FAYETTEVILLE — The 10th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks inched closer to the 2022-23 regular season with an 83-49 victory over Division II Rogers State in the first of two October exhibition games on Monday at Bud Walton Arena, and a post-game analysis brings us to a Hoop Hogs stock watch to gauge phases of the game in which the squad as a whole showed improvement, remained static, or possibly regressed relative to five previous dress rehearsals.

Player rotations and on-court chemistryStock up. As expected, Head Hog Eric Musselman started freshman guards Nick Smith, Jr., and Anthony Black along with sophomore forward Trevon Brazile. After signaling during his Friday press conference that he might bring a couple of players with starter value off the bench to add “pop” to the second unit, Musselman elected to also start freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh and senior forward Jalen Graham.

Smith (9 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists), Brazile (9 points, 5 rebounds, 4 blocks), and Black (6 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block) led the charge in the first 20 minutes as the trio also combined for all five of the first-half dunks for Arkansas as the team steamrolled its way to a 37-20 halftime lead.

Brazile finished with 11 points (5-of-6 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3), 6 rebounds, and 4 blocks in 23 minutes. Walsh had 8 points, a game-high-matching 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals in 23 minutes. Black had 6 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block in 22 minutes. Smith had 9 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists in 20 minutes. Graham had 7 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block in 12 minutes.

Through the first 30 minutes against RSU on Monday. Musselman handed out the heaviest amount of playing time to seven players — the aforementioned starters plus juniors Devo Davis (he finished with 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal in 18 minutes) and Ricky Council IV (he had 8 points, 3 assists, and 2 rebounds in 20 minutes).

While it remains to be seen if in fact that becomes the top 7 rotation, at least for one night that group got Arkansas off to great starts in both halves.

“I thought we had a lot of guys really do a good job with the minutes that they were given,” Musselman said after the game.

Blue-collar basketball.Stock way up. The Razorbacks dominated the glass (42-22), points-in-the-paint (42-14), second-chance-points (17-7), and blocked shots (8-1). Defensively, the Hogs were lunchpail tough and stingy as they held RSU to 16-of-53 shooting from the field (30.2%), including 3-of-12 from 3 (25%).

While Musselman pointed out the dominance was relative to the level of competition, the beginning-to-end effort and results were nonetheless impressive.

“If you want to play, if you want to get on the floor, you’re going to have to play defense with us,” Musselman said. “We’re going to demand it. Obviously the last game in Europe we played about as good of defense as I’ve seen a team play and I thought tonight we were really good, but the level of competition changes drastically on Saturday (on the road against 12th-ranked Texas in the final exhibition game before the start of the regular season on Nov. 7).

Transition offense and style pointsStock way up. Smith, Black, and Brazile were simply breathtaking at times in the open court and finishing at the cup as they did most of the rim work on a 9-dunk night. Scary considering Council, the team’s show-stopping smash artist, did not find the highlight reel.

In fast-break offense, the Razorbacks were as sparkling as expected with a 19-0 advantage in transition scoring. They also converted on 11 of 13 layup attempts.

“After a dunk, just like we were talking about Coach Muss, it kind of brings us a spark of energy,” Black said after the game. “The crowd gets into it, the bench gets into it. And on the court, we’re like, ‘OK, let’s lock up and try to get another one.’ Plays like that give us a lot moment. We have a lot of players capable of giving us momentum like that and it’s good for us.”

Free throw shootingStock up and down. The 37 attempts were a welcome sight given that in four exhibition games in Europe in August the Hogs were only a collective 41-of-58 from the foul line for 70.7%. For a team that has been among the leaders in volume of free throws attempted the last three seasons, the constant trek to the free throw line on Monday was in line with expectations for this team. However, Arkansas only converted 20 of those for a disappointing 54.1% efficiency, something that is out of character for the program spanning the past few years.

“Historically, we’ve been a high-volume free throw attempt team,” Musselman said. “Thirty-seven FTA’s tonight, although we’ve got to improve drastically in our free throw percentage. But I thought we did a great job of attacking the rim and drawing fouls.”

Three-point shooting.Stock up, or maybe not. After being sub-30% from distance in four exhibition games in Europe in August as well as in last weekend’s Red/White scrimmage, the Hogs turned up the efficiency to 7-of-18 from 3 for 38.9% on Monday.

BUT, a big part of that equation was the hot-shooting of freshman wing Joseph Pinion, who nailed 4-of-6 from beyond the arc as part of his game-high 15 points. Pinion does not appear to factor into the Hogs’ Top 7-8 rotation as things stand now, so excluding his 66.7% efficiency the rest of the team shot 3-of-12 for 25%, which is more in line with previous exhibition play and is reminiscent of Arkansas’ struggles a season ago from beyond the arc.

“I thought Joseph played really well in the Red-White Game,” Musselman said. “I thought that he played really, really well tonight. You know, we were searching for that last year, a guy that could make a shot when we struggled. Mid-point of the year, we threw different guys in the starting lineup. I think with Joseph, his biggest thing is getting loose balls and defending. No. 0 hurt us at times and I thought he did as good a job tonight defensively as anyone we had on No. 0.

“He spaced it out. We ran plays for him. We probably ran more plays for Joseph tonight than we did anybody that checked into the game, including our starters. We ran him off red screens at least six times, maybe seven, so we called plays for him, which is a good things. I think if people try to zone us and we’re not making shots, I think tonight, he played his minutes, which is all you can ask.”

Turnovers / taking care of the ball.Stock down. The Hogs lost the turnover battle (17-14) although they did win points-off-turnovers (21-15). Both teams had 7 steals. Arkansas averaged 21.0 turnovers per game in Europe, but 17 on Monday was no consolation for Musselman, who sets a game-to-game goal of committing no more than 9 turnovers in 40 minutes. Many of Monday’s giveaways were unforced, although the Hogs suffered only 5 turnovers in the second half.

Giving the ball away was the first team problem-area that Musselman discussed during his post-game press conference on Monday.

“There are some areas we need to get better at, for sure,” Musselman said. “It’s turning the ball over, which was a problem overseas. The 16 turnovers is troublesome because we want to get a shot on goal. But we only had five in the second half, and it was kind of turnovers off trying to make home run plays. Pressure is not, I don’t think, going to bother us. It’s more just us understanding value of the ball. TB dribbled off his foot one time. AB tried to go full court. It wasn’t anything that, per se, the defense took away from us. It was more self-inflicted turnovers.

Photos by John D. James