Missouri basketball is down and Arkansas aims to keep it that way

Arkansas' Jalen Graham (11) steals the ball from Missouri's Tamar Bates, right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

FAYETTEVILLE — One injury after the next reduced the playing rotation for Coach Eric Musselman’s Arkansas Razorbacks the last couple of weeks.

The roster issues led to the use of 8 players — only 7 for more than 7 minutes — in the Razorbacks’ 78-71 upset of Texas A&M on Tuesday in College Station, Texas.

A reduced bench has been a Musselman staple the last four years at Arkansas and it has largely been effective. The Razorbacks outlasted all their SEC brethren in the NCAA Tournament for the last three years. With a full roster, settling on a shorter rotation had been difficult to the point of unachievable for Musselman and his coaching staff this season.

Until now.

And it just so happens the Razorbacks (13-13, 4-9 SEC) have their best buzz going since knocking off then-No. 7 Duke on Nov. 29.

Arkansas will try to keep the vibe rolling in its final Saturday home game of the season in an 11 a.m. tipoff at Walton Arena against Missouri (8-18, 0-13), which is off to its worst conference start in program history and the lone winless team in SEC play.

Musselman discussed the hunt for the ideal rotation Thursday.

“So it has been guys kind of knowing when they’re coming in and out of games, and it’s been a little bit easier probably from a coaching standpoint, as well as a player perspective with the shorter rotation,” Musselman said. “Which is why we’ve done it that way for nine years.”

The Hogs are aiming for their first back-to-back wins since defeating Abilene Christian (83-73) and North Carolina-Wilmington (106-90) around the Christmas break. They are also aiming to complete a second season sweep in a row after beating Missouri 91-84 on Jan. 31 in Columbia, Mo., in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

Musselman warned Thursday just because the Hogs have kindled some heat doesn’t mean keeping the struggling Tigers down will be easy.

“I hope that we understand by this stage how hard it is to win a game in the league,” Musselman said. “It’s a super-competitive league and you look at all the close games that Missouri has played throughout the entire course of the season and we’ve got to play a great game to beat them.

“It’s an early start, got to wake up, got to get your body moving, got to get your competitive spirit in high gear from the beginning of the game, which we did at their place.”

An added spur for the Tigers: They have never lost 14 games in a row. Their 13-game skid matches the school record, also held by the 2014-15 and the 2016-17 teams.

Injured Razorbacks Trevon Brazile (knee), Jalen Graham (shoulder) and Keyon Menifield (groin) are questionable again. Brazile has missed the last seven games, Graham the last two and Menifield most of the last two.

Sorting out minutes when they return looms as yet another challenge on what has been a lengthy list for the Razorbacks.

“I mean, you’ve got to wait to see who’s available and who’s not available,” Musselman said. “The way we’ve played the last two games, I mean, those guys are going to deserve to continue to stay in somewhat of a role. But obviously if injured guys come back, you want to get them back in the fold as well.”

Against the Aggies, Tramon Mark (26 points), Makhi Mitchell (22) and Khalif Battle (15) accounted for 80.1% of the team’s scoring. Jeremiah Davenport (9), Layden Blocker (5) and El Ellis (1) contributed all the rest while the duo of Davonte Davis and Chandler Lawson combined to go 0 for 1 while being limited to 26.5 minutes largely due to early foul trouble.

That’s as short a rotation as the Razorbacks have employed all year, even accounting for the three games in which Davis was taking time away from the team. Musselman said the Hogs’ last 80 minutes (including a 71-67 loss at Mississippi State last Saturday) have been some of their most competitive of the season.

Mark emphasized the same point after beating Texas A&M.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to give up,” Mark said. “We’re going to play until the final buzzer. No matter how the season has been going, we’re going to play until the final buzzer. We’re going to play every game to win. We’re not just going out there trying to keep it close or anything. We play every game to win.”

The minutes for much of the roster outside of Mark, Brazile when healthy, and Davis have been inconstant.

“I think like with Battle, our defensive concepts, he’s been much better of late,” Musselman said. “When you’re not playing as well as you hope, you’ve got two things to do. You stick to what you’re doing or you try to continue to search and see what can work.

“Obviously you guys aren’t privy to practices and some of the statistical analysis … so there’s a whole bunch of stuff that factors into it [playing time and rotations]. Of late the group that’s been out there has done a good job for us.”

In the Missouri camp, Coach Dennis Gates wanted to make it loud and clear his team needs to improve at drawing foul calls. After a 72-67 home loss on Tuesday to Tennessee, in which the Volunteers took 27 free throws to 21 for the Tigers, Gates said his team was “[expletive] terrible at drawing fouls,” and suggested to reporters “Make sure you don’t bleep that out, all right?”

Missouri guard Sean East returned last week after missing two games. He has scored 25 and 24 points since. Transfer guard Tamar Bates lit the Hogs up for 29 points in the earlier game this season, while Mark had 22 points, Mitchell 19 and Menifield 16 for Arkansas.

The Tigers are up against some bad history. In their third season in the SEC, the Tigers won their conference opener in overtime against LSU then lost 13 games in a row, including two against Arkansas, before downing Florida on this date in 2015.

Their 2016-17 team lost their first nine SEC games before defeating Arkansas 83-78 at Mizzou Arena. That win broke a 13-game losing streak, a feat Missouri hopes to repeat against Arkansas again today.