Arkansas stumbled through their first six games in SEC play. They started the conference slate at 2-4, with a NCAA berth fading into the distance. The Razorbacks have won seven straight in the league since, and have vaulted up the standings into a tie for second. Eric Musselman’s team is playing as well as anyone in the conference over the last month. They held off a late rally by the Florida Gators on Tuesday to keep their streak in SEC play alive.
The Razorbacks non-conference schedule was not very strenuous. There one Power 5 opponent was a trip to Oklahoma State in the SEC-Big 12 challenge that they lost by four. They needed to make their mark in SEC play to help make up for a lack of quality wins outside the league. So far they are doing just that. This team is deep and athletic, and will be a handful for everyone they face from here on out. They finally got recognized by the voters this week, checking in at number 24 in the AP poll.
Justin Smith transferred in from Indiana for his senior season, and he has been an integral part of the Razorbacks success. The 6’7 forward was missing for three of their four losses in SEC play, so his impact cannot be overstated. Smith isn’t the team’s most talented player, but he is the guy who makes the most winning plays. His high in game IQ allows him to be in the right place at the right time when his team needs a play. While he is not the number one offensive option, his consistency has been a key for this squad. He’s scored in double figures in 13 contests this year. Smith had five steals and two blocks versus the Gators this week, showing his value on both ends of the floor.
Coach Musselman’s team is built on its balance and togetherness. They are fluid on offense and have multiple guys capable of leading the team on a given night. Four players average double figures, with three more scoring between seven and ten a game. Seven different guys have led the team in scoring in SEC play. The Razorbacks average 85 points a game on the season. They play fast and can score in multiple ways.
On the defensive end they rely on their length, athleticism, and connectivity. They are 40th in the country in defensive efficiency, and are among the nation’s best at forcing turnovers. Arkansas is not the biggest team, but they are long on the perimeter, and well disciplined in their team defense. In line with the schools tradition of “40 minutes of Hell” style of play, this team is very disruptive. They do have a 7’3” center in Connor Vanover who helps protect the rim. He is averaging two blocks a game, and alters even more shots than that.
Not only is this team balanced on offense, but they have guys who can put up big numbers as well. There has been a lot of talk about sensational freshmen guards in the SEC, most notably Sharife Cooper of Auburn and Cameron Thomas of LSU. The Razorbacks have their own star freshman in Moses Moody. A Little Rock native, the 40th rated recruit in the 2020 class decided to stay home for college. He leads the team with 16 point a night, and has started all 22 games this season.
Moody teams up with JD Notae to form a potent tandem in the backcourt. Both can go for 20 or more on any given night. Notae is a volume scorer who will get shots up in a hurry. The aforementioned Smith has also shown that he can get the Hogs a bucket when they need it. He is a mismatch for opponents, with the size to back down wings and the quickness to get by bigger players.
Arkansas is still trying to earn respect nationally because of their uninspiring non-conference slate. They have back to back quality wins at Missouri and at home over Florida. Each of those opponents is a tournament worthy team. With four games remaining in SEC play, the Razorbacks still have chances to boost their resume. A trip to Texas A&M is up next, followed by home games against Alabama and LSU. The two home games will be huge for Coach Musselman’s team. Arkansas is tied with LSU in the league standings, and both are looking up at Alabama. A strong finish and the Razorbacks can secure a higher seed as the NCAA tournament approaches.
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