5 things to watch in Arkansas at the Maui Invitational

FAYETTEVILLE — Ninth-ranked Arkansas is part of the field at the Maui Invitational for the first time since the 2013-14 season.

The Razorbacks start 3-0 and play their first game in the event against Louisville on Monday at 4:00 p.m. Central on ESPN2.

Here are five things to see while in Hawaii from Arkansas:

defensive intensity

In the early days of the previous two seasons, it took Arkansas coach Eric Musselman’s teams nearly a dozen games — and an embarrassing loss or two — to fully engage with what the Razorbacks staff want defensively every night.

Perhaps to the surprise of some, including Musselman, Arkansas was largely defensively locked in from the start. The Razorbacks will enter their three-game stretch at the Maui Invitational after conceding 54 points per game.

Their opponents have so far made 34.4% of their field goal attempts and 22.2% from three-point range. To put Arkansas’ three-point defense into perspective, the Razorbacks only made 13 three-pointers themselves.

They’ve given up 12 and have the nation’s No. 15 three-point defense.

Opponents did 40.8% of two-point looks. Combine those things with a 28.4% defensive turnover rate and Arkansas goes into Monday’s game against Louisville (0-3) as the event’s top defender from an efficiency standpoint, allowing 85.9 points per 100 possessions according to KenPom.

“This group did a really good job understanding scouting reports, which is a surprise,” Musselman said. “Really happy with how we defended. I think surprisingly when we do exercises in practice they do a really good job because I thought maybe that needed to really evolve.

“Their body language is shopping where we may have had some people in the past who got bored doing our station work.”

According to CBB Analytics, the Razorbacks’ defensive rating is 73.3, which places them in the 99th percentile nationally. The site also has a metric called “Hakeem Percentage,” a number that represents the sum of a team’s steal percentage and block percentage.

Arkansas’ Hakeem percentage is 28.8% (94th percentile).

The Razorbacks have been impressive on defense in a variety of ways, from diving the floor for loose balls and tipping 50-50 balls toward teammates, to covering each other in rotations, to off-ball defenders looking for steals dig at opponents’ dribbles. Arkansas’ connectivity is ahead of what many were expecting for late November.

And that makes the Razorbacks favorites to win the Maui Invitational, according to some bookmakers.

Ricky Council’s offensive output

The Wichita State transfer got off to a better-than-expected start on the offensive end.

Over three games, Council averages 18.7 points on 57.9% shooting. The 56 points scored is his highest in three games in the same season in his collegiate career.

Council’s second-best run came last season when it added 54 points against Tulane, Cincinnati and Central Florida. He scored a career-high 31 points against the Knights behind a 16-of-20 night at the free-throw line.

The 6-6 guard has displayed a three-tiered play that has resulted in a 120.4 offensive rating, according to KenPom.

Council is second on the team with 3 three-point jumpers, he’s knocked down 3 two-point jumpers off the lane, and he has a team-high 12 points on the edge on 14 attempts. His 13 free throw attempts lead Arkansas and is another measure of his aggressiveness.

Council confidence seems sky high. The key question in the Razorbacks’ game series: Can he maintain his current level of play against better competition?

If I had to guess, I’d say his dedication and energy won’t let up during the journey, and that alone will make for productive games.

On Saturday, Council was No. 3 in the SEC behind Florida’s Colin Castleton and Alabama’s Brandon Miller. But he did a lot more than just score goals.

According to KenPom data, Council assisted 21.2% of Arkansas’ points when he was on the floor. The SEC ranks that number 23 — not bad for a player who wasn’t counted on for much ball handling in his collegiate career.

handling the stage

Given their diverse basketball experiences and backgrounds, many of the players that make up the Razorbacks roster are no stranger to the national scene or playing in unique locations.

That could be an advantage I think.

But the Maui Invitational is a different matter. It’s the flagship event of Thanksgiving week and the kind of extravaganza that draws both the die-hard college basketball fan and the casual player just hoping to catch a glimpse of the top pros in the field.

The atmosphere at the Lahaina Civic Center, which seats up to 2,400 people, is something I expect the Razorbacks will love. It’s an intimate crowd, and I imagine Arkansas will have a healthy number of supporters.

“I think we’ll be able to play well in this environment,” said freshman guard Anthony Black. “We have a lot of players and a lot of people are up for the challenge. I think playing in such an environment will probably uplift us, to be honest.”

After the Razorbacks’ 71-56 win over South Dakota State on Wednesday, Musselman said he knew with certainty that Arkansas will be ready for his games. Similar to their run at the NCAA tournament last season and their trip to Europe, the Razorbacks mix fun and basketball.

