While anticipation surrounds the football program, there’s nothing but optimism surrounding Razorback basketball.
The Hogs are 8-0 and hit the road Saturday for the second time this season to face Western Kentucky (6-3). The Hilltoppers knocked off the Hogs in Fayetteville last year, 78-77, behind a strong performance from 6’11 forward Charles Bassey. Bassey and company now await the undersized Razorbacks’ return trip.
Arkansas’ offense needs to get back in rhythm after a couple of rough outings. The Hogs scored just 66 and 69 in wins over Northern Kentucky and Austin Peay, two poor defensive teams. Against NKU, the Hogs couldn’t get shots to fall, especially without Mason Jones. Against Austin Peay, the Hogs shot the ball fine (48% overall, 39% from 3) but turned it over 20 times. They’ll need to put it all together against a very good WKU offense that is almost certainly going to score more points than the eight teams Arkansas has already faced.
Head coach Rick Stansbury’s squad is the best offensive team Arkansas has faced this season, ranking 33rd in adjusted offensive efficiency. They struggle defensively, so expect a little more scoring than what we’ve been seeing.
When WKU has the rock
The Hilltoppers are led by Bassey (15.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg), complemented by guards Camron Justice (13.4 ppg, 42% 3FG) and Taveion Hollingsworth (12.4 ppg). While Bassey’s size is intimidating, the Tops aren’t actually that big overall: the other four starters are 6’2, 6’3, 6’5, and 6’5, and the first guy off the bench is 6’1. They will use a tight seven-man rotation and will play four-guard looks around Bassey at times.
Western Kentucky’s primary strength as a team is true shooting: they convert shot opportunities into points at the 13th-best rate in the country. They do this by pounding the ball inside to get easy 2-pointers (29th in 2FG%) and draw fouls (55th). They don’t take very many three-pointers, but they are above-average at making them (74th).
Arkansas’ defense is probably going to have a hard time with the Hilltoppers if they routinely get the ball into the low post. The Hogs don’t really have anyone who can match up with Bassey defensively.
The good news for the Hogs is that they can limit WKU’s shot opportunities by forcing turnovers: the Tops are 295th in turnover rate. They are actually decent at limiting opponent steals (140th), but they rank 323rd out of 353 teams at giving away non-steal turnovers (travels, throwaways, offensive fouls, etc). The upside of this is that if the Hogs can force steals at a decent rate, the Tops may end up with 25+ turnovers. The downside is that if they suddenly clean up the non-steal turnovers, the Hogs may not be able to force all that many.
Offensive rebounds are also interesting. At 60th, Arkansas is about as good as it can possibly be given the major size issues, but WKU also isn’t a big team and doesn’t get offensive rebounds at a high rate.
When Arkansas has the rock
While the offense is solid, WKU’s defense has struggled at times on a per-possession basis.
Arkansas’ ability to make 2-point shots could be critical. Two-point shooting is one of Ken Pomeroy’s “battlefield stats” (along with turnovers), meaning that its outcomes are highly sensitive to the quality of both of the offense and the defense. Basically, this will be a huge matchup in the game. If the Hogs shoot well inside the arc, they will probably be able to score enough to win.
Neither the Hogs’ offense nor the Tops’ defense is good at EPR. The Hogs are pretty average at giving the ball away, but offensive rebounding is pretty good. WKU doesn’t force turnovers or rebound very well.
Keys to the game
- Make the easy shots. WKU’s defense isn’t very strong, but the Hogs have failed to score 70 against two bad defenses over the last two games. Getting back on track means taking advantage of WKU’s porous interior defense. Successfully getting the ball to the rim could also get Bassey in foul trouble.
- Deny Bassey the ball. Charles Bassey is a dominant big man, and the Hogs won’t be able to do much if he possesses the ball on the low block. The Hogs may need to trap to keep him from getting shot opportunities.
- Limit WKU’s shot opportunities through turnovers. WKU will give the ball away with its turnover problems, and the Hogs can only deny Bassey the ball so much. Ending Hilltopper drives prematurely is a must. If the Hogs can force 24 or more turnovers, they’ll be in good shape to win.