Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year three times.
Streak analysis: Several factors key to Hogs’ win streak
FAYETTEVILLE — Going into the University of Arkansas men’s basketball team’s second game against Auburn this season, the Razorbacks were coming off road losses to LSU 92-76 and Alabama 90-59 that dropped their SEC record to 2-4.
But Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl heaped praise on the Razorbacks instead of dirt.
“Look, I’m just telling you, Arkansas, don’t count them out,” Pearl said. “I still think Arkansas is an NCAA Tournament team. I still think they’re a team that will finish in the top six in our league.”
It wasn’t coach-speak by Pearl, talking up a team just because it was Auburn’s next opponent. Turns out Pearl was right on target about Arkansas.
Starting with the Razorbacks’ 75-73 victory over Auburn in the teams’ rematch on Jan. 20, Arkansas (17-5, 9-4 SEC) has won seven consecutive SEC games for the first time since 2015 and just the fourth time since joining the conference for the 1991-92 season.
The only SEC team that has been able to slow down Arkansas is Texas A&M — which for the second time in two weeks postponed a game against the Razorbacks because of positive covid-19 tests, contact tracing and quarantining within the Aggies’ program.
Instead of playing at Texas A&M on Saturday night, the Razorbacks practiced in preparation for their next game against No. 8 Alabama on Wednesday night at Walton Arena.
“We’re not patting anyone on the back and no one is taking a bow, I can tell you that,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said Thursday before Texas A&M postponed its sixth consecutive game. “We’re putting on our hard hats and going to work.
“We’ve played well. Obviously our guys are on the Internet and see what’s out there … But we’re not going to worry about anything other than our remaining regular-season games.”
During the Razorbacks’ SEC winning streak, they:
• Completed a sweep of Auburn for the first time since 2013.
• Ended a six-game losing streak to Mississippi State and an eight-game losing streak to Kentucky.
• Beat a top 10-ranked team for the first time since 2006 with a victory at Missouri.
• Defeated Florida for the third time in 19 meetings since 2009.
KenPom.com, a college basketball analytics website, ranks Arkansas No. 22 nationally in defensive efficiency and No. 34 in offensive efficiency. Those rankings reflect the Razorbacks holding opponents to an average of 91.9 points per 100 possessions and averaging 112.8 points per 100 possessions.
“To be in the top 40 in the country in either of those categories is a good sign, and Arkansas is in the top 35 in both,” said ESPN and SEC Network analyst Jimmy Dykes, a former Arkansas player who also coached the UA women’s team. “That tells you right there they’re not relying only on their offense or only on their defense.
“Statistically, I don’t see anything that they’re top 10 in the country at doing, but they’re really solid in every area. Every winning part of the game. Look at their shooting, their assists to turnovers, their rebounding, their free-throw shooting.”
The Razorbacks are shooting 45% from the field, 33.8% on three-pointers and 74.% on free throws. They have a plus-4.8 rebounding margin, plus-2.6 turnover margin and plus-1.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“They are good at a lot,” Florida Coach Mike White said after the Razorbacks beat the Gators 75-64 on Tuesday night at Walton Arena. “They just are.”
The Razorbacks have been winning with offense and defense along with depth and balance.
Seven players have taken turns leading the Razorbacks in scoring during the SEC winning streak. Desi Sills scored 22 points against Auburn; Moses Moody 26 at Vanderbilt; JD Notae 19 against Ole Miss; Moody and Connor Vanover 13 each against Mississippi State; Jalen Tate 15 at Kentucky; Justin Smith 19 at Missouri; and Davonte Davis 18 against Florida.
Jaylin Williams has led Arkansas in rebounding three times during the seven consecutive SEC victories, Smith has done it twice, and Moody and Vanover once each.
Tate and Smith are senior graduate transfers. Vanover and Notae redshirted last season as transfers. Moody, Davis and Williams are freshmen. Sills is the only player on the team who played consistent minutes in SEC games last season.
“Tate and Smith have really been difference-makers,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said. “They’ve been there and done that. They’re good players. So they’ve been real keys for them.”
Moody is averaging a team-high 16.2 points per game, followed by Notae (12.5), Smith (11.8), Tate (11.1), Sills (9.6), Vanover (7.9) and Davis (7.2). Vanover leads the Razorbacks with 44 blocked shots, and Tate leads with 96 assist and 32 steals.
“They don’t put a bad player on the floor,” Dykes said.
“Moody is fantastic, and he’s just getting better and better as he gets more experience at this level,” Howland said. “He’s really taken off.”
Moody, a 6-6 guard, is projected as a first-round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft by most analysts.
“Moses Moody is a lottery pick,” Dykes said. “But he attacks the game like he’s a walk-on just trying to keep a uniform. There’s no ego, there’s no agenda. He’s all about winning.
“When your best, most talented player is all about the right things, then 99 times out of 100 everybody else falls in line. That’s how Arkansas is.”
Dykes marveled at how Musselman has blended a team counting on so many newcomers.
“That’s a magical thing that Eric has pulled off there,” Dykes said. “I never see any type of body language between Arkansas’ players that shows jealousy.
“That’s hard to find, especially when you’re mixing in all the different guys they have this year. To get that chemistry and that connectiveness that they have is really impressive.
“They are all in on Arkansas winning games. That’s all I see when they play, and that’s why I think they’re the hottest team in the league right now.”
Smith’s scoring and rebounding numbers don’t jump off the page, but the Razorbacks are 16-2 when he plays. They were 1-3 in games he missed recovering from ankle surgery.
“Smith is a good defender, he’s a good rebounder, he’s a good scorer,” Howland said. “He’s a winner. He knows how to play.”
Smith was supposed to be out three to six weeks, but two weeks after surgery he returned to the lineup at Alabama. He struggled with rust and conditioning in that game having not been able to practice.
Since the second game against Auburn with Smith progressively becoming healthier, the Razorbacks have averaged three more assists and three fewer turnovers than in the previous five games — the four he missed and at Alabama — and shot 46.7% versus 39.2%, according to the UA notes.
“Justin Smith does so many things well,” Dykes said. “He touches every area of the game. He’s their second-best passer and playmaker [behind Tate]. He can score in different ways, he can defend multiple guys.
“He’s just a very consistent guy that makes their whole team better.”
Dykes praised Tate for two plays he made — one on offense, the other on defense — at Kentucky and Missouri.
Tate had an offensive rebound and hit two free throws with 4.3 seconds left for the final points in Arkansas’ 81-80 victory over the Wildcats. In the next game at Missouri, he blocked a Dru Smith driving layup attempt with 21.8 seconds left in overtime that would have put the Tigers ahead. The Razorbacks went on to win 86-81.
“I think Jalen Tate changed their season with two plays,” Dykes said. “Sometimes it comes down to three or four plays a year that can really change what your year looks like, and he made two monster plays in a five-day period.”
Dykes said he believes the Razorbacks have a chance to be a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“If Arkansas can do that, they’re going into the NCAA Tournament with a resume as one of the top 20 teams in the country,” Dykes said. “I think they can have a really good March.”
Pearl saw it coming back in January.
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