Razorbacks show signs of improvement with LSU on horizon

The Razorbacks play at LSU on Saturday, Feb. 3 at 11 a.m. on ESPN2
Arkansas guard Khalif Battle (0) runs a play against Kentucky during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Just like Punxsutawney Phil crawling out of his den on Groundhog Day, Eric Musselman’s Arkansas Razorbacks made their way out of the hole of a three-game losing streak Wednesday with a 91-83 victory at Missouri.

The win coupled with the Hogs’ solid showing against No. 10 Kentucky, a competitive 63-57 loss, last Saturday has the most faithful of Hog fans wondering if the worm is beginning to turn for a Razorback squad that has had some peaks this season but also some very distinct valleys.

In each of Musselman’s four previous seasons as Arkansas’ coach, his Razorbacks did turn the corner and began playing consistent basketball before March.

It happened late in his first season, but before Covid put a halt to all NCAA competition the morning after the Razorbacks defeated Vanderbilt in the 2020 SEC Tournament, there was hope the Hogs might win their way into the Big Dance or at least garner an NIT bid.

In 2021 and 2022, the Hogs advanced to the Elite Eight before bowing out, and last year the Razorbacks made the Sweet 16 like SEC brethren Alabama and Tennessee.

With the Razorbacks sitting at 11-10 overall and 2-6 in SEC play, I’m not bold enough to predict that the Hogs are about to turn this season around after a single road win over a bad Missouri squad (8-13, 0-8 SEC), but for much of Wednesday night’s game, the Razorbacks played well.

Surprisingly, it was the Razorbacks’ inside game that led the way. Musselman’s tenure at Arkansas has been guard-dominated from Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones in his first season to Moses Moody, J.D. Notae, Devo Davis, and Anthony Black among others the last three years.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at LSU
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 3
Where: Baton Rouge, La.
TV: ESPN2

Next 5 games

Feb. 10 – Georgia, 5 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 14 – Tennessee, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Feb. 17 – at Mississippi State, 1 p.m. (ESPNU)
Feb. 20 – at Texas A&M, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Feb. 24 – Missouri, 11 a.m. (ESPN/2)

Razorback big men have been key on the glass and played stout team and individual defense under Musselman, but offensively, most have played supporting roles.

But in Wednesday’s victory over Missouri, the Hogs’ big men were the story. Senior Makhi Mitchell came off the bench on his birthday to lead the Razorbacks with his second double-double in a row. Mitchell equaled his career high of 19 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in 33:43 minutes on the floor.

Fellow big men Jalen Graham and Chandler Lawson also impacted the game. Graham scored 13 before fouling out and Lawson, a defensive specialist, added 6 points and 3 rebounds.

Thirty-eight points by Arkansas’ big men took a lot of the pressure off the Razorbacks’ backcourt, and with the pressure off, the Hogs’ guards were not forcing as much and working within the offense.

Tramon Mark and Keyon Menifield Jr. collected their points within the offense, rather than being forced to take difficult shots late in the shot clock. Their production proved to be more efficient with Mark connecting on 8 of 13 shots and hitting 6 of 8 free throws to lead Arkansas with 22 points. Menifield was 4 of 11 from the field, but nailed all 6 of his free throws to add 16 points to the Arkansas’ tally.

The play by the Hogs’ big men loosened up Arkansas’ offense, allowing for improved flow. The Razorbacks were moving with a purpose and most of the standing around and watching a teammate go one-on-one was erased.

The Hogs had too many turnovers with 15, but several of those came late after the game had all but been decided.

Arkansas made up for some of those turnovers with 10 steals of their own. Graham had four. Mark and Layden Blocker had 3 steals apiece and Khalif Battle came up with 2. The Razorbacks had 14 assists, which is a solid number. Much better than the norm during their SEC struggles.

The Razorbacks did not rely on 3-pointers to try to bail themselves out of bad half-court possessions. Arkansas only took six treys, but hit four of them. That’s a percentage that translates to winning. Again that points to better ball movement by the entire team.

That’s progress, and that’s all Razorback fans really want to see at this point in the season.

No doubt Arkansas fans wish the Hogs were in the hunt for the SEC title like they were predicted to be or that they had played well enough to position themselves for a NCAA Tournament run.

Too much water is likely under the bridge for either of those to happen this season, unless the Razorbacks somehow win the SEC Tournament and earn the league’s automatic bid to the tournament.

Arkansas’ Jalen Graham (11) knocks the ball away from Missouri’s Anthony Robinson II (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

But after games against South Carolina and Ole Miss in which the Razorbacks appeared dead in the water, the improvement we’ve seen against Kentucky and Missouri is much appreciated.

Should the Hogs find a way to win at LSU (11-9, 3-4) on Saturday, Walton Arena will be rocking when the Georgia Bulldogs (14-7, 4-4) visit on Feb. 10.

The Tigers will be stiff competition for the Razorbacks. The Hogs have had some success at the Maravich Center over the years, but even with Arkansas’ solid play in their last two games, it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in them.

The Tigers have had a week to prepare for the Razorbacks since falling 109-88 to Alabama on Jan. 27.

Coach Matt McMahon’s Tigers are led by Jordan Wright who averages 15.7 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. Jalen Cook pitches in 15.1 ppg., and 3.6 boards, with Will Baker adding 11.1 points and 5.2 rebounds a game.

The game tips off at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPN2.