantage of their teammates by not playing as much one-on-one basketball. Moving the ball to the open man creates less dramatic, but easier shots, more points, and ultimately a greater chance at victory.

There are no easy nights in SEC play, but the Hogs face a truly difficult stretch in their four upcoming games with three road trips and only one home game.

The Razorbacks are at No. 8 Tennessee (7-1 1-1 SEC) at 6 p.m. Wednesday for a tilt on ESPN2 before hosting Georgia (7-1, 0-1) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on the SEC Network.

Next week, the Hogs face a two-game road swing at LSU (6-2, 1-1) on Jan. 13 and at Alabama (7-3, 2-0) on Jan. 16.

Certainly the reduced fan capacity at SEC arenas that Covid-19 protocols are producing takes some of the bite out of road trips this season, but it also wipes out the walloping home-crowd advantage that Arkansas has enjoyed at Walton Arena since it opened for the 1993-94 season.

The Razorbacks need to earn at least a split over the next four games to stay on pace for bid to the NCAA Tournament. Anything less puts them behind the eight ball. Anything better is gravy.