Hogs, Huskies expect 'all-out war' on interior

Arkansas forward Makhi Mitchell goes up for a shot during practice Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS — The Arkansas and Connecticut basketball teams will be likeminded in their expectations in regards to interior play during Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup at T-Mobile Arena.

The Huskies, the No. 4 seed in the West Region, will enter the game with a plus-9.3 rebounding margin. It is the best margin among teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament.

On the other side, the eighth-seeded Razorbacks reached their third consecutive Sweet 16 under Eric Musselman, in part, because of their energy and effort on the backboards. Arkansas out-rebounded ninth-seeded Illinois 43-34 in its NCAA Tournament opener and top-seeded Kansas 36-29 in the second round.

There is sure to be no shortage of physicality around the rim Thursday, and the Razorbacks’ front-court pieces are confident they will handle it well.

“It’s going to be a man’s game, for sure,” Arkansas forward Makhel Mitchell said Wednesday. “I feel like we can match their physicality. They also have to match ours, too. It’s going to be an all-out war.

“We have to execute and defend at a high level, me and the other bigs. I’m going to take it personally. I don’t back down from anything.”

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UConn is led up front by Adama Sanogo, a 6-9, 245-pound forward who was named an All-America honorable mention by The Associated Press earlier this month. He has 7 double-doubles this season and is averaging 20.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in 4 games during the postseason, including the Big East Tournament. 

Multiple Razorbacks compared Sanogo’s game — particularly on the glass — to that of Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe and Mississippi State’s Tolu Smith. The Huskies’ front line is bolstered by 7-2 freshman Donovan Clingan, who has four double-doubles.

“We match up pretty well with both of their bigs,” Arkansas forward Makhi Mitchell said. “Both of those guys are talented, but I think we have the willpower, the toughness and length and athleticism. I think we have what it takes to contain them.

“This is going to be an all-out brawl. We’re not laying down. No bucket is going to be easy, so it’s going to be good.”

Limiting UConn on the offensive glass will be key for the Razorbacks if they hope to advance to their third consecutive Elite Eight. The Huskies are eighth nationally — and first among the 16 remaining teams — at 13.1 offensive rebounds per game.

KenPom data shows UConn has grabbed 38.8% of its misses this season. In Big East play, that figure rose to 40.1%, which led the league.

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“It’s important,” Makhel Mitchell said when asked about Arkansas’ defensive rebounding. “That’s what Coach keeps screaming and keeps emphasizing to the team. He did kind of the same thing to us when we played Kentucky. We’ve got to carry those little mechanics and tools [from the Kentucky games] into this game to help us.

“It’s our job to go out there and make sure they don’t get offensive rebounds.”

After giving up 17 offensive boards during their loss to Texas A&M at the SEC Tournament, the Razorbacks allowed Illinois and Kansas to corral 10 misses combined.

During their 70-55 second-round victory over Saint Mary’s last Saturday, the Huskies had a streak snapped of 17 consecutive games with 10-plus offensive rebounds. UConn, behind a 54% shooting performance, grabbed four of its missed shots.

“Part of this game is going to be played in a really physical way on the backboard,” Huskies coach Dan Hurley said Wednesday. “For us, I don’t know if we have quite the same level of athleticism, so we’ve got to be more fundamental in terms of putting a body on a body, being in inside position and then being really physical at that point.

“We pride ourselves on winning the rebounding battle, as they do. It’s going to be a war when the ball goes up tomorrow on the glass, no doubt.”