Hoop Hogs win but draw Musselman’s ire

Old Dominion center Leeroy Odiahi (21) dunks over Arkansas defenders Trevon Brazile (2) and El Ellis (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

The No. 14 Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team may or may not end up having the type of season many Hog fans are dreaming about.

Yes, in what is the 30th-anniversary season of Arkansas’ 1994 national championship season, so many want to believe that Eric Musselman’s fifth Razorback squad has the experience and talent to return the Hogs to the Final Four for the first time since 1995’s runner-up finish.

It would be a great story, but based on the way Musselman reacted to the Razorbacks’ 86-77 victory over the Old Dominion Monarchs, that is far from the Head Hogs’ mind at the moment.

Right now, he just wants his Razorbacks to play more physically on the glass and play better defense, particularly on the perimeter.

The Hogs’ performance Monday night was too lackadaisical for Musselman’s liking.

“We have to be more physical rebounding the basketball,” Musselman lamented following the victory. “Way more physical. Defensively, 43%, Obviously we’d like to hold that lower, but the field-goal percentage wasn’t the issue. [It] was the lack of 3-point defense, and the lack of physicality.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: North Carolina-Greensboro
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17
Where: Fayetteville, Ark.

Next 5 games

Nov. 22 – Stanford, Battle 4 Atlantis (ESPNU)
Nov. 23 – Memphis or Michigan, Battle 4 Atlantis (ESPNU)
Nov. 24 – TBD, Battle 4 Atlantis (ESPNU)
Nov. 29 – Duke (ESPN)
Dec. 4 – Furman (SEC+)

“We are going to be playing against teams that are much bigger, much stronger, and much more athletic. We are not rebounding with any physicality, and it’s just not happening other than [Makhi] Mitchell. He’s our one guy who is rebounding with physicality. We were great agains Purdue, but we’ve been really bad physical rebounders the last two games.”

After only playing four minutes in the Razorbacks’ first game as Musselman experimented with his roster that’s heavy with transfers, Mitchell played one of his best as a Razorback in their third to lead Arkansas with a double-double night of 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Tramon Mark picked up 6 rebounds from his forward spot and the ultra-active Devo Davis grabbed five, but overall the Monarchs out-rebounded Arkansas 39-35, and second-chance points kept Old Dominion within striking distance of the Hogs most of the game.

Old Dominion never truly threatened Arkansas, but the Hogs never put them away like a team with Final Four aspirations should have.

Old Dominion came into the game with a mediocre 3-point shooting average, but against the Hogs’ slower-than-usual close-outs, the Monarchs canned 11 of 24 treys for a 45.8% clip, which was five percentage-points higher than their overall field-goal percentage of 43.7% for the game.

Arkansas guard Davonte Davis (4) shoots over Old Dominion forward Dani Pounds (11) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Musselman, on a roll like an in-the-pocket stand-up comedian, continued to batter his squad’s performance with verbal salvos in his postgame press conference.

“For eight years, same drills same everything,” Musselman said concerning the Hogs’ effort at guarding the 3. “We’re doing the same drills we were doing when we were No. 1 in the country at defending the three. We’ve got some new guys who have to do a better job.”

But Musselman’s veterans didn’t escape his postgame ire, either.

“Even Devo,” Musselman said. “He was 10 out of 10 guarding their star player in the first half. Couldn’t have guarded him better. Picture perfect. But in the second half, we just go under two dribble handoffs, and he hits two threes. Why? I don’t know.”

Musselman continued to lay into his team’s effort.

“Our transition defense, matching up to people was abysmal,” he said.

While Musselman didn’t hold back with his disgust over the Razorbacks’ lack of urgency, he did give credit where it was do to Davis, calling his offensive work at the point phenomenal.

“Devo taking care of the ball, like, there are some real positives,” Musselman said cracking a slight grin. “Believe it or not.”

From there, Musselman offered some on-the-spot grades for the Razorbacks’ performance in different areas.

“Defending without fouling, A+,” Musselman said. “Taking care of the basketball. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a team with just four turnovers against a high-steal team, A+”

But then, Musselman dug his heels back in on the sore spots.

Arkansas guard Khalif Battle is fouled by Old Dominion guard Chaunce Jenkins as he tries to drive to the goal during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

“Rebounding the basketball, double F!” Musselman said. “Transition defense, triple F!! Guarding the 3? There is no grade it was so bad!”

I thought Musselman was going to put his Hogs on double-secret probation like Dean Wormer from “National Lampoon’s Animal House” before he said, “So some good and some very poor.”

I feel for the Hoop Hogs going into their next practice because Musselman is not the type of coach to let all of that go by the wayside and just move on.

If he made such points in a press conference, you know he is going to make them even more emphatically in practice.

That’s why his teams improve. Musselman is not going to allow the Razorbacks to play less than their best and not let his players know it — win or lose.

Four other Hogs scored in double figures besides Mitchell. El Ellis led all scorers with 17 points, 8 assists with no turnovers, in a stunningly efficient game. He also had a steal and 3 rebounds. Davis finished with 16 points, 2 assists, and a steal.

Khalif Battle struggled with first-half foul problems, but scored 13 points. Trevon Brazile had 11 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 blocked shots. Tramon Mark had an off-shooting night, going just 2 of 7 from the field for 7 points.

The Razorbacks only hit 18 of 29 free throws for 62%, which is low for a team that shoots as well as this team does. That percentage will hurt them in close games.

This team does have potential and promise. It’s built similarly to UConn last year on the perimeter, but there is no force like Adama Sanogo to make everything right on the inside. The Razorbacks did a marvelous job of defending Purdue and its size in the exhibition game victory, but we’ve not seen the same toughness and moxie since.

It is just November, and the team is a work in progress. We’ll know much more about the limitations and possibilities for this squad after next week’s trip to the Bahamas to play in the Battle 4 Atlantis event and then on Nov. 29 when Duke comes to town for the ACC/SEC Challenge.