Arkansas’ recent struggles on the court have been highlighted by poor defense and Wednesday night was no different.
Playing without the SEC’s leader in steals, JD Notae, because of an illness, the Razorbacks had no answer for a Mississippi State team not known for its offensive prowess. The Bulldogs scored on 38 of their 67 possessions and shot 50% in the second half, pulling away for an 81-68 victory.
It has been a tale of two halves in nearly every Arkansas game this season and head coach Eric Musselman said his group needs to find a way to play good basketball from start to finish.
“We have to, as a group, figure out that you really have to play extremely hard against good teams for 40 minutes,” Musselman said. “And you’ve got to have a competitive nature about yourself that if another team makes a run, you’ve got to be able to counter that run.”
After a tightly contested first half, the Bulldogs jumped on the Razorbacks from the get-go in the second half. Arkansas was able to steer within three points at the 14:56 mark, but Mississippi State countered with an 18-8 run that put the game out of reach.
It felt like the Bulldogs could not miss, and the Hogs were not helping themselves on the defensive end whatsoever.
“I think we just didn’t come out with that same energy,” Arkansas forward Stanley Umude said. “We let it slip a little bit, and we weren’t able to get back into it, but that’s on us. They played well, but at the end of the day we’ve got to be better and be able to put together a full 40-minute game.”
Umude led the team with 19 points in the contest, 13 of which came in the second half, but had only three rebounds – including none in 15 minutes after halftime. In fact, the Bulldogs dominated the glass in the second half, out-rebounding Arkansas 23-12.
Of Mississippi State’s 23 second half rebounds, nine came on the offensive glass. The Bulldogs turned those into nine second chance points. Add the advantage on the boards to 17 turnovers – including seven steals – and it was a recipe for success against the Hogs.
“I thought we did a tremendous job the first half rebounding the basketball and not very good the second half,” Musselman said. “When you add the difference in the offensive rebounding, the turnovers that we had, and then you add in the fact that they took 28 free throws to our 14, I’m surprised it was a 13-point game and not a larger margin.”
Arkansas has now surrendered 80-plus points in three of its last four games. Each of those games resulted in a loss and the Razorbacks are just 3-12 when allowing at least 80 points in the Musselman era.
The key to success for a Musselman-coached team is to play lockdown defense for 40 minutes. Arkansas has played with soft coverage and not much intensity on the hardwood this season, and it is starting to show in the final score.
Last year, the Razorbacks ended the season with the No. 10 adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, according to KenPom, and they made a run to the Elite Eight. Even in Musselman’s first season, they were 57th in that category. Following Wednesday’s games, though, Arkansas is No. 71 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
There is a six day gap between now and next Tuesday’s matchup with Vanderbilt. It will be vital for the Razorbacks to find some sense of an identity as a team and get things figured out on that end of the floor.
“We still feel like we haven’t played our best game,” Umude said. “We think we just have to put it all together with a 40-minute game. We just have to build. Get off this losing streak and just build.”
Arkansas will have a chance to get back in the win column when they host the Commodores next Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. CT in Fayetteville. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.