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At Arkansas, there are more questions than Razorback fans would like to admit

Previewing the #8 team in the SEC, the Arkansas Razorbacks

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it was time for Arkansas to move on from the Mike Anderson era. Since arriving in 2011, Anderson reinvigorated a program that had been in a funk since Nolan Richardson’s exit. In the decade before Anderson, the Razorbacks finished an average of 80th in KenPom’s rankings. Under the former Richardson assistant, the average rose to 61st, and it was inside the top 50 once you strip out the first two years of his rebuild.

But the Hogs were always searching for a breakthrough, never reaching the peak many expected after he arrived from Missouri. Stated plainly: The program had grown a little stale.

Despite exceeding expectations in a rebuilding year and bringing back the bulk of the roster, Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek made a change after selling boosters on the potential for a splashy hire. Instead, Kelvin Sampson stayed at Houston, while Chris Beard, who had spent a lone season at UALR, was a pipe dream. The search ultimately settled on Eric Musselman, who wasn’t a wrong choice. Now the question is whether the marriage has long-term potential.


Previous SEC Previews

Arkansas Preview

#8 Arkansas Razorbacks

Last Season: 18-16 (8-10 in conference) No. 54 KenPom

My Prediction: 19 - 12 (9-9, 8th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 7.5 - 10.6 (10th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 10th in conference

KenPom Projection: 19 - 12 (9-9 in conference) no. 44

NCAA Basketball: Nevada at Fresno State Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Eric Musselman | First Season, 0-0

The fact Musselman’s long and circuitous coaching journey led him to college basketball at all is odd. The son of Bill Musselman, a longtime NBA coach, Eric spent his entire coaching life at the professional level — until he took a job as an assistant at Arizona State in 2012. Next, he spent a lone season on Johnny Jones’ staff at LSU, followed by the head coaching gig at Nevada. In Reno, Musselman aggressively hunted the transfer market, amassing raw talent to turn the Wolf Pack into a top-25 team. In just three seasons, the program rose from 270th to 25th in KenPom, culminating in a preseason top-10 ranking last year.

With the wind at their backs, the Pack was just...OK.

Nevada started 14-0, but struggled a lot of nights to find the motivation, leaning on second-half comebacks to keep their record spotless. Their best win: Arizona State, who was 57th in KenPom. In the Mountain West Conference, they played a paltry four top-100 foes, suffered three losses and were bounced from the conference tournament in the semifinals. Settling for a No. 10 seed, the Wolf Pack didn’t rebound in the NCAA tournament, taking a first-round loss to Florida.

So is Musselman the right hire for Arkansas? Time will tell, obviously, but it will certainly be interesting to see if he applies the same methods which made him successful at Nevada to the roster in Fayetteville.

Seat Temp: COLD

arkansas 10 year look 2019

If you listen to certain national analysts, they’re convinced Arkansas is a sleeping giant. To me, it’s merely a good program. The landscape of the sport has changed immensely since the Hogs used 40 Minutes of Hell to roll to a national title in the mid-’90s. You could argue that Anderson had the program near its ceiling, reaching the NCAA tournament three times in his final five seasons. And had he been retained, he had the makings of a roster to get back again. Instead, Musselman will get a chance to elevate the program and — ideally — make it a player at the top of the SEC.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Daniel Gafford professional 32 67.08% 21.18% 24.66% 13.42%
Keyshawn Embery-Simpson transfer 33 35.26% 5.28% 3.79% 7.05%
Gabe Osabuohien transfer 34 37.59% 4.14% 4.03% 7.52%
Jordan Phillips transfer 7 2.77% 0.39% -0.19% 0.55%
Jonathan Holmes graduation 5 0.80% 0.23% 0.03% 0.16%
28.70% 31.22% 32.32% 28.70%

The fact Daniel Gafford returned to school for his sophomore year was surprising to me and just about everyone in the SEC. Coming off a stellar freshman season, Gafford was projected as a top-20 draft pick, while Arkansas’ roster endured mass attrition. It made all the sense in the world to skip out of Fayetteville. Instead, he came back for Year 2.

