Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Arkansas, Part One

OPPONENT #23 Arkansas
20-6, 10-4 SEC, #22 KenPom
25-7, 13-4 SEC, Elite Eight 2020-21
LOCATION Springfield Mystery Spot
Fayetteville, AR
TIME Saturday, February 19
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -1
Torvik: Arkansas -0.9

It just feels pretty good man. Tennessee essentially needed to leave this week no worse than 1-1 to keep pace for the SEC 2 seed and for a top-three NCAA Tournament seed. All you had to do was win one. You got the one, and now you can travel into the Fayetteville House of Horrors For Anyone Not Named Arkansas with house money and a relatively clean mindset.

The opponent is Arkansas, who looked dead in the water in mid-January and has instead risen from the ashes to become the consensus fourth-best team in the SEC. All three years under Musselman, they’ve had like a five-game span of suck and the rest is somewhere between good and great. Even better: this year, I’ll actually pick them in a bracket.

Arkansas’ offense

Well, I’m not sure what to tell you? Arkansas’ season is a tale of two not-quite-halves that I’m calling halves: the first 16 games where they rotated through eight different starting lineups thanks to injuries and poor play, followed by the last 10 games where they’ve stuck with a starting lineup and gone 9-1. The problem is that this matters a lot more for defense than offense (numbers via Torvik):

  • First 16 games: 48th overall, 48th offense, 69th defense
  • Last 10 games: 11th overall, 108th offense, 1st defense

So yeah, don’t know what to say other than just ride with the season-long numbers and hope it makes sense.

You can pretty neatly divide the Arkansas offensive attack into two halves as well: the primary break (transition) and the secondary break (half-court). You can also do this for literally every college basketball offense in existence, but bear with me. Arkansas’s aim off of a missed basket or turnover is to push the pace as much as possible. Per Hoop-Math, 31.8% of the Hogs’ first shot attempts in a possession are in the first ten seconds of the shot clock, which ranks 41st-quickest in the nation. Most of Arkansas’ offense is driven in general by J.D. Notae (18.8 PPG, 3.5 APG), but especially in transition, where he’s responsible for 108 shots this year, 42 more than anyone else on the team.

If you just look at the Synergy data, then both parts of this offense look good. Arkansas is in the 76th-percentile of offensive efficiency when pushing the pace; they’re in the 56th-percentile in half-court. That happens. But Hoop-Math is more objective when it comes to transition: either it’s in the first ten seconds of the shot clock or it isn’t. And that’s where the story begins to be told:

  • Transition eFG%: 58.1% (#65 of 358)
  • Half-court eFG%: 46.8% (#276 of 358)

Whenever the pace slows and Arkansas is forced to run their secondary actions, the offense turns to mush. That alone may explain how Arkansas has managed to get hot at the right time despite an offense that’s gotten significantly worse over a 9-1 stretch of play. The shot selection changes as well. Normally, that’s not something to care much about – every team’s shot selection gets worse the deeper the shot clock goes – but Arkansas is a bizarre extreme in this:

  • Transition: 48.2% of FGA at rim, 17.1% mid, 34.8% 3PA
  • All half-court: 33.8% rim, 32.8% mid, 33.4% 3PA
  • 25+ second possessions: 22% rim, 40.7% mid, 37.3% 3PA

Arkansas goes from Gonzaga in transition to Gonzaga 40 years ago deep in the shot clock. It’s bizarre, because Notae is the leader of both breaks, and Notae’s shooting gap on the rest of the roster actually grows in half-court (295 FGAs; next-closest 177). Notae’s problem is that he defaults to a jumper on 58% of his half-court possessions when…well, he’s kind of a below-average shooter.

Notae is 31.6% from deep this year on 177 attempts and a perfectly average 33.3% on 640 attempts for his career; he takes a ton of difficult shots and rarely gets off a clean look. He kind of has to, because as a whole, this Arkansas offense is light on jump shooters. Synergy ranks the Hogs in the 10th-percentile in jump-shooting in half-court offense, which is, you know, putrid. It helps the numbers in the graphic make sense: 31.4% from deep, a terrible hit rate, and 33.6% on two-point jumpers.

