Kickin’ Bud: Arkansas men, women winning big at home this year

FAYETTEVILLE — When Arkansas’ women cruised to a 105-58 victory over Central Arkansas last weekend, the 47-point margin wasn’t the largest for a game inside Bud Walton Arena this season.

It wasn’t second, either.

It was tied for third.

Trips to Fayetteville have not gone well for visiting teams this year. Arkansas’ men are 6-0 at Walton Arena, and the 12th-ranked Razorback women are 4-0.

Those records will be put to the test over three days beginning Sunday when the teams combine to play the final three games of the calendar year at the arena — the men against Oral Roberts on Sunday and Abilene Christian on Tuesday, and the women against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Monday afternoon.

More than the combined 10-0 record, the margins of victory stand out for Arkansas’ basketball teams through the first month of the season. The women are winning their home games by an average of 38 points; the men by an average of 33.8.

Together they have outscored their opponents by 355 points inside Walton Arena for an average winning margin of 35.5 points per game.

“I think a lot of these opponents, while they’ve come in and given a lot of effort, they’ve just been outmatched,” said Matt Zimmerman, a former Arkansas men’s assistant coach who has had an up-close view of both teams this season as the color analyst on the men’s radio broadcasts and the women’s SEC Network-Plus broadcasts. “When you play teams that are really good and you’re struggling a little bit, it can be a recipe for disaster.

“The men are good and the women are good, and most everybody who comes in here is going to be outmatched.”

Both Arkansas teams started the season with blowout home victories on Nov. 25. The women defeated Oral Roberts 96-49 that afternoon and the men followed with a 142-62 victory over Mississippi Valley State that night.

The men’s 80-point margin was the second largest in program history and the largest ever for a game inside Walton Arena, which is in its 28th season.

“An 80-point game, that’s a statistical gift you can eat on all year long,” Zimmerman said. “Arkansas’ stats will be very good for a good chunk of the season because not many teams can beat a team 142-62.”

Zimmerman was on the call for both teams’ season openers and said both of Arkansas’ opponents that day tried to play at a break-neck speed, a trend he has observed in other games since.

“I thought every school record in the world was going to fall against Mississippi Valley State,” Zimmerman said. “Arkansas would hit a three and (MVSU) would come down and sometimes they wouldn’t even pass it — it would be one pass or no passes and shoot. Arkansas would get a rebound, go down and hit a three. The shot clock is 30 seconds in men’s basketball and there are some of these opponents shooting with 25, 26, 27 left on the shot clock.”

Zimmerman said he thinks coaches sticking with their preferred style of play has led to some of the large margins of victory.

“Me, as a coach, if I know I’m outclassed, we’re going to hold the ball a little bit, we’re going to eat some clock,” Zimmerman said. “You aren’t going to beat me 80. You might beat me 50, but we’re going to try to control the basketball a little bit.

“These coaches come in and they don’t want to go away from how they play. They want to play fast….They’re recruiting and kids want to play free-flowing, uptempo basketball.

“It’s like they are determined to play how they want to play all season. That’s commendable, but if you’re playing uptempo…and you come in here and play Arkansas’ women and try to play real fast with them, you’re trying to get beat by 40, 50, 60.”

In addition to the 47-point victories over ORU and UCA, the Arkansas women (7-1) defeated Louisiana-Monroe by 53 points (103-50).

Since the 80-point victory over Mississippi Valley State, the Razorbacks’ men (6-0) have won by margins of 12 against Texas-Arlington, 15 against North Texas, 36 against Lipscomb, 35 against Southern and 25 against UCA.

The margins might suggest otherwise, but Arkansas’ coaches say they feel it has been more difficult to win at home this season due to the protocols put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mike Neighbors, the Razorbacks’ fourth-year women’s coach, said his team has eliminated a pregame shootaround and is spending limited time in the arena.

“We take our food to go,” Neighbors said. “That creates other challenges. We’re not as close because we’re not sitting around talking while we eat. We’re not in each other’s rooms on the road when we do travel. We’re not in cars together. The problems it creates, you’re kind of making up the benefits on the other side of it.”

Second-year men’s coach Eric Musselman said his team has kept a similar game-day routine to last season. Musselman said one of the biggest differences he has noticed has been the change in atmosphere due to an attendance cap at 20% of the arena’s 19,200-seat capacity.

“I think when you walk through that tunnel it’s not the same feeling as it was last year,” Musselman said.

Musselman equated games at Walton Arena this year to games when he was a coach in the NBA G League.

“I didn’t think it affected scoring runs or scoring stops. I didn’t think there were much momentum swings,” Musselman said of the crowd’s impact on G League games. “I’m kind of feeling the same way this year, that there’s more of a level playing field.”

“Even with the loyal attendance both of our teams have had, you can’t create that goosebump moment where the spontaneous Hog Call breaks out,” Neighbors said. “I’ve been to some men’s games and I don’t pop up like I used to when a big run or a big dunk happens. Being away from people has a unique feel.”

The women played Arkansas’ closest home game this year when they defeated then-No. 4 Baylor 83-78 on Dec. 6. Nearly all of the limited number of tickets were sold to the Sunday night primetime game, but Neighbors said it would have been a blockbuster-type event in normal times.

“I think we would have broken the all-time attendance record,” Neighbors said. “I’m confident of that.”

Neighbors and Musselman said a benefit to playing at home is still the lack of travel for the home team. Travel can be burdensome during winter months, and especially so this year with all of the additional protocols in place.

“There’s always going to be a home-court advantage due to the fact that you’re sleeping in your own bed, you’re eating team meals at the same time you always do for home games,” Musselman said. “Shootaround is at the same time, to where if you’re on the road shootarounds can vary two to three hours.”

When Arkansas’ women played at SMU on Dec. 9, they flew the day of the game and rotated seats on the plane every 15 minutes to minimize potential contact tracing. Unless an early tip-off time dictates otherwise, the women plan to travel on the day of their games all season, an indication other teams might, too.

“I know it’s a really hard thing for people to travel,” Neighbors said. “And then when you get in a place that is big and open like ours is, it’s a real challenge for a lot of teams, I think.”

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