What transpired looked awfully familiar, too. Anderson never retooled his offense to play through Gafford in the post, and a young fleet of guards didn’t offer an elite pick-and-roll partner. Gafford was productive, but his skill set didn’t expand. All that changed was a boost in usage rate. This June, he slid into the second round, where the Chicago Bulls may have landed a steal.

The only other notable departure was Keyshawn Embery-Simpson. The former four-star guard from Florida found solid footing in the rotation but was behind players in his same class. Gabe Osabuohien and Jordan Phillips also transferred out of the program.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Isaiah Joe SO WING 34 74.74% 18.41% 59.80% 17.43%
Mason Jones JR WING 34 72.70% 18.09% 57.90% 13.61%
Jalen Harris JR PG 34 76.35% 10.16% 43.10% 7.81%
Adrio Bailey SR CF 34 46.28% 7.42% 48.40% 6.94%
Reggie Chaney SO POST 34 40.51% 7.15% 55.60% 3.01%
Desi Sills SO CG 34 42.04% 6.99% 59.60% -0.04%
Ty Stevens JR CG 5 0.15% 0.12% 104.20%
Ethan Henderson SO POST 12 3.72% 0.43% 48.60%
71.30% 68.77% 62.55%
NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah Joe | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD

One of the bigger surprises in the SEC last season was the fourth-highest rated recruit in the Razorbacks’ freshman class. While Gafford was the obvious primary option, Isaiah Joe and his feathery jump shot became a vital weapon. The guard posted a 59.3 true-shooting percentage, keeping defenses honest and driving lanes open for other guards and space for Gafford to dive-bomb toward the rim, With Joe on the floor, Arkansas averaged 11 more points per 100 possessions than with him off the floor. There likely isn’t a more important player on the roster this year as Musselman tries to find some footing.

It’s not normal for a team replacing their coach to return as much production as Arkansas. While Gafford and Joe were the focal points of most scouting reports, Mason Jones, who came to Arkansas after a year of JUCO action, quickly slotted himself into the starting lineup, becoming a capable third scorer. While he was a lower-efficiency scorer than Joe, Jones was a key asset. Playing the bulk of the minutes at the point guard spot last year was New Mexico transfer Jalen Harris. No, Harris isn’t a great shooter, but he posted one the SEC’s best assist rates at 31.7 percent.

The more pressing issue is filling the Gafford-sized hole in the front line. Reggie Channey can’t duplicate his former teammate, but he’s the most likely option to soak up his minutes. Desi Sills came on later in the season and averaged more than 20 minutes per game in the last nine games. Adrio Bailey is a good role player, but he’s not an impactful player offensively.

A guy to keep an eye on is Ethan Henderson. He didn’t make a dent under Anderson, but a new coach, a new system and a year spent getting stronger could help him carve out a role.

THEN, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Jr J.D. Notae 6'2 185 - Transfer CG
Jr Connor Vanover 7'3 225 - Transfer POST
RS-Jr Emerald Obukwelu 6’8 222
Sr Jimmy Whitt, Jr. 6'3 175 - Grad-Transfer CG
Sr Jeantal Cylla 6'7 215 - Grad-Transfer CF
NCAA Basketball: Southern Methodist at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Whitt | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD

It’s pretty rare for a recruit to start his career at one school, transfer, and then transfer again to return to the original school. But that was the path for Columbia native and Hickman product Jimmy Whitt.

Whitt committed to Mike Anderson and the Razorbacks in the class of 2015 as a top-70 recruit, but bolted to SMU. He averaged 12.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game for the Mustangs, but didn’t evolve the way many expected. In a game that puts a premium on shooting, he attempted just 28 3-pointers last season, subsisting mostly on mid-range pull-ups. Yet he also rebounds well for his size and is a steady defender. The question is what his usage looks like under Musselman and the role he’s handed. If he can provide spot scoring and serve as a secondary creator, the Hogs might be in business.