Arkansas has three other guys that average between 10.2 and 11.4 points per game: Stanley Umude (11.4), Au’Diese Toney (10.3), and Jaylin Williams (Not Auburn’s Jaylin Williams) (10.2). All three have their own strengths; to highlight the latter two, Toney is a lower-usage guy that’s terrific at scoring down low via basket cuts and some drives, while Williams (NAJW) is a big that posts up some but most frequently features in ball-screens with Notae.

Umude is the most interesting and versatile of the three. The South Dakota transfer has 40 or more makes at the rim, non-rim twos, and on threes. Is he particularly elite at any of them? Uh…not really! But he’s at least good at most forms of offense. Also, he’s annoyingly good at mid-range twos; prepare yourself for a couple that go down at some point.

Others: Chris Lykes (8.7 PPG) transferred in from Miami and is a horrific shooter that nonetheless will somehow get to 8 points. Davonte Davis (8.7 PPG) was the hero of last year’s Elite Eight run, but he’s struggled to follow that up; he’s at 26.4% on threes and has really only added value by driving to the rim. Everyone else, including Slenderman Connor Vanover, is at 4.2 PPG or lower.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Arkansas’ defense

Unfortunately, this is the side of the ball that’s completely turned the Razorbacks’ season around. As mentioned in the offensive section, this has been the best defense in America over the course of the last month of play. Two things have driven this turnaround: a lot of forced turnovers and a terrific two-point defense turning up the heat.

Strangely enough, I don’t think Arkansas has changed that much structurally. It’s just that they seem to be working as a cohesive unit, investing a ton of effort on defense to ensure that the opponent is uncomfortable for all 30 seconds of the shot clock. This is a hyper-aggressive style of play that’s naturally going to commit some fouls, but the rewards are pretty obvious when things work out.

In this 10-game stretch, Arkansas has forced turnovers on 22.4% of opponent possessions, the 22nd-highest rate in that span. Notae is unsurprisingly a hound on that end, but a guy who’s taken a big step forward year-over-year is Jaylin Williams. Williams was promising last year, but he ran hot and cold depending on the night. His defense, particularly his dominance on the boards and in creating havoc plays, has helped turn this Arkansas defense as a unit into something special.

But, yeah: as a whole, this team has only given up a 43.6% hit rate on twos across their last ten games. Part of this is just that effort we’re talking about, but such effort has led to a worse shot selection for opponents. The share of three-point attempts by Arkansas opponents has fallen from 43.5% of all shots in non-conference play to 36.4% in the SEC. They’re running shooters off the line, and as mentioned in the Kentucky preview, this is the defense forcing the highest amount of runners/floaters in the SEC. The actual around-the-basket finishing rate for Razorback competition is around the national average, but they’re doing a great job of forcing shots from 6-9 feet that aren’t going down.

Along with that, the rate of shots at the rim has held steady, and the overall shot quality for Arkansas opponents has dropped dramatically. That’s how you produce a mid-season turnaround that’s turned Arkansas from a bubble team to a legitimate 6 or 7 seed no one hopes to draw come Selection Sunday.

And yet: it’s time to bring our old friend, the Regression Devil, back for another round. We last talked to him before the home battle with LSU, showing that LSU was beyond due for some massive three-point defense regression. The Tigers were holding opponents to about a 27% hit rate from deep; the expected hit rate was 34%. From that game onward, LSU has allowed a 33.5% 3PT% defensively. Regression, positive or negative, will eventually come for everyone.

That’s about the only flaw I can point out with this Arkansas defense: they’re probably due for an opponent heater from three. Over the last ten games, opponents have hit just 28.3% of their threes. To the Razorbacks’ credit, they’ve done a terrific job keeping the ball out of the corners, as just 21% of threes have been there. Still: of 138 catch-and-shoot threes allowed since January 15, 74 (53%) have been deemed Unguarded, per Synergy. The hit rate on these has been just 32.4%, nearly 5% below what would be expected of an average team.

It’s simply hard to see that holding, but the problem is that opponents are only getting off 13.8 catch-and-shoot threes per game over the last month of play. We’re talking about, like, one extra made three per game. This is a legitimately excellent defense now.

