Hogs close out 2023 against tough UNC-Wilmington

Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman, front right, reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, at the Bank of Oklahoma Center in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Joey Johnson)

The Arkansas Razorbacks will play their fifth and final game of December at 4 p.m. Saturday, when a surprisingly tough North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks squad takes the court against the Hogs in Bud Walton Arena.

That’s not a lot of competitive play for a team that’s struggling to establish an identity before the opening of SEC play a week later on Jan. 6 against the Auburn Tigers at home.

The Razorbacks have had their share of highs and lows so far this season and have an 8-4 record to show for it.

Three of the Hogs’ four losses came in an eight-day span from Nov. 17 when North Carolina-Greensboro stunned the Hogs, 78-72, in Walton Arena extending through the Razorbacks trip to the Bahamas for The Battle 4 Atlantis Invitational the week of Thanksgiving. The Hogs eked out a double overtime win over Stanford, 77-74, but lost 84-79 to Memphis and 97-72 to North Carolina before returning to Fayetteville.

The Razorback also absorbed a 79-70 pounding from Oklahoma in BOK Center at Tulsa that was worse than the final tally indicated.

It hasn’t been uncommon for Eric Musselman’s Arkansas teams to struggle a bit before finding themselves during his five seasons as the Hogs’ head coach, but those struggles usually came in January during SEC play.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: UNC Wilmington
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 30
Where: Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

Jan. 6 – Auburn, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)
Jan. 10 – at Georgia, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Jan. 13 – at Florida, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 16 – Texas A&M, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Kan. 20 – South Carolina, 12 p.m. (SEC Network)

It’s hard to know if any significance can be placed on those struggles coming earlier in the season? Will the Hogs pull their game together before SEC play begins or will they stumble a bit out of the gate as usual?

One hopes the Razorbacks have found themselves in their post-Christmas practices this week as Muss and his staff have continued conducting two-a-day workouts with the Razorbacks as they did the week leading up to a three-day Christmas break.

The proof will be in the pudding Saturday against a tough Wilmington squad that boasts a solid 9-2 record that includes a Dec. 2 80-73 victory over Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

The Seahawks boast a deep squad and head coach Takayo Siddle substitutes liberally to maintain a pace uncomfortable for most opponents to face.

Musselman said the Razorbacks expect Siddle to substitute his five new Seahawks sometime between the 17- and 16-minute mark of the first half, and that he did another wholesale lineup change around the 12-minute mark in Wilmington’s victory over Kentucky.

The Seahawks play at a pace the Razorbacks haven’t seen much this season. The Seahawks have scored over the century mark in more than a third of their 11 games this season. Siddle’s tactics will be reminiscent of some of the tenants legendary Razorback coach Nolan Richardson deployed in which he attempted wear down and fluster opponents a rapid pace.

While Musselman doesn’t mind his Razorbacks running, the Hogs have been known to be loose with the basketball this season, averaging 12.7 turnovers a game, while forcing just 11.6.

The Seahawks have four players averaging in double figures led by Trazarien White, a 6-7 junior forward, who scores at 19.3 ppg. clip and also leads Wilmington in rebounding with 5.6 boards per game.

Shykeim Phillips is a 6-foot point guard who averages 14.2 points, 3 rebounds and 3.27 assists per game. He’s strong going to the basket but willing gives up the ball to the open man when he draws the defense.

Maleeck Harden-Hayes averages 11.8 points and 4.7 rebounds a game and is a solid 3-point shooter as is K.J. Jenkins, who average 10.0 ppg. Much like the Razorbacks, Wilmington rotates its big men at will.

Overall the Seahawks are a deft 3-point shooting team that will stretch the Hogs’ defense out. They shoot 38.7 percent behind the line and do an excellent job of moving the ball to find the open man.

No doubt they will try to drive the ball on the Hogs’ guards like opponents have done successfully all season.

One hopes the Razorbacks have improved their defensive play during their practice time after Christmas.

Defensively the Seahawks play a switching man-to-man that can appear to lack structure, but the Hogs can’t fall into the trap of playing at a pace in which they are not comfortable.

While the Hogs did well closing out Abilene Christian with a four-guard lineup, Musselman said fans shouldn’t necessarily expect to see that at tipoff Saturday. Arkansas’ size could be an advantage for them Saturday against the Seahawks.

It will be interesting to see how Keyon Menifield plays in this third game as a Razorback. His speed, solid handle, and energy stood out against Abilene Christian.

Arkansas guard Davonte Davis (4) looks to shoot a 3-point basket during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Joey Johnson)

Could he start Saturday? Possibly, but Musselman was noncommittal any of his starters.

However, whether they start or not expect Davonte Davis (31minutes per game), Traman Mark (30 mpg.), and Trevon Brazile 27.3 mpg.) to play heavy minutes as long as they are healthy.

Mark leads the Hogs in scoring at 16.9 ppg. With Khalif Battle coming off the bench to add 15.3 ppg., while playing 24.8 mg. Brazile averages 9.7 ppg., which seems low for a player of his talents, but he is coming off a major knee injury last year and a twisted ankle earlier this season.

Big men Makhai Mitchell, Chandler Lawson, Jalen Graham basically shard the power forward and center positions among each other. All three have had solid minutes at various points.

El Ellis played heavier minutes early in the season, but has seen his playing time reduced of late; however, he seems like he is a talent waiting to explode in the right situation.

With this final game to play before moving into league play, the Hogs can ill afford to drop a game to a squad like Wilmington, who have RPI mark of 107.

As of Thursday, the Hogs were No. 96 in the RPI, which was 10th among SEC teams.

Tennessee and Alabama are ranked No. 7 and No. 9 in the RPI, followed by No. 19 Texas A&M, No. 21 Auburn, No. 27 Kentucky, No. 32 Mississippi State, No. 43 South Carolina, No. 46 Florida, No. 56 Ole Miss with the Razorbacks 40 spots behind them.

Georgia is at No. 98, Missouri is No. 106, LSU is at No. 154, and Vanderbilt is at No. 278.

The good news is that Arkansas’ RPI should improve with almost any game they win in SEC, but one has to wonder just how many “upsets” will the Razorbacks have to pull off this season to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament?