If I’m being honest, having Arkansas this high really worries me. Mainly becauseI thought the Hogs were merely good, and not great last season. They got hot at the right time, caught a streak of wins against mediocre competition, and squeaked out a few wins when they may shouldn’t have. They went from 43rd in KenPom and a 10-4 record to 19th and 21-5 with four road wins (average KenPom rating of those wins: 81). They did wallop Alabama at home, but the Tide were known for throwing up a few stinkers here and there.
Credit to Arkansas, they made their first Sweet 16 since the Nolan Richardson era, won 25 games, and exceeded most everyone’s expectations. It’s almost born of those exceeded expectations for which we now expect Eric Musselman to just be great now. But he’s got a very different roster from last year, and another import of high level transfers. What can we expect this season?
Previous SEC Previews
- 14. Georgia Bulldogs
- 13. South Carolina Gamecocks
- 12. Texas A&M Aggies
- 11. Missouri Tigers
- 10. Vanderbilt Commodores
- 9. Ole Miss Rebels
- 8. Mississippi State Bulldogs
- 7. LSU Tigers
- 6. Florida Gators
- 5. Auburn Tigers
- 4. Tennessee Volunteers
#3 Arkansas Razorbacks
Last Season: 25 - 7 (13-4 in conference) No. 18 KenPom
My Prediction: 22 - 9 (12-6, 3rd in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 12.3 - 5.7 (5th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 3rd in conference
KenPom Projection: 23 - 7 (12-6 in conference) No. 15
HEAD COACH: Eric Musselman | 3rd Season, 45-19
Depending on what floats your boat, you either really like Eric Musselman or you find him tiresome. I fall in the second category. I find his hi-jinks worthy of an eye roll. Posing for pictures with recruits the way he does is cringeworthy. His social media presence feels fake and rather cheap. And he oftentimes can be found acting a fool on the sidelines. But Hog fans seem to eat it up, and the most important statistic has gone his way over the years: wins.
Musselman’s worst season as a head coach was his first year in Fayetteville when he went 20-12 and 7-11 in conference. He’s otherwise never been below .500 in conference play and has been in four NCAA Tournaments in six years. It’s hard to argue with results, and Musselman wins lots of basketball games.
With a brand new contract in tow, Musselman went from one of the lowest paid coaches in the SEC to the third highest, behind only John Calipari and Rick Barnes. At over $4 million a year, Musselman is now one of the ten highest paid coaches in College Basketball. Regardless of what you think about his past, or the present, expectations change quite a bit when you’re in the same conversation as Chris Beard, Jay Wright, and Tom Izzo.
Seat Temp: COLD
From Eddie Sutton in the late 70s to Nolan Richardson in the 90s, Arkansas was one of the premier basketball programs in the country. 22 NCAA appearances in 25 seasons, 15 top 25 finishes, 9 top 10 finishes, a National Title, and multiple Final Fours. Since then, 20 seasons, 7 NCAA tournaments, and no Sweet 16s until last year when Musselman made the Elite Eight. So when it comes to program expectations, which are more appropriate? There’s no reason for Arkansas to fall as much as they did in the 2000s, really. The program is supported heavily by a pretty rabid fan base. The administration is willing to spend and invest in the program. Now they’ve given Muss the runway, and it’s up to him to take off.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
|Vance Jackson Jr||transfer||27||23.35%||3.80%||3.19%||3.91%|
If you’re trying to pinpoint why Arkansas seemingly put it all together last year, it’s pretty easy to point to the play of Moses Moody. Any time you can feature a 1st round draft pick and he averages nearly 17 points, 6 rebounds, with a 116.1 Offensive Rating and a 56.8% true shooting you’re bound to have some good nights as a team. Moody’s versatility offensively, coupled with his elite level defense is going to be difficult to replace on the wing. Moody was complemented by Justin Smith. A transfer from Indiana, Smith was an immediate fixture in the starting lineup and was productive. Without Smith in the lineup, Arkansas was just 1-3 with their only win over lowly Georgia. With him, they were 24-4. Both Smith and Moody’s floor differential was two out of the three best on the team.