Musselman didn’t waste time testing his method of roster construction. He immediately went out and started chasing transfers. Whitt was the first, followed by Little Rock native Connor Vanover, who left a struggling Cal after his freshman season. Vanover has great size, but he’s also comfortable facing up and extending the floor. However, he’s still waiting for word on a waiver request with the NCAA. A favorable outcome would go a long way towards improving the interior post play, particularly defensively.

Jeantal Cylla, a combo forward from UNC-Wilmington, is eligible to play right away after graduation. He should fit into the rotation at the combo forward spot. Then Muss added J.D. Notae, a transfer from Jacksonville, one of the top guards in the Atlantic Sun conference the last two years. Oh, and Abayomi Iyiola, a post transfer from Stetson who will have to sit out with Notae, but should help with the post rotation in 2020-21.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Jalen Harris Desi Sills J.D. Notae
(2) Combo Guard Isaiah Joe Mason Jones
(3) Wing Jimmy Whitt, Jr. Adrio Bailey
(4) Combo Forward Jeantal Cylla Emerald Obukwelu Abayomi Iyiola
(5) Post Reggie Chaney Ethan Henderson Connor Vanover

Usually, with a roster of 13, including three who will be sitting out due to transfer, it shouldn’t be difficult to project a rotation. Yet Muss’ hoarding of transfers and fusing them with holdovers is a little confusing. Shoring up the frontcourt was an obvious need, which makes the additions of Cylla and Vanover reasonable. Yet the Razorbacks’ backcourt didn’t need an overhaul. It might be one of the SEC’s best.

There’s a world in which Vanover’s waiver gets denied, leaving Cylla and Chaney as undersized bigs to go with an unproven Henderson. Meanwhile, the return of Whitt could complicate the guard rotation. Putting the grad-transfer on the floor with Harris leaves a lot of shooting on the bench, while Jones also showed a slight affinity for attacking the rim. Additionally, Harris needs to cut down his turnovers.

A lineup of Harris, Whitt, Joe, Cylla, and Chaney would be smaller, slightly turnover prone, and have limited shooting. Again, it’s why Vanover might be the linchpin. He’s not only a big body you can park at the rim, but a floor-spacing center is another way to get additional shooting on the floor.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 19 - 12 | KenPom Projected Record: 19 - 12

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 5 Home Rice 187 W
Nov 12 Home North Texas 185 W
Nov 16 Home Montana 189 W
Nov 19 Home Texas Southern 269 W
Nov 22 Home South Dakota 129 W
Nov 25 Away Georgia Tech 66 L
Nov 30 Home Northern Kentucky 132 W
Dec 3 Home Austin Peay 202 W
Dec 7 Away Western Kentucky 86 L
Dec 14 Home Tulsa 100 W
Dec 21 Neutral Valparaiso 212 W
Dec 29 Away Indiana 34 L
Jan 25 Home TCU 46 W
avg 141.31 10-3

This isn’t a particularly difficult schedule. The Razorbacks don’t leave Bud Walton Arena until Nov. 25 for a winnable road game against Georgia Tech. If Arkansas gets out of Atlanta with a victory, it’s conceivable they could race to an 11-0 start. (Keep an eye on a road trip to Western Kentucky, which brings back Charles Bassey.) I’m also not sure what to make of the Archie Miller era at Indiana, but the Hoosiers have enough size inside to punish a potentially smaller Razorbacks rotation. Finally, a visit from TCU as part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge is no gimme.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Home Texas A&M 58 W
Jan 8 Away LSU 38 L
Jan 11 Away Ole Miss 60 L
Jan 15 Home Vanderbilt 148 W
Jan 18 Home Kentucky 2 W
Jan 22 Away Mississippi State 53 W
Jan 29 Home South Carolina 69 W
Feb 1 Away Alabama 70 L
Feb 4 Home Auburn 22 W
Feb 8 Away Missouri 39 L
Feb 11 Away Tennessee 19 L
Feb 15 Home Mississippi State 53 W
Feb 18 Away Florida 12 L
Feb 22 Home Missouri 39 W
Feb 26 Home Tennessee 19 L
Feb 29 Away Georgia 55 L
Mar 4 Home LSU 38 L
Mar 7 Away Texas A&M 58 W
avg 47.33 9-9