Surf lessons were held on deck on Saturday, and walkthroughs on the beach are likely throughout the week.

“I can promise you there’s one team that’s going to be focused on playing, and that’s us,” Musselman said. “We will never do anything that harms our preparation.

“I think on a Saturday and you’re not playing until Monday if you hang out and do something you’ve never done before, hopefully it helps both your mental state and your emotional state.”

With the competitive uptick ahead, there’s a good chance the Razorbacks will face adversity during their stay in Hawaii. How will Arkansas react?

“I think if we all stay connected we’ll stay together, I don’t think it’s going to be any different than playing at the Bud (Walton Arena),” said junior guard Vomte Davis. “In practice, we are preparing for what is to come.

“As we stand ready as a team and as a collective group, we will all come together and be prepared.”

The frontcourt depth of the Razorbacks

It’s clear that Trevon Brazile and Makhi Mitchell are the Razorbacks’ best frontcourt players. Mitchell, the Rhode Island transfer, is the top dog when it comes to traditional big.

Mitchell is averaging 20.3 minutes per game at this point. The other forwards: Jalen Graham 9.5, Kamani Johnson 7.3 and Makhel Mitchell 5.0.

Arkansas will likely need quality games from this group of three on multiple occasions in this tournament format.

Graham has been up and down in his two appearances this season. Arkansas would certainly have a repeat of his Fordham performance in at least one game and less of his heavily used game against South Dakota State in which he had 2 points on 1-of-4 shooting, 6 rebounds and 2 turnovers in 8 minutes.

Makhel Mitchell is yet to get his first extended run with the Razorbacks. He played four minutes against Fordham and six against South Dakota State.

In those limited minutes, he’s 0 of 2 off the floor with 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, and 2 steals. Being able to bring in a body like him to replace Makhi Mitchell can be a real luxury in a three-game-in-three-day scenario.

Johnson was so-so up to this point in the season. He had 4 rebounds – 3 offense – in the win over South Dakota State, but added 3 turnovers and 3 fouls in just 9 minutes.

Arkansas would benefit greatly if Makhel Mitchell, Graham and Johnson did the little things well and impacted the game with their energy and dedication when called upon to do so. Graham obviously has the ability to score in piles.

The quick turns could give Johnson and his rebounding engine a great chance to steal possessions and buckets from possibly weary legs on the other side.

But above all, each player only has to appear in their role.

Get to know Louisville

The Cardinals struggled with severe growing pains early in Kenny Payne’s tenure. They have 3 one-point losses to Bellarmine, Wright State and Appalachian State, who have an average KenPom rating of 208 on Saturday night.

One of Louisville’s main concerns is sales at both ends.

For one, it has committed a turnover of 24.5% of its ownership, according to KenPom data. And on defense, the Cardinals have forced just 15.2% of ball possessions to miss.

The website also shows that Louisville, which has lost 18 of its last 21 games since Jan. 8, has a 15.7% non-steal turnover rate. That’s annoying. According to KenPom, only six national-level teams have a lower grade.

El Ellis is the household name for the Cardinals. He’s averaging 24 points per game on 47.2% shooting and is 10 of 27 (37%) from three-point range.

“He’s a dynamic goalscorer,” Musselman said. “We’ve got to shrink the ground, we’ve got to spy on it, we’ve got to have a really good transitional defence.”

Ellis, who has fired 31 more shots than any other Cardinals player, leads the team with 10 assists and 16 turnovers. He made eight total turnovers in the loss to Wright State and five more to Appalachian State.

Former Tennessee forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield is playing well for the Cardinals, averaging 10.3 points and a team-high 8.7 rebounds in 30.7 minutes per game. He turned over a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in Louisville’s last game.

Huntley-Hatfield had 7 points on 2 of 6 from the floor and 4 rebounds in Tennessee’s home win over the Razorbacks in March. He scored a point and grabbed two rebounds in the Vols’ loss to Arkansas.

Mike James (11.0) and Jae’Lyn Withers (10.7) round out the Cardinals’ double-digit scoring list. James, a 6-5 redshirt freshman, scored 16 points in the season-opening loss to Bellarmine. He had 17 total points in the team’s next two games.

James made 5 out of 10 three point attempts, good for second on the team.

Withers, a 6-9 redshirt junior, had 15 points and 11 rebounds against Wright State. However, in Louisville’s last game, he had 3 turnovers and 5 fouls in 10 minutes and didn’t score or rebound.

“We have to try and focus and win our first game and see what happens from there,” Musselman said. “I’ve told the team Louisville is going to put a series together and they’re going to play an A-Plus game here at some point in the near future.

“I can guarantee that.”

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