While LSU (11-1) enters its first SEC game of the season as just five-point underdogs, it potentially faces one of its biggest challenges of the season against No. 9 Arkansas (11-1). It’s difficult to gauge the gap between the two teams, but there’s a reason the Razorbacks rank in the top ten.
Coming off a season in which it advanced to Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, a run which featured a win over the No. 1 overall seed of the tourney in Gonzaga, Arkansas lost most of the talent that got it that far. That included two First Team All-SEC players in shooting guard JD Notae and forward Jaylin Williams and its entire starting lineup, which would typically be tough to bounce back from.
But the Razorbacks managed to do so just fine, bringing in the second-best recruiting class in 2022 according to 247sports and Rivals. That class featured a vast array of highly touted high school prospects, including three five-stars in small forward Jordan Walsh, point guard Anthony Black and combo guard Nick Smith Jr., the latter being the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2022 class.
It also featured considerable transfers, most notably four-star Wichita State transfer Ricky Council IV, who currently leads the team in scoring and Trevon Brazile, who leads the team in rebounding while also shooting nearly 38% from three.
Notably, LSU guard Cam Hayes played on the same AAU team as Council, stating that he was familiar with his game and highlighting his height and athleticism as aspects that make the matchup interesting.
“I feel like guard-wise it’s going to be a really good matchup, we match up really well with them,” Hayes said when discussing Council and second-leading scorer Anthony Black. “I feel like whoever wins that matchup is going to have a key part is us winning the game.”
Council and Black have taken on heightened roles, as Smith has played in just five games and will miss an unforeseen amount of time due to a knee injury, the severity of which is undisclosed. The team has done decently without him, going 6-1 with solid wins over San Diego State and Fordham.
Despite another close call, LSU men’s basketball picked up a 72-68 win over East Tennessee State in its final game before SEC play.
The two players combine for over 30 points per game, with Black shooting nearly 40% from three. As Hayes said, one of the keys to the Tigers winning this game is to limit the Arkansas backcourt’s impact as much as possible.
Other keys include getting Adam Miller out of his shooting slump and limiting their turnovers.
Since the Wofford game, where the guard put up 26 points shooting 9-of-13 from the field and 6-of-9 from three, Miller has struggled to get the ball through the net, one of the reasons LSU has had some close calls lately. In the last five games, he has shot 23% from the field and 14% from three.
“I think it starts with your mindset, that you play with great confidence” Head Coach Matt McMahon said when discussing how to get over a shooting slump. “You’re looking to see what we can do differently schematically or strategy-wise to create some higher percentage shots to get that confidence restored. But certainly, when you have an elite shooter like that, you don’t want to overanalyze it.”
Miller has already proven he’s a sharpshooter through his time with Illinois and the early goings of this season. Re-establishing that efficiency could give the Tigers the spark they need to pull off the upset, or at least keep it close. However, it’ll be difficult considering Arkansas’s defense has held its opponents to an average of 28.8% shooting from three.
When McMahon talked about the reasons the Razorbacks were a top-10 team, their defense was the first thing on his list, highlighting their proficiency in forcing turnovers and protecting the rim. They notably place inside the top-25 in forced turnovers per game and block percentage, forcing nearly 19 turnovers per game and blocking an estimated nine percent of shots from two-point range.
Those three keys, along with the continued success of players like KJ Williams, Hayes and Derek Fountain could be the difference between LSU winning and losing this game. McMahon’s first bout with the SEC as a member of the conference is a tough one, but it is not impossible to win.