What to watch for in Arkansas-Texas A&M

Arkansas forward Jalen Graham runs a play against UNC-Asheville during a game on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Fayetteville. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ men’s basketball team returns to Bud Walton Arena for a key Southeastern Conference game on Tuesday.

The Razorbacks are set to host Texas A&M for a 6 p.m. tipoff on ESPN2. Here are a handful of things to keep an eye on as Arkansas attempts to extend its conference winning streak to three games:

• Continued toughness from Arkansas

The Razorbacks, already a bit short-handed without freshman Nick Smith and forward Trevon Brazile, had a number of players step up with others in uniform banged up Saturday at Baylor, which moved to No. 11 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll on Monday.

Rhode Island transfer Makhel Mitchell may have impressed most in his run off the bench. The 6-10 forward injured his foot Jan. 21 against Ole Miss then missed last Tuesday’s win over LSU, but he returned ahead of schedule and contributed 4 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 blocks in 23 minutes as Makhi Mitchell battled foul trouble.

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said Saturday that the big was supposed to miss somewhat-extended time and could not walk a few days before the Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup with the Bears. It is unclear what Mitchell’s role will be Tuesday against the Aggies.

But if he is available, he could be vital as the Razorbacks throw bodies at Texas A&M forwards Henry Coleman and Julius Marble. The duo is averaging 21.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game in the SEC.

Arizona State transfer Jalen Graham rebounded better at Baylor than he had at any point this season and also pitched in a season-high four assists. His presence may be much-needed, and Arkansas certainly would like Makhi Mitchell, who has fouled out of four of the last six games overall, to remain on the floor.

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Starting point guard Anthony Black, too, injured his knee in the first half at Baylor and played through pain.

The Aggies, who are 7-1 in SEC games, won at Auburn on Jan. 25 and snapped the Tigers’ long home winning streak. Following the game, Bruce Pearl described Texas A&M as tough, hard-nosed and physical, and Musselman on Saturday said it is a deep, veteran team that plays hard.

It should be another intriguing matchup given Musselman’s team has seemingly flipped a switch effort-wise after three straight double-digit losses.

“I know that these guys are going to fight through injuries and show great toughness and grit,” Musselman said Saturday of the Razorbacks. “That’s what they’ve been doing, and they’ll continue to do that, these guys that are in uniform right now.”

The game features the SEC’s No. 2 offensive rebounding team in the Aggies (grabbing 37.1% of misses in league games) against Arkansas, the conference’s No. 2 defensive rebounding team. The Razorbacks have allowed SEC opponents to secure 26.8% of their own misses — behind only Kentucky at 22.9%.

According to KenPom data, the 6-8 Coleman, 6-5 wing Dexter Dennis and the 6-9 Marble all rank in the top 25 in league games in offensive rebound rate. Dennis had 16 rebounds against Florida and 12 vs. Missouri earlier this month.

• Minutes for Jalen Graham?

Glance at the box score from the Razorbacks’ loss at Baylor, Graham, based on the plus/minus column, was most impactful. Arkansas outscored the Bears by seven points in his 24:47 in the lineup.

The 6-9 forward provided the Razorbacks with a great lift on the backboards. Graham’s nine rebounds were three more than he had totaled in any other game, and his six defensive boards were a season high.

Most surprising about his performance was the four assists. Though he has played sparingly this season, Graham has been a high-usage player when in the lineup. According to KenPom data, he’s taken 28.9% of the team’s shots when on the floor.

Ricky Council, the team’s leading scorer, is second among active players in that metric at 26.1%. Graham’s 4 assists matched his total in the Razorbacks’ last 13 games, and they led to 9 points.

Those aspects of his play were terrific. He was also 2 of 6 on interior field goal attempts and 0 of 4 at the line.

Since his big scoring night against Alabama, Graham is 5 of 15 from the floor, and since Jan. 7, he is 1 of 10 at the free throw line. Those numbers, as well as a 24.6% turnover rate for the season, are not ideal.

Graham has played 42 minutes in the last two games, his most in a two-game stretch this season. It could be a result of matchups and/or quality play behind the scenes. Or it might be that Arkansas did not have Makhel Mitchell vs. LSU, and Makhi Mitchell found himself in foul trouble at Baylor.

Regardless, the Razorbacks scored 1.10 points per possession last week in Graham’s 60 on-court possessions, and allowed 0.67 PPP over 60 defensive possessions, according to HoopLens data. The site also shows the Bears made 16.7% of their two-point attempts in Graham’s 42 defensive possessions Saturday.

Should he be called upon against Texas A&M, continued aggressiveness on the glass and the defensive end as well as efficiency around the rim would be encouraging. Cashing in at the line would likely ensure more minutes, too.

Graham on Saturday was asked how he has been able to remain ready to contribute in some form or fashion.

“Just making sure that when we do scout that I'm locked in and making sure I know about all the players,” Graham said. “I’m an older guy, so it's easier, because I've been in situations like this. My freshman year, I didn't play. I was on and off. Just being ready for Coach and being ready for my team.

“I don't want to let my team down at all.”

• Playmaking of Wade Taylor

Tuesday’s game in Bud Walton Arena will pit a pair of the SEC’s assists leaders against one another in the Aggies’ Taylor and Arkansas’ Black.

Taylor, a 6-0 sophomore, is fifth in the league with 84 assists. Black is sixth with 82. Slowing Taylor’s ability to shot create for others may be among the biggest keys for the Razorbacks.

He is averaging 4.8 assists per game in SEC play. Taylor has recorded 5-plus assists 4 times since the league schedule began, including 7 against Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

According to KenPom data, the guard is fourth in league-only games with an assist rate of 34.2%.

Taylor has had a big impact on Texas A&M’s perimeter shooting, as well. HoopLens data shows the Aggies have shot 7.1% beyond the arc when he is off the floor in SEC games, and 35% with him in the lineup.

“(The Aggies’ success) starts with Taylor at the point guard position,” Musselman said this week on his TV show. “He can make threes and he’s got great quickness.”

Taylor has been at his best this season in true road games. He has averaged 17.7 points on 49.3% shooting and 37.5% from deep, 3.8 assists and 2.3 steals in 6 outings, and poured in 20-plus points in 3 of those games.

It will be interesting to see which Razorbacks player draws the assignment on Taylor. It may be junior guard Davonte Davis, or he could be matched up with Tyrece Radford, a multi-positional player at 6-2 who dropped 30 points in the Aggies’ win at Auburn and 22 at Kentucky.

• Which team can keep the other off the line?

Arkansas and Texas A&M have something in less than ideal in common: they send their opponents to the free throw line often.

Both teams, according to KenPom data, have a defensive free throw rate (free throws attempted divided by field goals attempted) outside the top 300 nationally. The Aggies’ figure sits at 37.4%, and the Razorbacks’ is 38.1%.

Arkansas is last in league-only games in this category at 45%.

The Razorbacks’ SEC opponents have averaged 24.5 free throws per game. Texas A&M’s have attempted 18.1.

No team in a major conference has a higher offensive free throw rate this season than the Aggies (45.5%), according to KenPom. They rank fourth nationally in that regard.

If Arkansas hopes to tally a solid home win ahead of a stretch in which it hits the road for 3 of 4 games, defending with great discipline and limiting Texas A&M’s attempts at the line will be paramount. The Aggies this season have made a league-high 392 free throws — 18.7 per game on 25 attempts.

On the flip side, the Razorbacks are top 40 nationally in free throw rate. Black, Makhi Mitchell and Council each rank in the top 15 in in-league free throw rate.