5 keys to Arkansas' dramatic hoops turnaround
There were high expectations for Arkansas basketball this season. And after a season-opening 9-game winning streak, things were rolling right along. Until they weren’t. The bottom (apparently) fell out on the Razorbacks in December. Arkansas lost 5 of 6 games to end nonconference play and open the conference season.
Arkansas didn’t just lose — they lost bad. The run started with a 22-point loss to Oklahoma and grew darker with a loss to Hofstra. After a solitary win over Elon College, Arkansas opened SEC play by laying a 3-game egg: losses to Mississippi State, Vandy, and Texas A&M. Sure, the SEC was competitive, but dropping 3 games to teams in the lower half of the league’s pecking order was widely assumed to be the end of the Razorbacks, who started the season ranked No. 16 after reaching the Elite Eight last year.
But not so fast. Since that time, Arkansas has won 12 of 13 games. That included a win over Auburn, a win at a ranked LSU squad and a 10-point win over Tennessee. The Razorbacks have climbed back into the top 20. They’ve made it back into the thick of the SEC title race, and have gone from the back edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble to moving up and up the NCAA seed lines. Whatever happened to Arkansas in December has … well … unhappened. So how did we get here? What turned around for Arkansas?
Here are a few good guesses.
1. Arkansas got back to playing defense
The common thread across Arkansas’s cold streak? Giving up a ton of points. Only Vandy failed to score 80 points in that awful run, winning their game 75-74. But A&M (86), Oklahoma (88) and even Hofstra (89) seemed to be scoring almost at will. Much of the damage was from 3-point range. Oklahoma was 13-for-22 against Arkansas, and 3 of the 5 teams that beat Arkansas topped 40% from long range.
Since then? Arkansas has only given up 70 points in 4 of the past 13 games, with 76 points the high. Nobody has hit more than 8 3-pointers against the Hogs and only once has an opponent topped 32% from long-range in Arkansas’ winning streak.
2. Getting on the backboard
In the losing streak, Arkansas did not take care of the glass. The rebounding margin in the 5 December-January losses: -9, -8, -11, -5, +11. Maybe that loss to A&M was a hidden turning point. Since that game, Arkansas has outrebounded the opposition in 11 of the following 13 games. A big chunk of the improvement has been the offensive glass. Only in that weird A&M game from the losing streak did Arkansas top 8 offensive rebounds. Since that game? Arkansas has had 9 or more offensive boards in 10 of the following 13 games.
Sure, rebounding is part of defense. But the offense got much smoother for the Hogs once they learned the art of the offensive rebound. The turn-around is no accident.
3. Notae taking notes
JD Notae is a solid candidate for SEC Player of the Year. But his leadership has emerged largely during Arkansas’ big run after the struggling losing streak. No, the losing streak was not entirely on Notae. But of the 5 losses, he missed 1 game and shot 3-for-14 and 6-for-17 in 2 of the other games. Only 3 times during the post-slump era has Notae been held under 15 points (and he had 14, 13, and 12 points in those games — with the 12-point game being the lone loss). Largely, Notae has been the difference in Arkansas being good and Arkansas being special. He had 28 points against Auburn, 19 points in the win at LSU, had 22 in Arkansas’s win at Florida. Having the alpha dog leading the hunt has certainly paid dividends for the Razorbacks.
4. Umude and Wade
Arkansas went through a major shift in the starting lineup in figuring out their early struggles. Grad transfer guard Stanley Umude has grown into a bigger and bigger role and forward Trey Wade has been a blue-collar scrapper. Guard Davonte Davis has thrived off the bench, and big man Connor Vanover had his role diminished, which has made Arkansas more mobile and explosive.
The current Arkansas starters — Notae, Umude, Wade, Au’Diese Toney and Jaylin Williams — have started the past dozen games. Melding the right personnel took time, but the new starters definitely caused some things to get right for the Razorbacks.
5. Arkansas went home
Look, all of the above things matter. But so has home-court advantage. Bud Walton Arena is one of the most imposing places to play in America. It’s not a coincidence that Arkansas’s December/January stumble featured a pair of conference road games, a pair of neutral site games and exactly 1 home game — a 75-74 loss against Vanderbilt.
That is the only home loss of Arkansas’ season. Yes, the Razorbacks took down Auburn at home. They’ll have at least a puncher’s chance Saturday against Kentucky. Like many teams in transition — as the Razorbacks were, given a wealth of new names and faces — Arkansas struggled away from home. They’ve gotten right at home, and are likely to be more effective away from Fayetteville down the season’s stretch.