Hoop Hogs seeking to bounce back against Duke

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman on the sidelines against UNC Greensboro during an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

When announced last summer that the first ACC/SEC Challenge would bring the Duke Blue Devils to Walton Arena for the first time ever to clash with the Arkansas Razorbacks, it seemed like a dream come true.

Based on projections of the preseason polls, there was a fair chance the 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, ESPN-televised tilt would be a top-10 showdown.

I’ll admit, I was hoping it would be a top-five affair that would rival some of the biggest regular-season basketball games in Hog history like several showdowns with Houston and Texas back in Eddie Sutton’s days as head coach in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s.

There was a chance it might be on par with the made-for-TV pairings with No. 1 North Carolina at Pine Bluff in 1984 or with No. 1 UNLV at Barnhill Arena in 1991 when Nolan Richardson’s Hogs were ranked No. 2.

I and all other longtime Hog hoops fans were hoping it would be a matchup that would rival the better UA-Kentucky showdowns since the Razorbacks joined the SEC like in 1993 in Barnhill or the 1995 Super Bowl Sunday affair that might be the best game ever played in Walton Arena or several others including 2021’s when head coach Eric Musselman’s Hogs toppled John Calipari’s Bluegrass Bully Boys.

Unfortunately Wednesday’s game is not going to take on such epic proportions. The Blue Devils (5-1) do invade Walton Arena as the No. 7 squad in the Associated Press Top 25, but thanks to losing three of their last four games, the Razorbacks (4-3) have tumbled out of the polls altogether.

If one wanted to make excuses for the Hogs, it would be easy to point to injuries. Senior forward Jalen Graham has been in but mostly out all season long, and arguably Arkansas’ best player Tramon Mark suffered a back injury that sent him to the locker room in last Friday’s 87-72 loss to North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis event.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: No. 7 Duke
When: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 29
Where: Fayetteville, Ark.

Next 5 games

Dec. 4 – Furman, 7p.m. (SEC+)
Dec. 9 – Oklahoma, 5 p.m. (ESPN2)
Dec. 16 – Lipscomb at Little Rock (SEC+)
Dec. 21 – Abilene Christian, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Dec. 30 – UNC Wilmington, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)

Mark returned to Fayetteville from the Bahamas in a wheelchair and is still being treated for the injury. Musselman said in his media conference Monday that he is unsure when Mark will return.

Thus far Mark, a gritty playmaker who has 3-point range but specializes in going to the basket for layups and fouls as well as popping a deadly mid-range jumper, has been Arkansas’ most consistent offensive weapon, averaging a team-leading 18.4 ppg.

It will be a severe blow to the Razorbacks if Mark is on the shelf for the Duke ballgame as well as any others.

The Razorbacks have a wealth of sore spots in their game, and each game he misses is an opportunity for him to gel with his teammates. And they need to gel.

The Hogs are a long athletic team that appears to have all the attributes to play defense the way Musselman wants other than the most important one, the actual desire to do it.

At least they have yet to show that desire, allowing opponents to shoot 43% from the field to the Hogs’ 45%. That’s a very narrow margin.

The Hogs are out rebounding opponents by a miserly 3.1 rebounds, and have forced just three more turnovers than they have suffered 88-85. Those are middling numbers, which is born out by their disappointing 4-3 record.

I’d like to say the signs are pointing to a classic Walton Arena rumble in which the raucous Razorback crowd would make all the difference against the Blue Devils.

However, unless we see a Hog squad that is more dedicated to defending and more determined to execute the offensive details that help their teammates get open and have an opportunity at more efficient shots, there is little to no chance of the Razorbacks upsetting the Blue Devils during the season that celebrates the 30th anniversary of Arkansas’ national championship victory over the Blue Devils in the 1994 national title game.

Musselman was so perturbed by the Razorbacks’ performance in the Battle 4 Atlantis that he spent his whole seven-hour trip back from the Bahamas on Saturday and another seven hours on Saturday breaking down game tape, cutting up each player’s performance, and analyzing how each Hog performed.

Usually Musselman tasks his staff with such a chore, but he wanted to do the work himself to discover exactly in which areas his Razorbacks must improve to have some semblance of success not just against Duke but for the rest of the season.

Each season as the Hogs’ coach, the Razorbacks have had some in-season struggles, usually they came in January and Muss had them sorted out by February.

I’m not sure if there is a correlation to these struggles and the issues the Hogs are having at the moment, but one way or the other, Musselman has to sort it out quickly.

If the Razorbacks lose as many games in December as they did in November, they won’t have any sort of a cushion to carry with them into SEC play.

They will be playing for their NCAA Tournament lives from their first game in SEC play against Auburn on Jan. 6 and their final game at Alabama on March 9. That’s not something I thought I would be thinking in the afterglow of Arkansas’ overtime exhibition win over No. 2 Purdue in late October.

But Musselman has pulled his Hogs out of the doldrums before. I wouldn’t count him out from doing it just yet this season.