The average Arkansas fan might look at the non-conference men’s basketball schedule in one of two ways.
One point of view is to have the five-star freshmen dangle like sugar plums and not have any worry about what lies ahead. The other, denies that any team should even step on the same court as the Razorbacks, because why play the game?
Both ways, while less stressful, are no fun. Join us as we break down each Arkansas hoops non-conference opponent and what to expect out of each game.
The early parts of the season will be important for head coach Eric Musselman to figure out his rotation and for younger players to get acclimated to the college game. In what we’ll be a multi-part series, we’ll be giving a look at every Arkansas non-conference foe for the upcoming season.
Back home after consecutive neutral-site action, Arkansas will host UNC Asheville at Bud Walton Arena. Being the game before conference play opens, it carries even more weight than the average non-conference contest.
vs. UNC Asheville – Dec. 21
The one North Carolina satellite campus that often gets left out in the cold is UNC Asheville. Not predominantly big in basketball, the Bulldogs did pull off a winning season in 2021-22. A 17-15 overall record would include losses to North Carolina and Conference USA champion UAB.
Splitting conference games, they were eliminated from the Big South Tournament at season’s end. Led by a rampant offense, the Bulldogs presented certain challenges for teams both in and out of conference play.
75.3 points per game
45.7% field goals and 36.3% 3-pointers
72.6% free throws<
-1.9 rebound margin
+1.2 turnover margin
68.8 points per game
43.9% field goals and 28.6% 3-pointers (best 3-point defense among Arkansas’ non-conference opponents)
13.5 turnovers forced per game
Joining the club of very few, the leading scorer for UNC Asheville will be returning for this season. A former Tennessee Volunteer, Drew Pember was vital to its winning record last season.
His averages included 15.7 points per game and 6.6 rebounds. He also totaled 96 total blocks. His 6-foot-10 frame doesn’t carry a lot of weight but does bring a consistent A-game. At the conference level, he has proven dominant. It will be interesting to see how he plays leading up to a trip to Fayetteville.
His other half is graduate senior guard Taijon Jones. The only player on the team to possess over 1,000 minutes last season, he was third on the team in scoring. 12.8 points was accompanied by 5.6 rebounds per game and the most 3-point attempts on the team.
Joining Jones and Pember, the Bulldogs return just three players with notable production. That speaks volumes over the roles that both players will hold on and off the court when this season gets underway.
There are plenty of upperclassmen, but lots of them have waited their turns to get solid minutes for the Bulldogs. Three freshmen join as new faces amongst the veteran squad. Including the three freshmen, only one other player on the roster is younger than a junior.
Six transfers joined the roster this offseason — all of whom had production of some sort at their previous stops.
The standout of the bunch is The Citadel transfer Fletcher Abee. A guard who brings multiple aspects to scheme against, he averaged 12.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game last season.
Another player worth the mention is former Murray State forward Nicholas McMullen. For the Racers, he averaged 3.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per contest. As a very stocky interior player, he will bring some toughness to the frontcourt.
Game Difficulty – 3/10
The first and most prominent aspect of what UNC Asheville does best is that it shuts down the 3-point line. On an average of 26.3 3-point attempts per game last season, teams only made 28%. Combined with an offense that reaches over 75 points on average, it is a great recipe for their success.
The two playmakers in Pember and Jones are vital to keep on lockdown. Pember provides a multifaceted way of scoring along with quality length that could be simply frustrating to deal with.
Jones is more of a matchup problem than Pember, however. Over the past three seasons, he has been as consistent as any player in the Big South Conference. His frame and physical mindset as a powerful combo guard allows him to be dominant. Getting in his head will be a major key.
Outside of those two, the experience of this team is off the charts. While it has six transfers to work in, all are a part of that upperclassmen group.
With this game being the light at the end of the non-conference tunnel, it presents some potential stress from a fan’s perspective. A game that Arkansas should win 10 times out of 10 could come down to the wire if the Razorbacks are looking ahead. That’s why the difficulty gets a slight boost.
Featured image courtesy of UNC Asheville