Arkansas men's basketball defensive limitations on display in blowout loss to LSU

LSU forward Derek Fountain (20) makes a pass as he falls out of bounds while guarded by Arkansas forward Jalen Graham (11) during an NCAA college basketball game at Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, Baton Rouge, La. (Javier Gallegos/The Advocate via AP)

Arkansas men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman sat on the bench with his arms crossed and face expressionless in the second half. 

The 1,000-yard stare, while silent, spoke volumes about the Razorbacks' performance Saturday, their season as a whole and the abyss in which they find themselves.

LSU beat out any optimism Arkansas’ close loss to Kentucky and win over Missouri may have built. The Tigers, and Will Baker in particular, reminded the Razorbacks of what this year has been and looks to continue being.

Arkansas’ defense, on paper, should have been better than LSU’s offense. Don’t get it twisted, neither are very impressive. 

The Razorbacks’ defense ranked 93rd in efficiency and the Tigers’ offense was 114th going into Saturday, per KenPom. LSU then won 95-74 while making Arkansas’ defense look the same as it did in blowout losses to Ole Miss, Florida and Auburn.

The scoreline tied LSU’s largest win over the Hogs in a regular-season game. A last-second steal-and-score from Tramon Mark was the only reason the record doesn’t stand alone.

Saturday was the fifth time this season that Arkansas has lost by 15 or more points.

“Defensively, not good. Offensively, no good,” Musselman said. “Hopeful we would be able to capitalize off our last two games. Obviously, we did not.

"Not a good game for us today.”

Let’s look at the numbers. 

LSU shot 54.7% from the field and 12 of 23 from beyond the three-point line, both season-worst figures for the Hogs’ defense. The Tigers shot 63% in the first half. LSU finished with 17 assists to Arkansas’ 10.

“It’s defending the three; it’s defending the dribble-drive. We’re not doing either,” Musselman said. “If we were, we’d probably have a better record. It’s our job to get players to improve, it’s our job to follow the game plan.

“Can never compare teams of the past, but we’re doing the same drills. Execution come game time is not there.”

Baker, who averaged 11 points on 50% shooting, finished with a game-high 25 points on 9-of-11 shooting. The 95 points were the most Arkansas has allowed this season.

Baker entered as LSU’s third-leading scorer and hit 29% from deep. He hit 4 of 5 attempts against Arkansas.

“He was hot,” Arkansas fifth-year forward Jalen Graham said. “He was just making shots.”

Arkansas (11-11, 2-7 SEC) has typically struggled against teams’ leading scorers. Texas A&M’s Wade Taylor scored 41 points against the Hogs, Missouri’s Tamar Bates had 29 and so on. Jordan Wright, LSU's lead man, was held without a field goal until there were two minutes remaining.

He still finished with 13 points.

“We just got to play better, man,” Graham said. “We’re not playing as good as we’re capable of.”

Perhaps the best indicator of how poor Arkansas’ defense was comes from its best stretch. The Razorbacks held LSU (12-9, 4-4) without a field goal for over five minutes, limiting good looks and forcing bad shots. Still, Arkansas never gave the impression of getting back into the game. The deficit was too large.

Complaints can be lobbed at the offense for not hitting enough shots in that period, but the lack of any true defense in the first half made it too much of a burden.

“The only thing I know is to go back and coach. This has been unlike things I’ve experienced,” Musselman said. “All I know is we get in the gym on Monday and we try to get better. … We got a lot of spots we’ve got to get better at — a lot — on both sides of the ball.”

Those four words — “unlike things I’ve experienced” — harkens back to that grim, blank stare in the second half. Arms crossed, no expression. This season, barring a remarkable turnaround, will be the first the Razorbacks will miss the NCAA Tournament under Musselman’s tutelage. No tournament was played in his first season. 

The defensive limitations, the offensive inefficiencies, all of it, doesn’t lend itself to a Mussleman-coached team. Perhaps that's why he sat, motionless, arms crossed, staring out into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center floor. 

This isn’t like anything he’s seen. And the defensive effort at LSU is evidence of that.