'Phenomenal' defense gives Hogs shot each game

By: Scottie Bordelon Scottie Bordelon's Twitter account
Published: Monday, February 20, 2023
Arkansas guard Anthony Black (0) and Florida guard Trey Bonham (2) compete for a loose ball after Black poked it away on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, during the second half of the Razorbacks’ 84-65 win over the Gators at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
( Hank Layton )
Arkansas guard Anthony Black (0) and Florida guard Trey Bonham (2) compete for a loose ball after Black poked it away on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, during the second half of the Razorbacks’ 84-65 win over the Gators at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Multiple times in the last week-plus Eric Musselman has complimented the defensive ability of Arkansas’ upcoming opponent.

On Feb. 11, the Razorbacks took on Mississippi State, which at the time owned a top-five defense in terms of efficiency, according to KenPom data. The next time out, Arkansas faced a top-50 defense on the road in Texas A&M.

Then it hosted Florida, which entered last weekend No. 16 in defensive efficiency.

Last week was a good reminder that the Razorbacks can defend at a high level, too. They gave up 62 points in their loss to the Aggies and 65 in a 19-point home win over the Gators.

As it begins a critical four-game stretch to close the regular season, Arkansas is No. 12 nationally in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. The Razorbacks have allowed 63 points per game in their 6-3 stretch since falling to 12-6 overall and 1-5 in SEC play in a loss at Missouri.

“Every time we do a prep, we talk about how good another team's defense is,” Musselman said Saturday. “And I told our team earlier, like, 'Everyone's talking about our defense, too.' I mean, our defensive numbers are phenomenal.

“I thought we did another great job defensively.”

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Arkansas limited Florida to 37.3% from the floor and forced the Gators into 12 turnovers, including 9 in the second half. They missed their first 6 field goal attempts of the game then 13 of 15 to close the first half following a stretch in which they were 7-of-9 shooting.

Three days earlier, the Razorbacks held Texas A&M to 35.2% shooting, including 13 of 42 (31%) on two-point attempts.

Arkansas has forced back-to-back opponents into 10 consecutive misses from the floor. Florida, which shot 4 of 21 from three-point range, also missed 10 straight attempts beyond the arc on Saturday.

“We came out with a lot of energy and we were scoring, but most importantly getting stops,” Razorbacks wing Ricky Council said Saturday. “As long as we’re getting stops and preventing teams from shooting and hitting threes then it’s going to be hard for any team to beat us.”

Musselman said Arkansas defended at an elite level to begin the second half against Florida. The Razorbacks forced 5 turnovers in the first 5:09 of the half and the Gators went 1 of 4 from the floor in the opening 6 minutes.

That stout defensive stretch keyed the 17-2 Arkansas run that blew the game open and put the Razorbacks ahead 54-33 with 14:12 remaining.

In the last 9 games, Arkansas’ opponents have shot 38.4% from the field, 39.9% on two-point attempts and 44.7% in the lane, according to CBB Analytics. The two-point field goal percentage and paint field goal percentage fall in the 100th percentile nationally in that span.

In the same stretch, the Razorbacks have blocked 14.6% of opponents’ shots inside the arc. Rhode Island transfers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell are at the heart of that figure.

Makhel Mitchell has rejected 27 shots and Makhi Mitchell has 13 blocks of his own. Freshman wing Jordan Walsh, freshman guard Anthony Black and transfer forward Jalen Graham have also recently turned in multi-block games.

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“Makhel has done a great job defensively,” Musselman said. “The last few games, his shots blocked per minute is through the roof. Makhi, those two guys together, just like we talked about prior to the Alabama game: I thought those two guys gave us a physical presence together with their size, at their weight, with their physicality.

“Both of them have done a really good job defensively and rebounding and allowing us not to have to double team the post, because they’ve been single covering guys who are star players on opposing teams.”

In the backcourt, Black has put together his most impressive defensive stretch of the season. He has 25 steals in the last 9 games, including 5 against Ole Miss and Kentucky, and multiple takeaways in 7 of those outings.

In the win over Florida, Black had two steals in the backcourt over a 19-second span in the second half. The first steal led to a layup by Graham that was assisted by Black.

He also had back-to-back steals and dunks in the second half at Kentucky that helped Arkansas create separation in the 88-73 road win.

“Phenomenal,” Musselman said. “He's starting to get a lot lower defensively. That's something we've talked about. I brought up the Catapult numbers (and) the last two days (they) have been his highest in probably two months as far as...he's really working defensively, because he's an elite defender.

“We just need him to get a little bit lower. I thought his ball pressure at half court was probably the best that he's had all season long.”

Asked Saturday what it would take for Arkansas to bottle last week’s defensive effort and take it into Tuesday’s home matchup with Georgia (8 p.m. on SEC Network), Musselman relayed one of his patented lines: each game takes on its own identity.

“The magic dust from (Saturday) is not going to be sprinkled into our bloodlines come Tuesday,” he added. “I mean, every game has got its own flow.”

While true, Arkansas’ opponents have struggled to find their flow on the offensive end recently.


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