What to watch for in Arkansas-Ole Miss

Arkansas guard Davonte Davis reacts after a UNC Greensboro turnover during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ men’s basketball team will attempt to snap a four-game losing streak in Southeastern Conference play on Saturday inside Bud Walton Arena.

The No. 25 Razorbacks will host Ole Miss for an 11 a.m. tipoff on ESPN2. Both teams are 1-5 in league games.

Here are a handful of things to watch for:

Devo vs. Murrell

Arkansas guard Davonte Davis has taken on several tough defensive assignments through six SEC games.

They have included a projected lottery pick in Alabama’s Brandon Miller, Auburn’s Wendell Green and Missouri’s D’Moi Hodge, who entered the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 4 averaging 17.8 points in the Tigers’ previous 10 games. Hodge scored six points and attempted four shots in Fayetteville.

Miller, who did not take a shot from the field in the first half at Arkansas, scored an SEC-low 14 points, but he did get loose late for the game’s two biggest scores. And Green finished with 19 points, including seven on Davis early.

His next task is likely to be Ole Miss guard Matthew Murrell, a 6-4 junior who is the clear go-to option for the Rebels.

Murrell is averaging 15.5 points in SEC play on 13.8 field goal attempts. The guard has been most effective against conference competition operating inside the arc, where he has finished 20 of 36 looks.

His overall efficiency is brought down by an 11-of-47 mark from three-point range. Murrell, though, did shoot his way out of a perimeter funk earlier this week by making 5 of 11 threes in Ole Miss’ win at South Carolina.

“Murrell is a really good scorer,” Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman said Wednesday. “He’s got three-point range. You’ve got to chase him off screens with the high hand before the catch. You’ve got to locate him as he comes across half court. Can’t give him any air space. All those things are themes.

“He’s one of the best scorers in the SEC.”

When engaged, Davis is one of the best defenders in the league, so the matchup could be entertaining. 

In SEC play, opponents are 13 of 27 (48.1%) from the floor when Davis is the nearest Arkansas defender to a shot. The percentage may come as a bit of a surprise, but the junior has been terrific in limiting field goal attempts.

Davis has defended only six more shots than freshman guard Joseph Pinion, who has played 162 fewer minutes than Davis. For more context, freshman Anthony Black and transfer Ricky Council have defended 44 shots apiece.

“He’s just done an insanely incredible job of just kind of taking one guy out of the game,” Musselman said prior to Arkansas’ loss at Missouri. “Maybe that’s decreased his steals because we’re just asking him to limit these guys’ touches even.”

Black setting up threes

It is not breaking news that perimeter shooting has largely been a struggle for Arkansas in SEC play.

The Razorbacks enter the weekend 13th in three-point percentage at 26.2%. But they have shown signs of life in the last two games, knocking down 14 of 35 (40%) looks at Vanderbilt and at Missouri.

It is their best two-game run beyond the arc since making a combined 16 threes against Louisville and Creighton at the Maui Invitational.

Black, from a facilitating standpoint, has greatly aided Arkansas from three-point range in league games. The Razorbacks are 12 of 29 (41.4%) from deep immediately following a Black pass.

He assisted on three made threes both at LSU and in the first meeting against Missouri. He then assisted on 4 threes in Wednesday’s loss to the Tigers.

In the last two games, the Razorbacks are 5 of 10 on threes set up by Black, and the guard is 3 of 7 beyond the arc himself.

Last season, Arkansas shot a far better percentage on threes created by forward Jaylin Williams. Musselman credited that success to Williams consistently putting passes on the mark and in players’ shot pockets.

We are beginning to see that a bit with Black.

The Razorbacks do not want or need to settle for perimeter jumpers. Musselman has been adamant about getting the ball into the teeth of defenses for close-in looks and perhaps trips to the free throw line.

But a Black-created three has been one of Arkansas’ best shots.

Positive impact from Walsh

Freshman wing Jordan Walsh fouling out Wednesday against Missouri was a game-changer.

Following the loss, Musselman said not having him available down the stretch was crucial as the Razorbacks let another 10-point lead slip away on the road. Arkansas outscored the Tigers 31-18 when he was on the floor.

According to HoopLens lineup data, the Razorbacks scored 1.47 points per possession in Walsh’s 19 possessions versus 0.92 PPP in the 52 in which he sat. They also allowed 0.88 PPP in his 17 defensive possessions and 1.19 PPP in 54 trips with Walsh off the floor.

He finished with 12 points on 4 of 4 from the floor, including 2 of 2 beyond the arc. His first triple snapped a string of 11 consecutive misses from deep dating to the SEC opener at LSU.

The freshman’s biggest hurdle to this point has been foul trouble.

Without question, he has been on the receiving end of a few tough-luck whistles. But he has picked up 2 first-half fouls in 4 of 6 SEC games, including the last 3.

Arkansas needs Walsh readily available. In league games, he has a net rating (points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions) of plus-28.8, per CBB Analytics.

Interior defense

No Razorbacks player has defended more shots in SEC play than Rhode Island transfer forward Makhi Mitchell.

Through six games, opponents are 17 of 52 (32.7%) from the floor when he is the nearest Arkansas defender to a field goal attempt. Inside the arc, he has allowed just 10 scores on 35 attempts (28.6%).

KenPom data shows that Mitchell is No. 9 in league-only games with a block rate of 6.4%. His 9 blocks lead the team, and he is averaging a solid 8.3 points and 8 rebounds per game.

Mitchell’s rim protection and his presence around the restricted area could loom large Saturday. Ole Miss, according to Hoop-Math data, has the sixth most scores at the rim (252) among SEC teams this season on the fourth most attempts (431).

Myles Burns, a 6-6 senior, and Murrell have taken the most shots at the rim for the Rebels in 2022-23 at 67 and 63, respectively, and each have 39 such buckets. Jayveous McKinnis, a 6-7 forward, is also 28 of 41 at the rim.

On the flip side, Ole Miss has a pair of the league’s top 10 players in terms of block percentage. McKinnis is fifth at 9.71% and Theo Akwuba, who stands 6-11, is fourth at 11.0%.

Akwuba has played only 8 minutes in the Rebels’ last 2 games, but he blocked 4 shots against Alabama and 5 against Auburn. McKinnis has three multi-block games under his belt inside the conference, including three in losses to Alabama and Georgia.

The Razorbacks have made 69 of 106 (65.1%) attempts in the restricted area in SEC play. They were 9 of 17 at Missouri on Wednesday.