Razorback basketball notebook: Minutes worth watching when Vols come to town

Arkansas guard Keyon Menifield (left) talks with coach Eric Musselman during a game against Georgia on Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024, in Fayetteville. (Charlie Kaijo/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — Doling out minutes in the University of Arkansas backcourt has been a season-long handful for Coach Eric Musselman and his staff.

Tonight at Walton Arena against the impressive Tennessee backcourt — led by veterans Santiago Vescovi, Zakai Zeigler, Dalton Knecht and Josiah-Jordan James — parceling out the minutes will be of even more importance.

“I think the backcourt minutes, it’s going to depend on matchups, it’s going to depend on who’s playing well,” Musselman said on his Razorback Sports Network radio show Monday. “The one thing, all of our guys have gotten an opportunity. Our players have gotten more of an opportunity this year than any other team I’ve ever coached at the college level.”

The backcourt roster of seniors Khalif Battle, Davonte Davis and El Ellis, junior Tramon Mark, sophomores Keyon Menifield and Joseph Pinion, and freshman Layden Blocker have all gotten starts and in different segments of the season they have been tabbed for more playing time.

“So we have a whole statistical package on each guy,” Musselman said. “The one thing that can’t be said is that guys haven’t had an opportunity.

“There’s a lot of things that go into decision-making, and so I don’t think it’s any two players. I think we have a whole group of guards. El Ellis sat for some games, now he gets an opportunity and he seized the opportunity. He played really good. El’s back in the rotation based on productivity in the Georgia game.”

In the musical chairs exercise in the backcourt, Battle and Pinion have recently been the most likely to sit. Davis’ return from a three-game absence will also soak minutes from somewhere as he averages 29.3 minutes per game.

Battle is working on back-to-back scoreless games in which he played 9 and 3 minutes, respectively, after totaling 28 points in 76 minutes in the three games prior.

Battle, who was scoring 16.8 points per game through Dec. 4, is now at 10.2 points per game. In SEC games, the Temple transfer’s scoring average of 4.2 points per game ranks ninth on the team and sixth among the guards, behind Tramon Mark (18.3), Keyon Menifield (6.8), El Ellis (6.0), Jeremiah Davenport (5.0) and Joseph Pinion (4.3).

Knecht-shun

Though Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht has proven to be one of the top scorers in the SEC this season, he spent a little more time than usual on the bench in the Volunteers’ 85-69 loss at Texas A&M last Saturday given his play on the other side of the court, plus foul trouble.

Texas A&M guards Wade Taylor and Tyrece Radford spent much of the game dribble-driving into the paint.

“They were just picking some matchups that they wanted to play some isolation basketball and they made some good shots, but they do that,” Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said after the game.

Knecht had 22 points on 6-of-15 shooting in 28 minutes, which is slightly less than his average. Radford scored 27 points and Taylor added 25 to account for 61.2% of the Aggies’ scoring.

“They’re willful drivers and they did a good job finishing at the rim,” Barnes said. “They were going to switch and keep moving it around until they got who they wanted in a matchup. Obviously there was no doubt they wanted to go at Dalton. … I thought we opened up our hips too much. That’s something we talked about and didn’t execute it the way we needed to.”

Knecht, a first-year transfer from Northern Colorado, played 12 minutes in the second half. However, his minus-9 plus-minus for the game was the third-best among Vols’ players, ahead of Josiah-Jordan James (-18), Zakai Zeigler (-16), Jonas Aidoo (-15), Santiago Vescovi (-12) and Jordan Gainey (-11).

Knecht’s 20.3 points per game ranks second in the SEC behind Alabama’s Mark Sears (20.5), and his scoring average of 26.4 in league play is well above second place Taylor (22.9), Sears (21.8) and Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves (20.6).

Getting back

With its 78-75 win over Georgia on Saturday, Arkansas improved to 11-3 under Eric Musselman in second games against an opponent in the same season after losing the first game. Georgia notched a 76-66 win over the Hogs on Jan. 10 in Athens, Ga.

The only exceptions have been a home loss to Mississippi State in Musselman’s first season in 2019-20, a road loss to Alabama last season and a loss to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament last season.

The statistic will be tested again this season during a road game at Kentucky on March 2 and a home game against LSU on March 6.

Series update

Tennessee holds a 25-22 edge in the series with Arkansas, joining Kentucky and Florida as the only SEC teams who have an all-time edge over the Hogs.

Arkansas held a 3-1 advantage in games played before the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1991-92 with wins in 1936, 1948 and 1960, and a loss in 1963. 

Tennessee has a 24-19 edge in SEC matchups, including a 16-4 advantage at Knoxville, Tenn., and a 6-2 lead in the past 8 games.

Arkansas leads 12-4 in home games and is 12-3 at Walton Arena, including a 7-game winning streak. Tennessee’s last win at Walton came in a 74-72 decision on Feb. 4, 2009.

Valentine’s play

Arkansas will play on Valentine’s Day for the first time in nine years tonight.

Though the Razorbacks won their last game played on Valentine’s — a 71-70 victory at Ole Miss under Coach Mike Anderson on Feb. 14, 2015 — it has not been a sweetheart of a date for the Hogs unless they are playing the Rebels.

Arkansas is 2-5 on games played on Valentine’s Day since joining the SEC for the 1991-92 season.

The Razorbacks beat Ole Miss 79-73 at Walton Arena on Feb. 14, 1996, under Coach Nolan Richardson in their first Valentine’s Day game as an SEC member. After that, the Hogs suffered heartbreak in five consecutive Valentine’s games, including a 74-71 loss at Tennessee in 1998.

They also lost 71-63 at Auburn in 2001; fell 77-70 at home against Mississippi State in 2004; dropped an 84-60 decision at Mississippi State in 2007; and lost 79-63 against Kentucky in 2009.

Over ‘over-rated’

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes is no fan of the “Over-rated!” chant heard quite often in college basketball during the late stages of victories over ranked teams.

Texas A&M fans serenaded the Volunteers with the taunt during the Aggies’ 85-69 win.

Asked about the crowd at Reed Arena in College Station, Texas, where Barnes has played many times with his Texas and Tennessee teams, he said, “I’ve got a lot of respect for A&M and I’ve been coming [here] a lot obviously. I think someone should teach them about ‘over-rated,’ because I think it takes away from their win and they’re a good basketball team.

“When you start chanting ‘over-rated,’ you’re diminishing the fact that your team played a heck of a basketball game and beat a good team. If we’re over-rated, what does that say for their team? But they’ve been doing that for — how many years have I been coming here, 25 years? So maybe you should write it and tell them.”

Barnes said the final sentence with a big grin on his face.

Talking Tennessee

Texas A&M Coach Buzz Williams went through a lengthy Tennessee tout after his Aggies walloped the Volunteers 85-69.

Williams’ analysis touched on veteran Coach Rick Barnes, transfer guard Dalton Knecht, who is the SEC’s leading scorer in conference games only, and the Volunteers’ premier standing in national metrics.

“They’re a 2 seed right now,” Williams said in reference to the NCAA Tournament bracket. “They’re fifth in the NET. They’re fifth in KenPom.

“You could argue that they’re a 1 seed. They have the player of the year [Knecht] on the team. They have a current Hall of Fame coach. And I’m not sure [Knecht] is the best prospect on their team. And we’ll have to be perfect just to have a chance to win by one.”

Clearly the Aggies weren’t perfect but they managed to lead by as many as 22 points at Reed Arena before claiming the 16-point win.