Tale of two bigs: How Arkansas basketball's forwards can change game — for better or worse
In Arkansas basketball's 65-63 win over South Carolina on Saturday, the Razorbacks almost blew a 13-point lead in the second half. Part of the problem was that Arkansas struggled to put together scoring runs.
For the last 17:42 of the game, the Razorbacks did not put together anything better than a 3-0 run. That allowed South Carolina to climb back into the game and take a late lead. Even though Arkansas escaped with the win, the Razorbacks have had trouble keeping both offense and defense going simultaneously since SEC play began.
The performance of Arkansas' bigs against South Carolina (8-15, 1-9 SEC) was a microcosm of that problem. The Razorbacks (16-7, 5-5) primarily played with one big man on the floor, and who that big man was changed the course of the game.
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Arkansas turned to either Jalen Graham or Makhel Mitchell to fill that role in Saturday's game. The two bigs split minutes almost 50/50, with Graham playing about 21:30 and Mitchell playing about 19:30.
When Graham was on the floor, Arkansas was much more explosive offensively. He had a team-high 16 points on 8-for-10 shooting, plus one assist. Graham's defense, however, was lacking.
For Mitchell, the case was the opposite. Arkansas was better overall on defense when he was on the floor, but its offense suffered.
The numbers behind Arkansas' offensive and defensive production with each player in the game are eye-popping. When Graham was in the game, the Razorbacks outscored South Carolina 45-42. Per 40 minutes, that means Arkansas averaged 83.7 points scored and 78.1 points allowed. With Mitchell on the floor, Arkansas scored 38.9 points per 40 minutes and allowed 43.
The almost 84 points scored per 40 minutes with Graham in the game is great. The 43 points allowed per 40 minutes with Mitchell is also great. But the numbers on the flip side for each player are stark.
Those numbers mean that depending on which big man was on the floor, Saturday's game looked completely different. With Graham on the floor, there were 4 points scored per minute between both teams. With Mitchell, it was half as many.
With either player on the floor, Arkansas wasn't putting together scoring runs. Graham's presence accelerated the offense on either side, as Arkansas made buckets on offense but gave them right back up on defense. Mitchell had the opposite effect, with neither team able to score consistently.
In an ideal world for Arkansas, the Razorbacks would have Graham's offensive production with Mitchell's steady defense. One's first thought might be to play them together, but there's no guarantee that you would get the best of both worlds rather than the worst. Graham and Mitchell shared the floor for only 1:46 on Saturday, so the sample size of Arkansas' production with the two of them together is too small to draw any conclusions.
Whatever the solution, Arkansas has to find a way to keep pressure on both ends of the court. The competition is about to get much stiffer down the stretch than South Carolina, and the Razorbacks won't be able to get away with a lack of separation against teams like Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama.
Christina Long covers the Arkansas Razorbacks for the Southwest Times Record and USA Today Network. You can follow her on Twitter @christinalong00 or email her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Fort Smith Times Record: Arkansas basketball's bigs can change a game for better and for worse