After handing the Kentucky Wildcats one of their worst beatdowns in recent memory, the 4th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (13-2, 3-0 SEC; Kenpom: 7; T-Rank 8; NET: 6) now heads to Fayetteville, Arkansas for the first true road test of the conference slate. Awaiting the Tide will be the 15th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks (12-3, 1-2 SEC; Kenpom: 10; T-Rank: 17; NET: 16) and their head man, Eric Musselman. Bud Walton Arena has been a house of horrors for Tide Hoops over the years - you have to go back a decade for Alabama’s last win in Fayetteville and almost another decade (2005) to find a second one. Needless to say, this will be a challenge.
Here’s a nice little fun fact for y’all - Alabama and Arkansas are the only two SEC programs that have advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament here in the 2020s. And barring a Big Blue turnaround or a Rick Barnes-led team finally figuring out how to put the ball in the basket in consecutive games on the same weekend, there’s a good chance that remains the case in 2023.
To be fair, Arkansas isn’t the elite team many thought they would be coming into the season. The Hogs signed the second-best recruiting class in the country in 2022, highlighted by a trio of five-stars and the top-ranked player in the class, according to 247sports. Unfortunately, said top-ranked player, Nick Smith, has barely played for the Razorbacks this season, as he’s been dealing with a vague knee problem. It’s been defined as “right knee management”. The kid is a guaranteed lottery pick in the 2023 draft class, so it’s likely that he’s being smart about his future prospects.
Anyway, this is still a very talented team. Considering the Tide’s past in Bud Walton, it would behoove Alabama to come out ready to play their best game of the season, if they want to remain undefeated in SEC play and make a real run at the #1 ranking.
POINT 6’7 Anthony Black (12.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.8 APG, 90.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Davonte Davis (7.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.6 APG, 91.1 DRtg)
GUARD 6’6 Rickey Council (18.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 93.1 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Jordan Walsh (7.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.3 APG, 88.8 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Makhi Mitchell (7.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.2 APG, 80.3 DRtg)
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’5 Joseph Pinion (2.8 PPG, 92.2 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Kamani Johnson (2.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 86.4 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Jalen Graham (4.9 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 86.4 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Makhel Mitchell (3.0 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 75.6 DRtg)
As mentioned, this team looks a lot different with Nick Smith out on the court, but he’s not the only key injury Arkansas has sustained this year. Trevon Brazile, a 6’10 Missouri transfer who was leading the team in three-point shooting, also suffered a knee injury that likely ended his season. For a team that was ideally running an eight-man rotation, that’s an absolute killer.
Still, Arkansas’ starting five is among the best the nation. Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh are the other two five-stars that made up the Hogs’ 2022 class. Black has been awesome. At 6’7, his ability to score (48.8%/32.6%/72.6%) and handle the rock (19.7% AST% on 19.4% USG%) makes him a tough match-up for just about every guard in the country. Walsh hasn’t had a major impact yet (46.8%/25.0%/70.4%; 9.8% REB%), but he’s talented and defends well.
The Razorbacks’ best player on the offensive end has been Rickey Council - a transfer from Wichita State. He’s averaging nearly 14 shots per game (47.1%/29.8%/79.7%) and is third in the SEC in PPG, behind Brandon Miller and LSU’s K.J. Williams. He initiates the offense from the wing quite often. Davonte Davis is the veteran of the team, as he is the only guy who was a part of both Elite Eight runs in the previous two seasons. He’s an athletic, high-energy player who really gets after it on defense, but his offensive game lacks polish (35.3%/17.8%/76.0%).
In the post, Arkansas brought in a pair of twins from Rhode Island in Makhi and Makhel Mitchell (say that three times fast). Makhi has been the bigger contributor (65.3% FG%; 17.2% REB%), but Makhel has strong numbers as well (65.0% FG%; 18.1% REB%), and both have been elite rim protectors (Makhi: 8.6% BLK%; Mahkel: 13.1%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Take Care of the Basketball. You were expecting something different? You can see Erik about a refund. Arkansas is 23rd in the country in forcing turnovers (25.3%), and while Alabama has shown some improvement in this category recently, the Tide still ranks 299th in protecting the ball (20.8% TO%). The Hogs’ whole MO is to be aggressive as hell on defense - playing out on your hands and jumping passing lanes, get out in transition, and get to the free throw line. They are constantly attacking on both ends of the court, forcing opponents out of their comfort zones.
- Prevent Dribble-Penetration. Speaking of zones, Arkansas has been getting zoned to death recently. With Smith and Brazile both sidelined, the Razorbacks have been awful shooting the ball. If the Hogs aren’t getting downhill and attacking, they aren’t doing much scoring. They currently rank 342nd in the country in three-point shooting (28.7%). It’s their one glaring weakness. Thus, teams have been throwing zones out there - mostly the good ole’ 2-3 - and forcing Arkansas to make jump-shots. Now, Nate Oats pretty much only plays Man-to-Man defense, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s willing to break tendency and throw a zone out there tonight. Either way, Alabama needs to keep the Hogs in front of them.
- Fouls and Free Throws. The Razorbacks are currently short on depth. Yet, aggressive play is their style. Now, getting calls on the road isn’t easy, but Alabama is 22nd in the country in FT/FG ratio at 40.9%. If the Tide can exploit Arkansas’ eagerness on defense and use that size to get to the line and get into the Hogs’ bench, it will go a long way tonight. On the flip side, Arkansas’ best offense sometimes is just putting their heads down and getting to the line themselves, as they are 31st in the country in FT/FG ratio (39.4%).
This is a massive game for Alabama tonight, really. Not only is it a top-15 showdown in a place where the Tide rarely wins, but if Nate Oats’ squad can escape Bud Walton with a victory tonight, there aren’t many more games left on the schedule where Alabama won’t be heavily favored. The SEC as a whole has been a bit disappointing, to be honest. Outside of consecutive road trips to Auburn and Tennessee in February, the Tide will probably be favored the rest of the way.
Tonight’s game is listed as a pick’em. Arkansas will be looking to get back on track after a weak 1-2 start to conference play, and it should be a raucous environment. The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.