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Arkansas Scouting Report: How to Stop the Bus
Once again, UConn's next opponent presents a unique playing style to which the Huskies will have to adjust.
Photo Credit: Twitter - @RazorbacksMBB
After slugging things out in the heart of Big East play, UConn regained its mojo, winning 12 of its last 14 and handling two very different teams en route to the Sweet 16: Iona’s ball pressure and St. Mary’s with its methodical pace.
To get to the Elite Eight, UConn is facing another one of the more unique teams in college basketball.
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Arkansas under head coach Eric Musselman is what St. John’s might look like in year three under Rick Pitino (if he can stay clean). They’re positionless, athletic, and attack-oriented. Instead of Posh Alexander and Dylan Addae-Wusu driving, it will be lottery picks Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Black.
Here’s what makes this Arkansas team stand out:
They Have Dudes
Every team in the Sweet 16 has players. But you’ve got Dudes when it’s multiple NBA Draft picks. The Razorbacks have three, maybe four, association-caliber guys in the starting lineup.
Freshmen Nick Smith Jr and Anthony Black will be lottery picks in June. Wichita St. transfer Ricky Council IV is an NBA player. Jordan Walsh and Davonte Davis could play their way into the conversation, and at the very least are G-League material. Not since Alabama has UConn faced a team with as much NBA potential. This is one team that won’t be overwhelmed by UConn’s athleticism.
They’re (potentially) Deep
Reserve big man Makhai Mitchell missed the Kansas and Illinois games with a groin injury. If he’s back, the Hogs have a five-man guard rotation and three bigs that can eat up fouls. UConn has worn down two teams thus far that rely heavily on their starters. They won’t have that luxury Thursday. If they attack the low post they may want to try to draw fouls a bit more.
They Attack the Rim
Take a look at this shot chart from before the NCAA tournament began.
As a team, Arkansas shoots 31 percent from three and is 6-of-26 in the NCAA tournament. Roughly 64 percent of its shots are at the rim or midrange. Musselman likes to get his guards in isolation off high ball screens and let them attack with reckless abandon.
There are very few Arkansas “sets.” When that’s clicking, Arkansas can beat you seven different ways. When it’s not, it can look like my-turn, your-turn hero ball. But it could come from any of the guards; Council, Smith, Black, and Davis all average double figures and all four of them have gone for 20 points multiple times this season, most recently Davonte Davis against Kansas.
We talk a lot about how the analytics have loved UConn this year, especially Donovan Clingan and Andre Jackson, who rank fifth and seventh respectively in Evan Miya’s Bayesian Performance Rating (BPR). The highest-ranked Arkansas player is Walsh, at 111. But the game is played on the court, not a spreadsheet.
They Shoot Free Throws...a Lot
Arkansas has shot 55 free throws on 42 drawn fouls in two games. Council himself has shot 23 free throws alone in the tournament, converting 21. They rank 22nd in the season in free throw attempts, at 22.4. For a UConn team that averages 18 fouls per game, that’s less than ideal.
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But They Also Foul...a Lot
There’s a chance this matchup plays out like the Red Light Green Light scene in Squid Game. When it’s not a breakneck pace, someone will be at the foul line. Arkansas averages 19.3 fouls per game. That’s great news for Tristen Newton’s foul-drawing ability but also means the ball pressure will be at uncomfortable levels.
They Could Go Small
With springy center Trevon Brazile out for the season with a torn ACL, 6-foot-7 senior forward Kamani Johnson has started alongside the quartet of star guards. Twin big men Makhai or Makhel Mitchell are other bigs Arkansas uses, but with the latter nursing a groin injury, don’t be surprised if Musselman goes small and trots out Walsh to go with Smith Jr, Council IV, Anthony Black, and Davis.
That’s five switchy athletes all between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-7 that pressure the ball, force turnovers, and get out in transition. They’ll forfeit size for a positionless terror that locks up threes. Musselman may let Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan get whatever they want inside at the expense of shutting down Jordan Hawkins and UConn’s backcourt.
Sanogo has been transcendent this tournament, but Arkansas is talented enough to let him log a double-double and still come away with the win. It worked for Marquette in the Big East semifinals, and Davis could be the Hogs’ O-Max Prosper.
Musselman is Relentless (and sometimes shirtless)
The shirtless stuff from Musselman feels extra peacocky and played out at this point, it’s something he’s done since his time in Nevada.
This guy has quite the background. He came up through the NBA ranks as an assistant on the Timberwolves and Magic in the 90s before becoming head coach of the Warriors from 2002-2004 and in the now-defunct CBA. After a regime change, he was an assistant for the Grizzlies and Kings, and a head coach in the then-NBA D-League before joining the staff of Arizona State under Herb Sendek.
After another assistant gig at LSU, he became the head coach at Nevada, where he took the Wolf Pack to the NCAA Tournament three times with one Sweet 16 appearance before taking the Arkansas job in 2019.
This guy can coach. There’s a reason the Hogs are playing for a third straight Elite Eight. He’s very good at taking away what you do best, then beating you over the head with whatever is working best on his end. He got Kansas’ big men in perimeter switches onto Davis he liked, and abused it all second half. He has four potential hot hands he could ride.
Muss will find something to hone in on against UConn. Whether it be Clingan in drop coverage, a reach-prone Hawkins, or hunting the likes of Alex Karaban and Joey Calcaterra, the coaching staff better be ready to counter.