Later than usual, but Arkansas basketball showing its typical late-season strength under Musselman

Arkansas players huddle, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024 during the second half of the Razorbacks' 88-73 victory over Missouri at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. (Charlie Kaijo/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — A five-year trend for Arkansas men’s basketball under coach Eric Musselman is falling into place yet again.

The Razorbacks are gaining strength as the season goes on.

Arkansas (14-13, 5-9 SEC) added a bullet point to that theme on Saturday with an 88-73 win over a Missouri team that is winless in league play but not a pushover.

The Battle Line Rivalry basketball edition was commandeered appropriately by a Battle — Razorbacks’ senior guard Khalif Battle, who went off for 42 points, the most scored by an Arkansas player since Rotnei Clarke torched Alcorn State for 51 in the 2009-10 season opener.

Musselman made no bones about the relative momentum of his club heading into its game against Vanderbilt at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Bud Walton Arena (SEC Network).

“This is a basketball team that has really, really improved,” Musselman said. “I think we’re playing … and it’s not ‘I think,’ it’s a fact: We’re playing our best basketball of the year right now.”

Arkansas has won three of its last five games, with only one stinker in the mix — a 92-63 home loss to No. 5 Tennessee that featured a messy second half. Otherwise, the Razorbacks had a real shot to beat a physical Mississippi State team in Starkville, Miss., during a 71-67 loss on Feb. 17.

“We got a good flow going right now,” Musselman said. “How long that lasts, I don’t know. But we’re 4-3 in our last 7. …To be quite honest with you, we should be 5-2. The game at Mississippi State, I’m not going to comment on it, but if you watch the film over and over like I have, we should be 5-2, and there’s no questions about that.

“So we’re playing really good, and we keep rolling and try to have a good practice Monday, and get ready for Tuesday’s game because we are playing better than we have most of the season.”

The Razorbacks have won consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 21 and 30, and they have a shot at winning three in a row for the first time since taking down Lipscomb in North Little Rock on Dec. 16, followed by the nonconference wins over Abilene Christian and North Carolina-Wilmington.

A reduced bench due to injuries to forwards Trevon Brazile and Jalen Graham and guard Keyon Menifield has been one factor in the mini surge. Others include a tougher rebounding mentality, better defensive communication and execution and improved offensive efficiency.

There’s also the intangible of players’ morale.

“This is super important, and we’ve got to keep it going though,” Battle said of the team’s mood after consecutive wins. “I think the energy in the locker room is a little different right now. It feels like everybody is on one agenda and that’s just to win.

“Ride or die as best we can. No matter if it’s one point or 20 points, we just want to get a win and no win is easy in the SEC. To be able to come out here and get a win, we’re just trying to keep the ball rolling.”

The delicate balance of parceling out minutes and determining how deep to go into the bench will come into play yet again for Musselman’s staff during the remaining four games in the regular season and however long the Hogs can stay alive in the postseason.

Brazile got in a four-minute test of his rehabilitating knee in the first half against his former school Missouri on Saturday. Barring a setback and the state of his conditioning, he might be prepared for a longer run on Tuesday. Graham (shoulder) is on the brink of returning as he was essentially cleared for limited duty on Saturday. Menifield’s groin injury was slightly sore after Friday’s practice so he’s probably due for a return within a game or two.

Musselman has been honest about preferring a tighter bench, but he has also confessed that inconsistent play prevented the Razorbacks from honing in on a core group earlier in the season.

He said it was good to see Brazile get some action because he’s been dedicated during his rehabilitation.

“But the group that’s been playing well for us, that was the group we kind of rolled with and this late in the year, to work people back in becomes problematic,” he said.

“Jalen Graham’s been out a few games and he’s really helped us this year. We all know how talented T. Brazile is. He’s one of the most talented players in our league.”

Vanderbilt (7-20, 2-12 SEC), which has beaten Missouri and Texas A&M at home in league play, rallied marginally from a 21-point deficit to pull within 77-64 in a road loss at Florida on Saturday.

Arkansas has now swept two of its five twice-played opponents this season with consecutive wins over Texas A&M and Missouri. The Hogs have already split with Georgia and have chances to avenge earlier losses against Kentucky at Rupp Arena on March 2 and at Walton Arena against LSU on March 6.

“It always feels good to be on a winning streak,” Arkansas guard Davonte Davis said. “Like I said, me being able to be with this team and being able to contribute to help sweep two teams in a row is amazing.”