What to watch for in Arkansas-Tennessee

Arkansas guard Nick Smith works the ball down the court against Alabama during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas begins a challenging final week of the regular season with a road trip to Tennessee.

The Volunteers are No. 12 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll and will enter the game at 21-8 overall and 10-6 in SEC play. The Razorbacks are coming off a 1-1 week in which they defeated Georgia by 32 points and fell 86-83 at No. 2 Alabama.

Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. on ESPN2. Here are a handful of things to keep an eye on:

• Smith continuing his roll

Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith rose to the occasion last week in the Razorbacks’ games against Georgia and Alabama. He averaged 25 points and knocked down 7 of 11 attempts from three-point range.

On Monday, he was named SEC freshman of the week. It was an impressive stretch for the guard, who appears to be in a rhythm with March on the horizon.

“Really proud of his toughness, his willingness to compete,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said Sunday on his TV show. “And most importantly, he has a great will to win and hates to lose. You could see it on his face in the locker room after that Alabama game.”

The Razorbacks have scored 1.12 points per possession with Smith on the floor since his return, according to HoopLens. Against Georgia, the figure was 1.48 PPP, and in last week’s games it was 1.14 PPP behind a 53.8% showing from deep.

Musselman gave Smith credit for his ability to get Arkansas into its offensive sets at Alabama after freshman guard Anthony Black was forced to sit with two first-half fouls. And when he moved off the ball and Davonte Davis assumed point guard duties, Smith was a tough cover coming off screens.

He finished 7 of 20 on two-point attempts, which included a high volume of mid-range jumpers. But he was comfortable taking what the defense gave him and got to his spots more often than not.

Smith’s aggressiveness also got him to the free throw line five times, second most on the team behind Ricky Council.

He was solid defensively last week, as well. Smith has provided a great jolt on the offensive end in the last two weeks, but it is noteworthy that he has not stood out on defense in a negative way.

Smith has 4 steals in the last 3 games, and opponents are 5 of 17 from the field since Feb. 15 when he is the nearest Razorbacks defender.

• Offense late in the shot clock

Tennessee, which owns the No. 1 defensive efficiency rating in the country this season, makes opponents work for nearly every bucket.

According to KenPom data, the Vols’ average defensive possession in SEC play lasts 18.2 seconds. In the league, only Texas A&M (18.8) defends longer on average.

Pace of play will again be key for the Razorbacks on the road. And finding ways to generate offense early in the shot clock when Tennessee’s defense is not set is essential considering the Vols aim to make games a grind.

Possessions late into the shot clock are inevitable. Tennessee is so gifted and sound defensively that it can and will create those instances. It would benefit Arkansas if its open offense is sharp.

Musselman noted on his TV show that he has been pleased lately with what he’s seen in that regard.

“(That is) kind of when the plays break down,” Musselman said. “The ball is starting to move a lot more and a lot more people are touching the ball maybe than earlier in the year.”

According to CBB Analytics, the Razorbacks have scored 1.01 PPP in 158 scoring chances that lasted 10-20 seconds in the last 5 games. In scoring chances 20-30 seconds at length, that figure sits at 0.87 PPP.

• Frontcourt battle

There is sure to be no shortage of physical play around the restricted area Tuesday in Thompson-Boling Arena.

Arkansas enters the game No. 1 in the SEC in block rate (13.6%) thanks to the work of Makhi and Makhel Mitchell, and a recent surge in rim protection from forward Jalen Graham. The Arizona State transfer has 7 blocks in the last 3 games and the Mitchells have combined for 8.

“We’ve gotten really good at blocking shots,” Musselman said. “We’re one of the best teams in the country altering and changing shots at the rim. … But our bigs, as a committee, all three of them, are doing a good job protecting the rim.”

Tennessee has taken an average of 26.4 three-point attempts in the last five games, so the Razorbacks must be dialed in on the Vols’ perimeter threats. Being solid on the interior and playing with great verticality on contests will be important, too.

In the last four games, opponents are a combined 19 of 80 from the field when Graham or one of the Mitchells is the nearest Arkansas defender (Graham 6/23, Makhi Mitchell 6/29, Makhel Mitchell 7/28). Additionally, freshman Jordan Walsh, who will play some small-ball 4, last weekend held Crimson Tide players to 2-of-12 shooting.

“This year they’ve got shot blockers,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said Monday. “When you go in there, you better know what you’re getting ready to encounter. They really do play extremely hard defensively.”

Tennessee’s Olivier Nkamhoua leads the team by a wide margin in SEC play in two-point field goal attempts. He has taken 110 such shots, hit them at a 48.2% clip and is capable of a big scoring night, evidenced by his 27-point game against Texas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

Uros Plavsic, a 7-1 center from Serbia, is an enforcer-type piece up front for the Vols. He is not a great scoring threat, but Tennessee is 4-1 in the league when he scores in double figures. Plavsic is at his best when crashing the offensive glass and providing the Vols an added toughness and extra possessions.

Tobe Awaka, a 6-8 freshman forward, has 3 or more offensive rebounds in 4 of the last 6 games and recently scored 10 points at Texas A&M. And Jonas Aidoo, a 6-11 forward, owns the league’s No. 2 block rate thanks to a run of 12 blocks in the last 6 games.

He is also in the top 10, per KenPom, in offensive and defensive rebound rate in SEC games.

For the season, the Vols are the fifth-best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing 37.5% of their misses. Arkansas’ front line must limit second-chance opportunities and its guard must be involved in capping defensive possessions with a rebound.

Also watch out for Tennessee’s Josiah-Jordan James, a 6-6 forward with good length and size. He returned Saturday from an ankle injury and added 18 points against South Carolina.

• How Arkansas handles Zeigler

At the guard spots, the Razorbacks are as big on the ball defensively as any team in the SEC.

That size and length can disrupt opposing players as they look to create offense for themselves or initiate a set in the half court. But Arkansas has had trouble at times, like many teams, containing smaller guards with great quickness.

Perhaps no backcourt player in the conference is quicker than Zakai Zeigler, who stands 5-9 and averages 11 points per game.

Zeigler possesses game-changing speed and finishes well at the rim for a guard of his stature. Limiting his drive-and-kick chances figures to be big, too, given he owns the league’s top assist rate (43.8%).

“There’s no doubt that he’s getting game-planned for every night,” Barnes said. “I think he has handled it great. He’s felt the weight of the world on his shoulders at times. … One of his biggest flaws is when he makes a mistake, he wants to fix it right then and there. Sometimes that can compound it.

“He’s learning how to play (point guard), how to manage a team and run a team. He’s done a really terrific job with a lot being placed on his shoulders.”

In 2 meetings last season, Arkansas held Zeigler to 2 of 12 on two-point shots, 4 of 8 from distance and 6 assists against 6 turnovers.

Zeigler has averaged 14 points, 9.5 assists and 1 turnover in Tennessee’s last 2 homes games, and he is coming off a 13-point, 11-assist double-double against South Carolina. He has five double-digit assist games in 2023.