Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Arkansas

Arkansas offense

Pretty nerve-racking that Tennessee just played something very similar to this

It’s not quite 40 Minutes of Hell, but it’s a fun enough system. Hopefully you weren’t terrified by Tennessee’s performance against Alabama on Saturday, where all five members of Alabama’s on-court lineup could shoot a three or drive to the basket. Don’t fret, and maybe skip the part where I tell you that Arkansas does pretty much the exact same thing.

…okay, it’s not the exact same thing, to be fair. Eric Musselman’s system is still 5-out heavy with a lower emphasis on ball screens and a greater push towards off-ball movement. Arkansas isn’t quite as frank about taking threes as Alabama is, but they’ll still get their fair share (about 42% of all shot attempts). Similarly, Arkansas doesn’t get quite as many attempts at the rim, but it’s still a pretty big chunk of their offense. Essentially, I guess I’m saying this is like playing Diet Alabama, but with better athletes. Probably not ideal!

That might not be fair, but I’ll explore that more in the Tennessee section. For now, I’d like to explore Musselman’s past and how he got to Arkansas. Musselman’s run most of the same stuff since he started at Arkansas. Over the course of four years, he built a roster stuffed with high-quality transfers and excellent athletes that generally ran roughshod over the Mountain West. They were elite at turnover prevention, took a lot of threes, and generally got fantastic looks from both two:

And downtown:

Musselman did this to the tune of 86 wins in his final three seasons at Nevada, a Sweet Sixteen appearance, and his final three offenses ranking 36th, 7th, and 26th on KenPom. It was pretty amazing to watch, because mid-major offenses don’t often look as polished as Nevada’s did.

Through 1.25 seasons at Arkansas, Musselman has yet to find the same level of shotmaking he had at Nevada, but it simply takes time and patience. Tennessee went through the same struggles during the first three years of Rick Barnes’ tenure and finally struck gold in year four; the same could very well happen for Musselman, possibly even sooner.

The main driver of offense is…their sixth man?

For what it’s worth, the quality of the shots Musselman’s offense gets is fantastic. A large amount of it runs through junior J.D. Notae, who’s happy to get to the rim and draw lots of attention as the sixth-man getting starter’s minutes:

Which, in turn, frees up the rest of the floor for an open shot.

The best way to limit Arkansas’s efficiency, strangely, appears to be forcing the quicker shots. Arkansas ranks just 256th nationally in transition eFG%, a pretty shockingly bad rate for a team predicated on playing fast. It’s like Gonzaga if Gonzaga didn’t hit their open shots – totally counterintuitive, obviously, but it’s what’s holding Arkansas back from being a top 25 offense right now.

The Arkansas half-court offense looks much more efficient relative to the rest of the nation, though. They’ve been particularly good at scoring out of the less-frequent ball-screen looks, especially when it’s Notae driving the action. He’s pretty happy to pull up off of a screen from downtown anytime:

Moses Moody is scary

To focus here is to lose the plot of the rest of this scary rotation, though. Moses Moody, a 6’6” wing, is merely one of the most efficient scorers in America. Arkansas guards love kicking it out to him for a three:

For his size, Moody’s also a bit of a monster on the boards. He’s Arkansas’s second-best offensive rebounder behind small-ball 5 Justin Smith, and putbacks have been his third-highest means of scoring, per Synergy:

For my money, slowing down Moody is the key to a Tennessee victory. The only game Arkansas has lost this year featured Moody going 0-for-7 on two-pointers (though 4-for-8 on threes).

Missouri didn’t force bad looks as much as Arkansas just missed good ones

Again, it’s worth forcing Arkansas to take the most guarded threes possible; they’re at a 46/54 Guarded/Unguarded split this season, which suggests that they may be due for some positive 3PT% regression. Against Missouri, the Tigers at least got this ratio to 50/50. Arkansas still got off plenty of good looks, but in an unfortunate twist of fate, only 2 of the Hogs’ 11 wide-open threes fell.

(Ask Tennessee how that feels.) Tennessee can’t count on that same run of bad luck happening again, and they’ve got to do a better, stronger job of guarding these threes than they did against Alabama, when 8 of 15 catch-and-shoot threes went unguarded. To be honest, there’s few more embarrassing things that can happen in this season of SEC basketball than letting the Hogs’ 7’3” center make another three on you.

Plus, in that Missouri game, Arkansas got pretty fantastic shots inside the perimeter. 38 of the Hogs’ 71 (!!!!) shots came in the paint, and on a national-average shooting night, they would’ve hit 20 of these 38 attempts. They hit 11 and had a truly wretched stretch of shooting luck:

It just kind of is what it is on these nights, which, again, is something Tennessee fans can hopefully grasp after Saturday’s unfortunate loss. With the shots Arkansas got (all 71 of them!), an average shooting performance would have produced 71 points from these shots, and that’s before you add in the 23 points Arkansas got from free throws. The Arkansas offense is nowhere near as bad as it looked against Missouri, and I’m sure Tennessee’s staff is preparing for an all-out assault, particularly from three.

Here’s a scout of the full Arkansas rotation. The first five are the projected starters; everything after that is in order of minutes played so far. 

  • #11 Jalen Tate (scoring PG). Of Arkansas’s main five, it’s the point guard that’s the least likely to shoot a three. Tate prefers getting to the rim or, just as frequently, pulling up for a short jumper. The best passer they have, but also quite turnover-prone.
  • #3 Desi Sills (combo G). 37.5% from three, 56.4% from two. Sills is primarily a spot-up shooter, both in half-court and in transition, but he’s very good at getting to the rim and converting. Rarely takes a bad shot, rarely turns it over. Pretty ideal for a third banana.
  • #4 Davonte Davis (wing G). Musselman started Davis in the last game and his minutes have consistently gone up over the last month. Why? Well, he looks to be the best perimeter defender on the roster. Few players in the SEC have a better steal rate. Not a serious threat from three, but pretty good at getting to the paint and converting at an acceptable rate. 
  • #5 Moses Moody (wing G). The best player Arkansas has. Moody is making 42% of his threes, gets six free throw attempts a game, and can score from anywhere on the court. I’d like to see him improve at finishing near the rim, but Tennessee has to slow him down however possible.
  • #23 Connor Vanover (PF/C). 7’3” galoot that owns two of the four best shooting seasons ever from 3PT by a player 7’2” or taller. Vanover is a very strange player that takes over half of his shots from three and doesn’t score nearly as often at the rim as you’d guess. Fun fact: 16-for-16 on free throws this year.
  • #1 JD Notae (combo G). Jacksonville transfer and the driver of the Arkansas offense when on the court. The closest comparison I can think of is if Lamonte Turner were somehow more aggressive in finding his own shot. Why doesn’t he start? It might be that he commits 4 fouls per 40 minutes.
  • #2 Vance Jackson (stretch 4). Jackson is 9-for-31 from three on the season, which comes after three very consistent seasons at New Mexico where he made 48, 54, and 50 threes. I imagine he’ll get better, so don’t get too upset if he makes one.
  • #10 Jaylin Williams (PF/C). True freshman from Arkansas who got erased from the rotation entirely until the Missouri game, when he played 17 minutes and seemed to be a bit more comfortable in the post.
  • #12 Khalen Robinson (combo G). Rarely shoots the ball, but is 5-for-12 on threes this year, I guess.

NEXT PAGE: Might be trending down defensively

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