These inexperienced Hogs squeezed out some valuable March experience in Colgate scare
If you were high on the Hogs heading into the NCAA Tournament, that fork-in-the-road moment came early on Friday. Real early. Down 14, SEC Freshman of the Year Moses Moody picked up an offensive foul and went to the bench with just less than 5 minutes to go in the first half. The Hogs were the inexperienced 3-seed feeling the target on their backs and the weight of March grew heavier and heavier with each ill-advised shot.
And then, an exhale.
A picked pocket there, a layup in transition there. A hand in the passing lane here, a drive to the basket there.
In roughly 5 minutes, all that March inexperience faded into the Bankers Life Fieldhouse rafters. Arkansas grew up.
Well, check that. Eric Musselman’s team isn’t young. Half of Arkansas’ 8-man rotation is upperclassmen. The problem, at least for the first 15 minutes on Friday, was that those guys are all basically NCAA Tournament newcomers. Desi Sills, the elder statesman of the bunch in Fayetteville, hadn’t been there. Justin Smith never got there when he was at Indiana and neither did JD Notae at Jacksonville.
Jalen Tate played in 1 NCAA Tournament game 2 years ago when he was at Northern Kentucky. But other than that? The makeshift roster was always going to have to figure it out on the fly in March.
Friday was a perfect example of that.
Arkansas absolutely figured things out, mainly on defense by virtue of forcing Colgate into 22 turnovers, which was its highest total since Dec. 3, 2016. After that fork-in-the-road moment, the Hogs finished the game on a 66-35 run. Yeah, a 31-point swing is what the 3-seeds are supposed to do to 14-seeds.
But hey, it’s March. Weird stuff happens.
Like, teams with names more known for toothpaste can flex their muscles and ruin brackets in 40 quick minutes.
Devo Davis wasn’t about that. Neither was Justin Smith.
Speaking of Smith, who casually dropped 29 points and 13 rebounds in his first NCAA Tournament game, Arkansas figured something out with him. Jalen Tate backed down his (usually) undersized defender, and proceeded to bring on a second defender on the block … only to dump it off to Smith for the easy 2. Musselman ran that play roughly 46 dozen times.
(OK, not really, but you get it.)
Arkansas stopped settling for outside jumpers, and it wasn’t just Smith and Moody putting up shots. The Hogs got into the paint and took advantage of a Colgate team who didn’t really have much of an interior presence when Colgate big man Jeff Woodward got in foul trouble.
Again, this sounds so simple. Defend, get into the paint and don’t panic.
When high seeds get upset in March, chances are, they didn’t do 1 or 2 of those things. Arkansas instead did all 3 of those things, and at the elite level that was at the foundation of the 12-game SEC winning streak. Teams who panic don’t make plays like this within the flow of the offense:
Arkansas, football school. pic.twitter.com/gwOW0Px5qs
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) March 19, 2021
On another note, has Sam Pittman called up Davonte Davis? He might be a bit undersized to long snap at 180 pounds, but he’s got a solid 5.5 months to put some weight on.
Musselman needs Davis a bit longer. Arkansas is capable of bigger and better things this March. The team who played those final 25 minutes played with urgency. It didn’t play hero ball. It played full-court defense. It dealt with the exact thing that fans of teams in that spot fear.
The good news? It had an identity to fall back on. It had veterans who might’ve been void of NCAA Tournament experience, but they were plenty familiar with working back from a double-digit deficit.
It had a coach who believes in an approach that’s unorthodox at times, but it was darn important on Friday:
Muss: JD Notae is either going to hit a home run or strike out. I’ve had players like that before & I want them to have freedom to create. You’re gonna live with an air ball 3 & a Steph Curry jumpback 3. I’m letting our guys have offensive freedom as long as they play defense.
— John R Nabors 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸 (@BuzzJohnNabors) March 19, 2021
Notae, by the way, was one of 5 Arkansas players in double figures. More importantly, he was 1 of 4 Arkansas players with multiple steals.
What Arkansas experienced on the defensive end can pay dividends in the rest of this run. The next time Musselman goes into the huddle and says “we need to let our defense fuel our offense,” he’s got about as clear of an example of that as possible. There’s a zero percent chance that future rallying cry will be met with eye rolls. That’s important.
What else is important? Arkansas won comfortably on a day when it didn’t shoot particularly well (31% from 3-point range). This is a nice time of year to have a variety of ways to win games. Musselman’s team has that. In spades.
There’s no guarantee that Friday’s comeback will serve as the launching point for a Final Four run. There are no guarantees in March. It does, however, start to feel at least likely that Arkansas is on the brink of reaching the second weekend for the first time in the 21st century.
Great teams can dig themselves out of holes, even when they’re daunting 14-point holes in win-or-go home games. A better team might’ve not let Arkansas out of that hole. Friday was a prime opportunity to grow, and Musselman’s took advantage of it.
The Muss Bus might’ve hit a pothole against Colgate. But just as it has all year, it found a way to keep chugging along.