Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for the Hawgs Sports Network. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas and previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was the 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
4-Point Play: What to watch for when Arkansas hosts Gardner-Webb
Davonte Davis brings the ball up the court in the second half against Alcorn State on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat Gazette/Caleb Grieger)
FAYETTEVILLE — The No. 14 Arkansas men’s basketball team returns to Bud Walton Arena on Friday for a 7 p.m. tipoff against Gardner-Webb.
The Razorbacks raced to a 93-59 opening-night win over Alcorn State on Monday. Here are a few things to keep an eye on in Arkansas’ second game of the 2023-24 season:
The second-year transfer from Rhode Island was the first player off the Arkansas bench earlier this week against the Braves. His stint on the court was short-lived.
Mitchell, who battled a broken foot in the summer months, recorded only a personal foul in four minutes of action in the opener. The four minutes were a single-game low in his time with the Razorbacks and matched the lowest in a game in which he played in his career.
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman demands productivity in some form or fashion from his big men — particularly defense and rebounding — and apparently did not like what he saw from Mitchell early in the first half. Unofficially, he allowed one Alcorn State field goal on one shot defended.
Will Mitchell be more in-tune with what Musselman wants against Gardner-Webb? It would be encouraging if he is.
At this point, rim protection may be the biggest question mark surrounding Musselman’s fifth team, and Mitchell is as close to a rim-protecting big as the Razorbacks have. Other forwards are capable of blocking and altering shots, but he is best suited to be physical in the lane.
Mitchell served as something of a bully in the restricted area at times in 2022-23. It would be a positive to see some of that emerge again against the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
Mitchell was probably the least-talked-about scholarship player in the summer and preseason. A bounce-back effort Friday may change things.
In some respects, Arkansas’ fourth-year guard played like the veteran he is in the Razorbacks’ opener, finishing with a game-high 5 assists and 0 turnovers, and 5 rebounds. That is ideal.
Davis also took a bit of a backseat from a scoring and seeking-his-own-shot perspective. He finished with 5 points on 2 of 5 from the field, including 1 of 3 from three-point range. Davis was just fine setting the table for others.
His 5 assists, spread among 3 teammates, generated 13 points for the Razorbacks. KenPom data shows he assisted on 33.8% of Arkansas’ buckets when he was on the floor.
After Monday’s showing, Musselman may put the ball in Davis’ hands more against Gardner-Webb.
Musselman was not pleased with opening-night point guard play, particularly Louisville transfer El Ellis’ three turnovers. Khalif Battle’s three miscues probably did not sit well with him either.
From a defense standpoint, Davis had 1 steal and unofficially gave up 3 scores on 5 shots defended. It would not be a surprise if Davis hits the floor again and is charged with slowing the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ top offensive option.
He could have a good early season test on his hands with guard DQ Nicholas, an All-Big South first-team selection in the preseason. He averaged 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists last season.
Nicholas scored 13 points and made 4 threes, and had 5 rebounds and 3 assists in Gardner-Webb’s season opener.
After both preseason exhibitions and the season opener, Musselman fairly quickly pointed out where the Razorbacks needed to improve most before their next outing.
Following the Texas-Tyler exhibition, physicality was called for. After Purdue, effort on the backboards was a must. And Tuesday during his radio show, Musselman said his team’s offense was ahead of the defense.
More specifically, he noted Arkansas has to maintain its defensive aggressiveness and do so without fouling.
“You’ve also got to defend with intelligence and understand when the other team is in the bonus and how to space your guy out,” Musselman said. “[Some] guys have got to learn. … Like, you want to be aggressive, but you’ve also got to understand how to temper that aggressive when in fact the opposing team is in the bonus.”
KenPom data shows the Razorbacks posted a defensive efficiency rating of 82.0 in their opener and forced a turnover on 22.2% of Alcorn State’s possessions. Musselman wants more defensively, and I expect Arkansas to be locked in and stingy Friday.
“Coming here, Coach Muss really emphasized [defense],” Battle said Monday. “Just high hands, being active, all the little things to show everybody that you play defense. It’s not as simple as keeping your man under his averages. It’s as simple as team defense, knowing concepts, talking.
“Things like that are what Coach Muss emphasizes [for] all of us.”
Rim protection must improve, too. CBB Analytics shows the Razorbacks allowed the Braves to make 12 of 19 (63.2%) shots at the rim in the opener. We will see if Arkansas can send a message with its interior defense in Game 2.
In a sarcastic tone, “Thanks” was Musselman’s response Monday when a reporter pointed out that the Razorbacks made more three-pointers in Game 1 of 2023-24 than in any game a season ago.
“It was really important that I didn’t keep hearing about it from you guys and everybody else about our shooting,” Musselman added. “We tried to address it. I think we addressed it, but only time will tell.”
Arkansas hit 12 threes against Alcorn State on 30 attempts (40%) and got at least one perimeter hit from seven players. Houston transfer Tramon Mark led the way with four and Battle made three.
Will we see similar figures in terms of makes and attempts against a step up in competition? I think so.
Mark and Battle shot the ball with great confidence Monday, and Trevon Brazile did as well. The Razorbacks also had good Game 1 success despite Cincinnati transfer Jeremiah Davenport being 1 of 6 beyond the arc. He is a candidate for Friday standout from three-point range.
CBB Analytics shows Arkansas was 7 of 14 from deep on the right side of the floor and 3 of 7 on the left wing in the opener. I like that 11 of the team’s perimeter attempts came from the corners.
The Razorbacks will need to be on their toes defending the three as well. Gardner-Webb was 14 of 36 from deep in its opener, though several makes and attempts likely came in garbage time.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs’ starting backcourt in the opener launched 17 threes Monday — almost twice as many as Alcorn State as a team. Consider Friday the Razorbacks’ first test defending the three.
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