Muss: Keep your man in front on defense

Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman reacts, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, during the first half of the Razorbacks’ 79-70 loss to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Crimson and Cardinal Classic at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for the photo gallery.

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman said the Razorbacks have been “a no-middle team” defensively through 10 games.

The focus has been to stop opponents from driving to the middle to prevent what Musselman called “spray passes” to either side of the court.

Starting with the Razorbacks’ game against Lipscomb at 5 p.m. Saturday at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock, Arkansas will utilize a “KTGIFOY” approach on defense.

“We’re not going to be a no-middle team moving forward,” Musselman said Monday night on his radio show. “We’re going to be a ‘keep-the-guy-in-front-of-you’ team.

“I don’t want to hear, ‘Well, I’m not allowed to let my guy go middle, so he just blows by me on the baseline side in a straight-line dribble drive.’

“That excuse is out the door. Now it’s guard the guy in front of you and keep him in front of you.”

Improving defensively was a focal point of Monday’s practice, Musselman said, in wake of the Razorbacks’ 79-70 loss to Oklahoma in Tulsa last Saturday that dropped Arkansas to 6-4.

The Sooners (9-0) moved up eight spots to No. 11 in Monday’s AP poll.

It’s the worst 10-game start for the Razorbacks in Musselman’s five seasons. Arkansas started 9-1 in each of the past four seasons.

“Where we’re sitting at right now, 6-4 is not where we want to be in nonconference play,” Musselman said. “We’ve never been 6-4 in nonconference play. A lot of guys have had opportunities to play and now we need to see if some other guys get an opportunity to play, and if there’s different results.”

Senior guard Davonte Davis and sophomore forward Trevon Brazile are the only Razorbacks to start every game. Eight players have started at least two games.

Senior guard Khalif Battle has come off the bench in every game, but is averaging a team-high 16.4 points in 26 minutes per game.

Four scholarship players averaging fewer than 10 minutes per game are sophomore guard Joseph Pinion (seven games), senior forward Jalen Graham (six), freshman forward Baye Fall (four) and senior forward Denijay Harris (four).

“Whether the results get better or not as good, I don’t know,” Musselman said. “But we’re not going to keep doing the same thing over and over.

“So a lot of that has to do with minutes changing, roles changing, and then just finding five guys that are really concerned with how do we win this game? And how do we represent the University of Arkansas basketball program? And are just worried about, how do we get this win?

“So that’s the goal and the objective, is to find five guys that are doing everything they possibly can to try to get a win on that given night.”

Musselman said the Razorbacks worked only on themselves on Monday and didn’t practice against any of Lipscomb’s sets.

“A pretty long practice,” he said. “Very detail-oriented defensively.

‘It was a step in the right direction, we hope. But it was a practice unlike what we’ve probably had since training camp.”

Musselman said the coaching staff met for about two hours Monday, doing a statistical analysis of where the Razorbacks were through 10 games the previous four seasons when they finished 20-12, 25-7, 28-9 and 22-14 with NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearances in 2021 and 2022 and a Sweet 16 appearance last season.

Two big areas of concern, Musselman said, are fouling too much and not creating enough steals that lead to extra possessions and fast-break points.

The Razorbacks rank 344th nationally in fouls per game with an average of 20.9 and are tied for 257th in steals at 6.1.

Arkansas is third nationally in blocked shots at 7.0 per game, but Musselman said that’s not necessarily good news.

“We’re doing a better job blocking shots, but we’re also getting an opportunity as a big to block shots because our guards are giving up so much dribble penetration,” he said. “We’ve got to do a way better job from the guard standpoint of guarding the man and keeping him in front of us.

“So all those things are what we’re working on, what we’re talking about.”

Musselman said Mark, who missed Arkansas’ 80-75 victory over Duke on Nov. 24 with back, hip and groin injuries, is back to full speed.

Brazile played 15 minutes against Oklahoma after spraining his left ankle last Monday in Arkansas’ 97-83 victory over Furman. Musselman said he didn’t practice Monday and likely wouldn’t practice Tuesday.

“Maybe practice [today],” Musselman said. “Hopefully he’ll be able to play on Saturday.

But right now he’s just resting, trying to get back to 100%. Because he played at probably 80%, 75% [against Oklahoma].”

Musselman said he’s not worried about the Razorbacks having a full week between games, that the extra practice time is needed.

“We’re trying to get better,” he said. “They’re not going to get bored based on the intensity level we’re going to practice with.

“I think maybe if we were feeling real comfortable, it might be a long time [between games]. I don’t feel very comfortable at all.

“So I’m going to walk in the gym every day with a lot of intensity and a lot of motivation to try to improve. Whether we do or not is going to be up to the players, if we can get better.”

Musselman said the Razorbacks worked offensively on a secondary fast break during Monday’s practice they used in prior seasons and on their five-man passing game to create better ball movement after a player dribbled the ball 15 times in one possession against Oklahoma.

“Hopefully those two things help,” Musselman said. “We won’t know until we play.”