What to watch for in Arkansas-Auburn

Auburn guard Wendell Green Jr. (1) dribbles the ball as Arkansas guard Ricky Council IV (1) defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ men’s basketball team opens SEC Tournament play Thursday against Auburn in Nashville, Tenn.

The Razorbacks are the No. 10 seed in the bracket, and the winner of the game will advance to face No. 2 seed Texas A&M on Friday. Arkansas has lost three straight games, and the Tigers are coming off a win over Tennessee in their regular-season finale.

Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. on SEC Network. Here are a few things to watch for in the game:

Arkansas’ three-point defense

Looking at Auburn’s full-season statistics, it is fair to say perimeter shooting has not been a team strength.

The Tigers sit outside the top 300 nationally in three-point accuracy, but numbers can be somewhat deceiving at times. The Razorbacks need to be sharp and sound identifying threats beyond the arc to hang around Nashville for more than one game.

In its first 10 SEC games, Auburn shot just 27% from deep. Those struggles contributed greatly to a 0.98 point-per-possession mark in that span.

But the Tigers turned things around rather impressively. In their final eight league games, they hit 38.8% of their three-point looks and scored 1.02 PPP.

KD Johnson, a high-energy guard who transferred from Georgia, made at least 1 three in 7 of those games, and he knocked down 4 apiece against Missouri and Alabama. Arkansas native Allen Flanigan shot 40.9% during that stretch as well.

And 15 of swingman Jaylin Williams’ 24 threes in SEC play came after Feb. 4. Another plus for Bruce Pearl’s club is forward Johni Broome hit 5 of 12 threes in the last 5 games, including 2 of 4 last weekend against the Volunteers.

Three-point defense has not been the issue for the Razorbacks of late. Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky combined to shoot 23.3% from distance, and all but one team was under 29%.

Can the Razorbacks slow Wendell Green?

The fiery 5-11 point guard threw the first couple of punches in Auburn’s home win over the Razorbacks in early January.

Green opened the game with a four-point play, then buried a right-wing three moments later to set the tone. And he has a chip on his shoulder entering the teams’ second meeting.

“It was a fun game,” Green said Tuesday of Auburn’s 72-59 win. “We don’t like Arkansas, so it’s a lot of intensity between us and Arkansas, so going into it we know that. We’ve just got to come ready. We beat them this year, played them one time, so we know they’re trying to get that get-back on us.

“It’s going to be a lot going into that game. We just want to try to find a way to win.”

According to HoopLens data, the Tigers scored 1.11 PPP in Green’s 53 possessions Jan. 7. He led Auburn with 19 points on 5 of 8 from the field and 7 of 9 at the free-throw line, and 5 assists.

Green has been somewhat boom or bust in the last eight games. He scored 20-plus points against Texas A&M, Alabama, Ole Miss and Tennessee, but failed to reach double figures in the other four outings.

In three of those single-digit scoring games, he finished with more field goal attempts than points.

An Eastern Kentucky transfer, Green will undoubtedly be out for blood against Arkansas. He has put up 19 points in both career meetings with the Razorbacks.

“Green has deep range,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “He likes to take big shots with the game on the line. He can dribble-drive as well. That's what makes him a tough cover.”

Mitchell twins’ production

Another game, another big matchup on the interior for the Razorbacks.

In addition to Auburn’s perimeter weapons, the Tigers have an all-league presence around the rim on both ends in forward Johni Broome, a 6-10 transfer from Morehead State.

Arkansas needs a strong performance from its own frontcourt, particularly the Mitchell twins, in terms of rebounding and altering shots in the lane. The Mitchells did not bring their A-games to close the regular season.

Makhi Mitchell had 4 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks in the final 3 games of the schedule, and Makhel Mitchell turned in 5 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks in that span. They also combined for six turnovers.

Any buckets they provide feel like a bonus at this point. More than anything, perhaps, the Razorbacks could benefit from the Mitchells returning to bully mode.

Musselman said earlier this week that the coaching staff was still formulating the course of action in defending Broome. The Mitchells are Arkansas’ best bet up front, but don’t rule out Kamani Johnson’s physical play being a factor.

“We need our frontcourt to play better than they’ve played of late,” Musselman said. “I’ve mentioned Kamani because Kamani brings something to our team as far as experience goes. And obviously we know we have a young roster and we know we have a lot of guys that this will be their first experience in conference (tournament) play.

“How our front line plays out in this first game, not really sure.”

Nick Smith’s playmaking

Lost amid Arkansas finishing 2 of 20 on layup attempts and giving up 37 points to Antonio Reeves last weekend was Smith turning in one of his better games since his February return to the lineup.

The freshman guard finished with 25 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals. The Razorbacks, who lost to the Wildcats 88-79, were minus-2 in Smith’s 35 minutes, and he was the lone Arkansas player to make more than 4 shots from the field (10).

Smith has averaged 21.8 points in the last four games and shot 44% from three-point range. Those are numbers that should instill some optimism.

Smith, who had seven assists in his first six games back, impressed against Kentucky as a play creator. His six assists last Saturday generated 14 points.

He made or set up 5 of Arkansas’ 7 threes and accounted for nearly half of the team’s points.

“He’s a great offensive player, so it’s just another dynamic that we have to stop, another shooter on the court,” Green said. “They weren’t shooting the best when we played them the first time, but I guess they’re shooting a little better now, but just another player on the court that we've got to try to control. 

“He’s going to get up a lot of shots, but just got to try to slow him down. That’s the main thing.”

Arkansas has shot 38.4% from deep with Smith on the floor the last seven games and scored 1.06 PPP, according to HoopLens data. Those numbers fall to 31.1% and 0.91 PPP with him off the floor.

“It doesn't make zone an option, like a no-brainer, because he can really shoot it and they'll be lined up,” Pearl said. “I think the other thing is it gives them another big guard.”