When projecting Arkansas’ conference performance, the outcomes are diverse. Their home games against Texas A&M, Missouri and Mississippi State are winnable. Yet each of those opponents has a proven post threat. Meanwhile, LSU and Tennessee offer prime chances for Quad 1 wins that would enhance a potential NCAA tournament resume.

As for their road schedule, the conference handed Musselman a workable slate. There might be pick-up opportunities against Ole Miss and Alabama, while Georgia’s fortunes could go either way. Kentucky and Auburn also visit The Hill. Ultimately, Arkansas’ postseason odds hinge on holding up home-court advantage. While Kentucky and LSU could escape with victories, the remaining seven games are all prime opportunities for the Hogs to pad their resume.

OVERVIEW

The question here is whether Musselman is that much better of a coach than Anderson.

Say this much for Anderson: he had a defined style, an eye for undervalued talent and a track record of player development. It was a formula that enabled his teams to win between 20 and 24 games each season, but there was ceiling when it came to contending for SEC titles or making deep runs in March.

Without a doubt, Muss’ persona and style are more charismatic, but will they top the consistency Anderson provided?

Muss has always had a reputation as a schematic wizard, but what if he’s merely adept at marshaling talent? At Nevada, his roster lapped the field in terms of raw ability. Yet Anderson’s roster is — at least for now — one that might elbow its way on to the bubble. Can Muss elevate them?

arkansas shot chart
Arkansas Returners Shot Chart per Synergy

Frankly, Anderson put forward a compelling argument for another season after overachieving with a roster in transition. At the same time, Yurachek, who had been Sampson’s boss at Houston, thought he could pull off an upgrade. That pitch was made easier by the fact that Anderson’s consistency ultimately became a case against him. If the best he could do was a middle of the pack finish and a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament, maybe it was time to a refresh. Looming over all this are memories of greatness, no matter how old they might be.

But when the initial targets were Sampson and Beard, there’s no doubt that Musselman was a back-up choice. For Muss, the move made sense, too. His roster at Nevada was losing a lot of talent with no comparable replacements set to take their place. Put simply, time was ticking down to make the jump to a high-major program.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Now, maybe this all pans out, but my concern is with Muss’ method.

The Razorback faithful would typically be upset with Anderson for missing on in-state talent and focus on mediocre recruiting. And while Musselman has a lot of flash and dash, he built up Nevada by playing the transfer market. He did have one prep recruiting win when he landed Jordan Brown, a top-20 talent who ended up sitting more than he played, and transferred to Arizona in the spring.

Entering the fall, Arkansas appeared poised to go on a run with a loaded in-state class of Moses Moody, Jaylin Williams, Chris Moore and KK Robinson. In fact, the Hogs flipped point guard Davonte Davis, a top-100 prospect who hails from central Arkansas, from Oklahoma State. Keeping that talent home would ease some worry.

The talent he’s assembled for Year 1 is good, but nothing stands out as a conference title contender. Do we anticipate Musselman can out-recruit Kentucky and John Calipari, or Florida and Mike White? Or will the Hogs be in the next tier of SEC schools? Will this early in-state push hint at a shift in tactics? Or will Muss revert to taking players looking for a new home?

There’s also the fact that Muss has tended to be a nomad, rarely staying in one place for a long stretch. I’m not trying to plant all the seeds of doubt, either. It’s just that the amount of excitement has muted some of these lingering questions that might ultimately define how Musselman fares in Fayetteville.

In the near term, Akransas’ backcourt should help them weather the transition, while the potential for additional help inside could elevate the Hogs. But will the results fall in line with expectations from the fanbase. We’re about to find out.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.