The No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs hit the court against the No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks for a trip to the Elite Eight on the line. Both teams are coming off of narrow wins with wildly different scores.
Since this is just the second meeting between the two schools, and Arkansas doesn’t employ the 40 Minutes of Hell too much anymore, we reached out to Jacob Davis of Arkansas Fight to give us a bit of insight into the Zags’ next opponent.
SSF: We have two narrow wins for Arkansas in the first round of the tournament with two very different scores. What in the absolute heck was going on in that second round game against New Mexico State?
Jacob: Honestly, I’m not too sure what happened on Saturday night. The Hogs played well during their first round matchup with Vermont, shot the ball well and played very good defense throughout.
The biggest thing I can think of when Arkansas didn’t score a field goal in nearly nine minutes is their defense continued to be relentless. Both games were alike but so different.
SSF: Jaylin Williams at 6’10 is really the only Arkansas big getting meaningful minutes, which means the Razorbacks frontcourt is going to give up a lot of height to Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme. How do you see Arkansas defending against the Zags’ frontcourt in this game?
Jacob: That’s been the biggest question mark for me this whole time since the bracket was released. Should Arkansas play more zone and pack the lane with a third man? Arkansas does average 6’8 down low with Williams, Au’Diese Toney and Trey Wade but it’s definitely going to be a challenge.
Then, if you pack the lane do you let the Bulldogs beat you from the three? They’re shooting 38-percent from behind the arc (24th in the nation) where Arkansas has been prone to give up a lot of points from deep especially early on. Arkansas put together quality defensive performances with the ability to shutdown the three ball.
Musselman has always focused on stopping his opponent’s best player. So, he has his work cut out for him with three high profile starters with the ability to ball.
SSF: There was a six game stretch in late December/early January in which Arkansas lost five of six and it really looked like the season was rolling away in the wrong direction. What changes were made to right the ship and finish out the year strong?
Jacob: A change in defensive philosophy and making the offense go through JD Notae.
The Razorbacks had a lot of guys who transferred in that were the star at their former school. Coach Musselman had to figure out a way to make his offense flow and that was making sure Notae touched the ball nearly every possession.
The emergence of Jaylin Williams as Arkansas’ forward/center gave Arkansas a post presence that they’ve needed since Musselman took over. Williams has become a double-double machine for the Hogs. The one two punch of Williams and Notae helped kickstart Arkansas’ season after the 0-3 start to conference play.
Things aren’t so fluid and offensively but they play ferocious, old school defense. They like to squeeze everything they can out of an opponent and tire them out.
SSF: The offensive makeup is really interesting in that Arkansas is not a good three point shooting team at all, but they generate a shocking amount of points at the free throw line. Is this a way for guys that aren’t particularly good shooters to generate points, or how do we explain an offense style that to a certain extent eschews the modern basketball style of threes, threes, and more threes?
Jacob: Arkansas has always played downhill offensively under Musselman. He has made this team think they can be bullies on the inside and push the issue in the paint and around the basket. His belief is that toughness matters and the ability to be fouled and get those free points at the line at a premium is key to victory.
Free throw shooting has been key throughout the first two rounds and they’ll definitely count on it against Gonzaga. I don’t believe that the lack of three point shooting is the reason Arkansas tries to take it to the basket as much. Since Musselman has been the coach, two of his three teams have led the nation in field goal makes or attempts. It’s been his philosophy all along. Stop us from being fouled in the paint, we dare you.
SSF: By the metrics, Arkansas appears to be a very good team that doesn’t necessarily lock down any statistical category at an elite level. What would you say is the biggest strength of this Razorbacks squad?
Outside of free throw shooting it has to be team defense. According to Evan Miyakawa’s rating system, Arkansas’ most effective five has been its starting lineup that has been together since the Missouri win that turned around the season. They have ranked in the top 10 since that point defensively and no one has really slowed them down.
SSF: Both Gonzaga and Arkansas had tough fights to make it to the Sweet 16. Gonzaga will probably go in favored, although how much remains to be seen. What needs to go right for Arkansas to pull off the upset and advance to the Elite Eight?
Jacon: Arkansas needs to continue its defensive efforts but with a Herculean effort to stop Timme and Holmgren on Thursday. The Razorbacks will also have to avoid the dry spells when it comes to scoring. They have been able to get away with it against higher seeded teams but this is where the tournament begins to get tougher. Gonzaga puts on an offensive clinic as the fastest team in all of college basketball. Will Arkansas’ offense be stressed or will a guy like Devo Davis or Stanley Umude provide secondary help from the big two in Notae and Williams?
Toney has shown flashes of greatness throughout the season can he do it one more time to get the Razorbacks to their second consecutive Elite Eight? There’s more questions than answers right now, truthfully, for Arkansas.
SSF: On the flipside of that question, what are some of the things that might be going wrong if Gonzaga is able to run away with the game?
Jacob: Like I mentioned earlier, Notae needs to give Arkansas what he did against Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn. If Gonzaga begins to pull away I don’t believe the Hogs will have enough firepower in its arsenal to make a comeback. Although, they did show they could do so on the road a few times against LSU and Tennessee most notably.