Musselman’s Hogs find a defensive niche early on

FAYETTEVILLE — Trevon Brazile had only been on the University of Arkansas campus for a few weeks after moving from Missouri last summer, but he already had a good grasp of the Razorbacks’ ability to play defense.

“One thing I’m looking forward to is seeing what this team can do outside of practice,” Brazile, a 6-10 sophomore, said in late July before the team embarked on a four-game tour in Europe broke up. “Sometimes I think our defense is so good that we make the offense look sloppy.”

Playing hand-to-hand defense, the No. 9 Razorbacks certainly made their opponents look sloppy with a 3-0 start to Monday’s game against Louisville at the Maui Invitational.

Arkansas’ last defensive lockdown game was a 71-56 win over South Dakota State on Wednesday night in which the Razorbacks led by 27 points, 64-37, less than six minutes before the Jackrabbits rallied late.

“Really happy with how we defended,” said Arkansas coach Eric Musselman. “I think surprisingly when we do exercises in practice they do a really good job because I thought maybe that needed to really evolve.”

In Friday night’s games, the Razorbacks were ranked #5 nationally in steals per game (12.7), 12th in forced turnovers (21.3), and tied with Alabama, Oklahoma and North Carolina-Asheville for 15th in three-point defense (22.2%) and 21st in field goal defense (34.4%).

Freshman guard Anthony Black leads the Razorbacks with 9 steals, senior center Makhi Mitchell has 7, junior guard Vomte Davis has 6, and junior guard Ricky Council has 4.

None of Arkansas’ top three opponents managed to score 60 points. The Razorbacks opened with a 76-58 win over North Dakota State and defeated Fordham 74-48.

Fordham’s 30 turnovers were the most by an Arkansas opponent since December 31, 2004, when Louisiana-Monroe had 30 in an 85-43 win for the Razorbacks.

Arkansas, despite 11 newcomers, was defensively elite with six freshmen and five trades.

“But the buy-in and attention to practice, really high level,” Musselman said. “Maybe as much as any other team we’ve had defensively.”

The Razorbacks certainly bought in when Musselman called for a time out in the first half after South Dakota State drew within 31-27 on consecutive dunks by freshman Kyle Williams.

“I thought we needed to play with a lot more defensive tenacity,” Musselman said. “Be more disruptive.”

Arkansas responded with a 10-2 run to end the first half, sparked by two steals and a blocked shot by freshman forward Jordan Walsh.

“His defense was insane,” Black said. “He got the ball and we got run-out layups,

“Jordan is 6-7, has a wingspan over 7 feet and can jump out of the gym. So these three things can make him a good defender.

“He plays a lot, but once he learns how talented he is defensively, I think he’ll be a really good defender. He’s shown it in spades.”

Arkansas kept up the defensive pressure to open the second half with an 11-2 run that increased their lead to 52-30.

The Jackrabbits (2-2) shot 32.1% (18 of 56), including 3 of 16 on threes.

“South Dakota State is a really good three-point shooting team,” Musselman said. “You will see that this team has a lot of nights during their season where they shoot and make double-digit three balls.

“So I thought we did a really good job of embracing the three-point line and getting their three-pointers down to the ground. That was a big part of what we wanted to do.

“They weren’t allowed to make many attempts because we stayed connected.”

Senior forward Matt Dentlinger, who averaged a team-high 16.7 points for the Jackrabbits, was held to 3 points in 22 minutes – all on free throws. He was 0 of 2 out of the field.

Both teams had 20 turnovers, but Arkansas had a 23-11 lead in turnovers.

“Part of our game plan was to run,” said Black, who had four steals. “Stop and run.”

Musselman said the Razorbacks’ stingy defenses were a byproduct of their hard work and their attention to detail in pregame scouting.

“They go from basket to basket, I mean, they’re probably bored, but they don’t want to pretend they are,” Musselman said of the drilling work. “Their body language is shopping where we may have had some people in the past who got bored doing our station work.

“This group did a really good job of understanding scouting reports, which is a surprise. I thought last year – maybe the year before – we needed about 10-12 games [to decide]’Okay, let’s fully dive into what we’re supposed to do.””

Davis said that keeping opponents on 12-of-54 with three pointers was a key to the Razorbacks’ success.

“Three is more than two, and so we take away the three, we win by a pretty good margin,” Davis said. “We have to protect the three-point line, but also help the big ones. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of doing what we were taught in training.”

Arkansas outscored opponents 130-74 in color.

“There won’t be many teams that are better than us,” Black said. “As long as we can defend the three, we’re pretty confident that we’ll win the fight within the three-point line.”