How Tennessee matches up

If those Arkansas last-10 numbers worry you, think about it this way: across Tennessee’s last ten games, they’ve had the 8th-best offense in America, adjusted for opponent. What’s strange about it is that they’ve actually struggled to hit twos (46.3%, or 283rd-best), but basically everything else is good: 39.6% from deep, a national-average offensive TO%, 34.1% OREB% (35th-best), and a top-100 free throw rate. Even if they cool off from downtown, which seems fairly likely, they could make up for it by just being more efficient down low.

As noted by the average finishing rate opponents have had against Arkansas, I think there’s some gold to be struck here. It’s not like you’re playing Georgia or whoever, but you can score in the paint with the correct timing against this group. Per Synergy, Arkansas ranks in the 11th-percentile in defending basket cuts. That’s pretty wild for a team that’s so good defensively otherwise, but when you’re as aggressive as they are, you can extend out too far and allow a passing lane to open for two easy points. Case in point:

Likewise, as mentioned, Arkansas has been terrific over the last month-plus at running shooters off the three-point line. I expect they’ll hound Santiago Vescovi throughout this one in an attempt to limit what Tennessee’s best deep shooter can do. The way I would counteract this is with a single-big lineup – four guards/wings, one center. Arkansas can run Vescovi off, but if everybody’s running everybody off, you either have a driving lane to the basket or a wide-open shooter somewhere else. Given the Guarded/Unguarded split Arkansas has posted both in conference play and season-long, I would use this to my advantage to give guys a chance to hit some open shots. Keep the ball moving.

At the risk of saying this will be…uh, “easier” defensively, it will be easier defensively than having to keep a Player of the Year contender off the boards. Arkansas’s offense is the less fearful unit of the two by a significant margin, and generally, the goal is just to make them hit jumpers. If you can stop or at least limit the transition game as much as you did against Kentucky, the Razorback half-court offense isn’t terribly impressive and goes cold for long stretches of game time.

A key thing I’m looking for: how well can you limit drives to the basket? Arkansas doesn’t do much in the way of post-ups, and the team’s two leaders in attempts at the rim are Notae and Toney, neither of whom play a frontcourt position. Notae in particular is willing to pull up for floaters; again, Tennessee did a great job of encouraging that on Tuesday. If you’re able to hold Arkansas to 20 or fewer attempts at the rim, you’re doing the best you can to ensure a victory.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Turnovers. Arkansas has only lost the turnover battle in seven games this season; three of those were losses. Tennessee’s won the TO% battle in four in a row and five of six.
  • Who gets more from their bench? Oddly specific, but a potential area of success for Tennessee. In their last two SEC losses, Arkansas got a total of 29 bench points on 7-for-36 shooting.
  • Shooting. Duh! It’s basketball, after all. Arkansas is a perfect 14-0 when their opponent posts a 49% eFG% or worse and 6-6 otherwise; Tennessee is 15-1 when going for 49% or higher.

Key matchups

JD Notae vs. Kennedy Chandler. The deciding matchup. Even in games Arkansas has lost, Notae has shot well and kept the team in it. Chandler must bring it defensively for all 40 minutes.

Jaylin Williams vs. John Fulkerson. Alternately, a huge cluster of centers versus Jaylin Williams. As many as five different guys could get this matchup, and Jonas Aidoo certainly looks promising, but Fulkerson is likely to get the most minutes against the Razorbacks’ second-best player, who is terrific on D.

Au’Diese Toney vs. Santiago Vescovi. Josiah-Jordan James will start out with this matchup, but if Tennessee follows what they’ve followed for two weeks now, Vescovi will close. Toney does not jump out as an especially notable defender; Vescovi, unless double teamed, may shake loose for some open ones.

Three predictions

  1. I get a McDonald’s chicken biscuit, possibly two, on Saturday morning;
  2. Tennessee leads for over half the game before Bud Walton Arena happens;
  3. Arkansas 70, Tennessee 68.

3 thoughts on “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Arkansas, Part One

  1. Great article, as usual! However, I find it odd that you break down so many different trends but don’t mention home court advantage until the very end with your prediction. Are there not statistical aspects of Bud Walton worth highlighting? In a league where the top 4 teams are 56-1 at home, that seems like it could be a huge aspect (and what scares me most) about this game. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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