Roughed-up Razorbacks seek to find balance with home game against Auburn

There’s an old saying in poker that goes, if you don’t know who the sucker is at the table, it’s probably you.

The basketball equivalent is if a team leaves a shot constantly open, that team probably wants you to take it.

Lately, the Arkansas Razorbacks (10-4, 2-4 SEC) have been playing the sucker in SEC play.

The Hogs suffered from their inability to determine a good shot from a bad one last week in league play, dropping two particularly ugly road games against the two hottest and probably best teams in the league.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Auburn
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20
Where: Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 10-4

Next four games

Jan. 23 – at Vanderbilt (12 p.m. SEC Network)
Jan. 27 – Ole Miss (7:30 p.m. SEC Network)
Jan. 30 – at Oklahoma State (3 p.m. ESPN2)
Feb. 2 – Mississippi State (8 p.m. SEC Network)

LSU stroked the Razorbacks, 92-76, in Baton Rouge, La. last Wednesday, and Alabama only increased the pain administering the Hogs one of the worst beatings an Arkansas basketball team has suffered in modern history, 90-59, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

As talented and well-coached as the Tigers and the Crimson Tide are, the Razorbacks were just as complicit in the blowouts. The Hogs made it easy on Alabama and LSU.

Arkansas’ shot selection was so poor in those two game that’s it’s almost misnomer to call it selection.

Arkansas wasn’t picky at all, firing up ill-advised shot after shot, which resulted in bundles of transition opportunities for their more than capable opposition.

The Hogs shot 34.2 percent from the field and 25.8 percent from behind the 3-point arc against LSU, and if you can believe, they shot even worse against Alabama at 33.3 percent from the field ad 23.5 percent from 3-point area.

That kind of shooting and shoddy shot selection is going to get a team beat most nights, even if they play outstanding defense. However, like most immature teams, Arkansas’ defense began to suffer the more shots the Hogs missed.

Making matters worse, the Razorbacks were so careless with the basketball early in each of the games that they provided their opponents even more opportunities at easy baskets.

The Razorbacks had double-digit turnovers in the first half of each game — 11 against LSU and 12 against Alabama. Both games were basically over at the half with Arkansas facing nearly insurmountable deficits.

Arkansas finished with 15 turnovers at LSU and 18 at Alabama for a whopping 33 for the week or 16.5 turnover average. Those aren’t winning numbers in anyone’s book.

The Hogs like to play at a fast pace, so there will be some miscues, but good up-tempo still manage to keep their turnovers down to around 10 for an entire game. As noted, the Hogs surpassed that in the first half of each road contest.

Such undisciplined offensive play only exacerbated the Razorbacks’ issues on defense. Transition defense can be difficult for a team that’s not exactly experienced playing with each other. Remember only Desi Sills and Ethan Henderson return from last year’s squad, and only Sills plays regular minutes this year and last.

Transition defense is only made more difficult by the long rebounds created by errant 3-point shots. Turnovers make it impossible against teams looking to push the tempo like LSU and Alabama. The Hogs’ poor shot selection and turnovers made it impossible for them to establish any defensive rhythm or even set up their defense at times.

It’s hard to call Arkansas a young team with three graduate transfers playing regular minutes when healthy, but the Razorbacks aren’t experienced playing together, and their overall immaturity as players has shown up nightly in SEC play on both ends of the floor.

Freshman Moses Moody has proven to be Arkansas’ most consistent offensive player, averaging a team-high 18.5 points. and 6.2 rebounds per game in SEC play. For the season, he’s averaging 17.6 ppg. and 5.9 rpg. However, Moody is only shooting 38 percent from the field in SEC play.

JD Notate and Jalen Tate are also scoring at a bit better clip in SEC play averaging 16.2 and 11.0 ppg respectively compared to 15.1 and 10.9 on the season, but a lot of their points against LSU and Alabama came after the games had been decided.

The rest of the Razorbacks’ numbers are for the most part down in league play from what they were in the pre-conference schedule.

What the Razorbacks are missing is on-the-floor leadership. The return of grad-transfer Justin Smith from a lower leg injury could help with that. He wasn’t 100 percent against Alabama, but he should continue to improve physically game by game.

Tate shows leadership qualities, but he has a tendency to get lackadaisical with the basketball, which isn’t a good trait for a point guard or a leader.

Moody probably is the Hogs’ best player, but from my observation, he’s yet to fully take on a leadership role on the floor with his teammates. It’s hard for a freshmen to lead older players, and some freshmen just aren’t prepared for that role, yet, no matter how talented they are.

Mature teams play solid defense game-in and game-out. Immature teams see their defensive intensity rise and fall along with their offensive performance. That appears to be where the Razorbacks are at six games into their SEC schedule.

Teams only mature by practice and playing together with a purpose. As long as Razorback head coach Eric Musselman and his staff can keep the Hogs’ attention, this team has the chance to improve. It’s going to take a lot of improvement for these players to develop into an NCAA Tournament-caliber team this season, but stranger things have happened.

The way the Razorbacks performed last week may make talking about post-season play seem silly at this juncture, but there are still a lot of opportunities to improve.

The Hogs have 12 more conference games, a date at Oklahoma State on Jan. 30, and at least one game in the SEC Tournament, scheduled for March 10-14 in Nashville.

It all starts at 8 p.m. Wednesday with a home game against Auburn (8-6, 2-4).

Five-star recruit Sharife Cooper played his first game of the season in the Tigers’ 66-59 victory over Kentucky last Saturday. He led Auburn with 28 points. Auburn’s on a two-game winning streak, coming into Walton Arena with their 95-77 victory over Georgia last Wednesday.

So a lot has changed for the Tigers and Hogs since both opened SEC play on Dec. 30. The Hogs won that game, 97-85.

Even though the game is in Bud Walton Arena, the game looks like a toss up to me.

Under Covid-19 restrictions, Walton Arena — no arena — offers the type of home-court advantage home teams have enjoyed in the past.

This game should be a battle, and it’s one the Razorbacks really need to win in an effort to get their season back on track.