FAYETTEVILLE — And, breathe.
The Arkansas men’s basketball team seemed to try to hand Georgia the game. Stepping out of bounds, wayward passes, bad defense and still, the Razorbacks eked out a win and handed the Bulldogs their fifth consecutive loss.
Arkansas’ 78-75 triumph over the Bulldogs changes little about the reality surrounding the season. The Hogs are miles from NCAA Tournament consideration, barring the unlikely scenario of earning the automatic bid at next month’s SEC Tournament. The Hogs are still in the league’s lower realm.
“We’re still searching: Who we are and trying to figure out an identity,” coach Eric Musselman said. “Leading for 25-plus minutes was extremely important, especially at home.”
But a win, as they say, is a win. Arkansas led by as many as 12 points but gave the Bulldogs a way back into the game, and Georgia took the lead at the final media timeout.
There’s still a lack of consistency. Saturday introduced Arkansas’ 13th different starting five.
“Based on matchups, we might have different lineups,” Musselman said. “That just might be who we are. It’s not what we’ve always done.”
But the the Razorback faithful walked out of Bud Walton Arena pleased after they stood for the entirety it took for the final minutes to pass.
Improved perimeter defense
Musselman talked about new defensive drills they implemented during the week to improve Arkansas’ dismal three-point defense. Whatever the drills involved, along with some poor Georgia shooting, allowed the Razorbacks to sizably improve their defense from deep.
“All week, that’s been an emphasis. We can't give up threes anymore,” guard El Ellis said. “We were ready; we knew what we needed to do.”
The Bulldogs started 0 of 11 from the perimeter and finished 4 of 18 (22%) from the three-point line. Georgia didn’t attempt its first second-half three until the 12:33 mark but hit 3 of 6 attempts after halftime.
“We worked on it. We added a bunch of drills,” Musselman said. “I thought it really helped us. … What our players did in practice helped us tonight.
“That’s as good as we’ve done against a quality team guarding the three without a question.”
Rim protection, or lack thereof
The Razorbacks’ poor rim protection was one of the main negatives to take. Georgia outscored Arkansas 44-42 in the paint, a marginal difference. The concern, though, is how the Bulldogs ballooned their paint total.
The perfect example came in the first half, when Georgia guard RJ Melendez was left completely unguarded for one of the easiest two points of his career. That was his only basket of the game, but it highlights a concern for the Razorbacks.
There were a plethora of easy layups for Georgia. It was the first time Arkansas was beaten in the paint since getting blasted by Ole Miss.
The Hogs outscored each of their previous three opponents inside by a combined 124-88, though that is partially buoyed by their 56 paint points against Missouri.
El Ellis’ revival
Ellis hadn’t played since he conceded crucial turnovers in the loss to Kentucky on Jan. 27. He did not play in two consecutive games.
Then came Saturday.
Ellis started and played 37 minutes. He scored 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting with 3 three-pointers — including the crucial shot late in the game to regain the lead — with 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Perhaps his best, and most crucial, stat was the single turnover.
After being a large part of the collapse against the Wildcats, Ellis was the catalyst for the win over Georgia.
“I thought his practice habits were really good,” Musselman said. “I thought he was extremely focused, so he got the start tonight.”
Ellis’ defense against the Bulldogs’ 4 was a major part of Arkansas’ defensive success down the stretch. Musselman conceded that there aren’t many SEC matchups that allow for Ellis to take opposing 4s, but Saturday was a rare exception.
The former Louisville standout looked like himself.
“[It was] really just staying ready, staying in the gym, being confident in myself,” Ellis said. “I’ve produced at this level, so I just had to keep that confidence in myself, keep that mindset.”
The Devo Davis experience
Davis, who missed the previous three games after stepping away from the team for undisclosed reasons, returned to a standing ovation.
Some will highlight his late turnover and fouling Justin Hill on a late three-pointer, but Davis’ efforts were key to Arkansas’ win. He finished with 4 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. He dove on loose balls, defended viligantly and was a key cog for 35 minutes.
“He really, really busted his behind this week,” Musselman said. “He’s a guy that understands all four positions on the floor.”
“It was good having Devo back, especially his IQ on the defensive end,” guard Tramon Mark said. “We looked fundamentally sound tonight and it was good for us.”
Offensive improvements, new plays
Musselman preached the importance of new plays and offensive sets throughout the week.
Off-ball movement was better and the Razorbacks finished 6 of 8 from the field in the final 7:05 and shot 73% in the second half.
“I liked our new flow offensively, the way we did things,” Musselman said. “I really did.”
Arkansas still had 12 turnovers, though four came when players stepped out of bounds.
“I feel like the guys on the team have really good attention to detail,” Ellis said. “Whenever something new gets put in, we’re always trying to execute it, we’re always going hard when we’re doing it and it showed tonight.”