Jalen Tate transferred in from Northern Kentucky and became a defensive menace, hounding the opponent’s guards and helping spur transition opportunities. While Desi Sills played the role of offensive sparkplug for his first three years, over the second half of the schedule his playing time fluctuated enough to the point of frustration. The same could be said for New Mexico transfer Vance Jackson, who started the season with a primary role, but over the last 16 games scored a DNP in 6 games and averaged just 4.6 minutes in the other 10. I always felt Ethan Henderson got a bit of a raw deal with his playing time. He was an active defender with a good block rate, and while not a threat offensively, he was still solid enough you could easily buy stretches of time with him on the court without going super small. Abayomi Iyiola transferred out after transferring in, sitting a year, and not playing much at all. Emeka Obukwelu, Bryson Morehead, and Brandon Kimble were all walk-ons.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
|Kamani Johnson||R-JR||CF||Redshirt - Transfer|
J.D. Notae | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD
For all the Hogs who saw minutes a season ago, there seemed to be only one with a flair for the dramatic. J.D. Notae, a Jacksonville transfer, wasn’t shy of the big moment and frequently stepped up offensively when the time called for it. He wasn’t always consistent, but when Notae was good he could carry the offense. He had an Offensive Rating of 110 or higher in 10 games, and a rating of below 90 in 11 games. Meaning, about 1⁄3 of the time you’re going to get awesome J.D., 1⁄3 of the time you’ll get bad J.D., and then the other third you’ll just get useful J.D.. For Arkansas to have the kind of season they want, Notae needs to be the better version of himself more often than not.
Davonte Davis is in both parts a throwback and a modern day player. He’s virtually positionless since he’s only about 6’3 and not really a primary ball handler type, but he’s a throwback because he’s just a good ball player. He’s a fantastic defender and flourishes in the mid range. Jaylin Williams turned himself into a lineup fixture last year, and a likely starter this year. His production from the post position allowed Muss to be more flexible in letting Henderson walk. He only played 32.5% of the minutes but missed 6 games and had limited availability in 9 others. He forced Musselman to nudge Connor Vanover out of bigger minutes down the stretch, even though Vanover provided solid rim protection and outside shooting. His defensive limitations away from the basket were too obvious, which forced him to be a playing time casualty later in the season.
Khalen Robinson was really good before getting dinged up. The former top 70 recruit looked like a starter earlier before a foot injury sidelined him after 11 games for the rest of the year. And Kamani Johnson took a redshirt year after transferring from Arkansas Little Rock.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|SO||Jaxson Robinson||6'6||185||Transfer||Texas A&M||WING|
|SR||Stanley Umude||6'6||210||Grad Transfer||South Dakota||WING|
|SR||Trey Wade||6'6||220||Grad Transfer||Wichita State||WING|
|SR||Chris Lykes||5'7||160||Grad Transfer||Miami||PG|
Chris Lykes | SENIOR | POINT GUARD
Eric Musselman loves to import transfers, and Chris Lykes is just next in line. A diminutive point guard from Miami, Lykes is a dynamic scorer who hasn’t been on very many good college basketball teams. As a freshman he split time at the point on an NCAA Tournament team, but then the next three seasons Miami struggled. Lykes was one of the few consistencies on the team as his efficiency hovered around 100, his usage hovered around 25 -27%, and his true shooting was in the low to mid 50s. But after an early season injury dinged him up last season, Lykes took the chance at a reset and chose Arkansas. As a point guard, he has a good assist rate, but with his size he can be easily exploited on defense and could move Muss to move away from his normal approach of switching everything.
After Lykes, Musselman continued to thirst for transfers with two traditional transfers and two additional graduate transfers. Trey Wade, a grad transfer from Wichita State, was a nice role player for the Shockers for two seasons before opting to try his luck in the SEC. Wade isn’t a great offensive player, but he doesn’t turn the ball over and defends well. The last grad transfer is former South Dakota offensive dynamo, Stanley Umude, a wing who averaged over 20 points per game last year. Umude was an efficient scorer around the basket and could frequently be found posting up and inverting the offense.
The two traditional transfers for Arkansas are Jaxson Robinson and Au’Diese Toney. Toney is a big wing at 6’6, and turned himself into a productive player for the Pitt Panthers over the last few years. He averaged 14.4ppg before missing the last five games due to a concussion. He became a reliable jump shooter and as a sturdy defender, and will likely be counted on to start. Meanwhile, Robinson previously landed at Texas A&M as a highly rated top 75 level player. Labeled as an elite level shooter, Robinson failed to get the playing time he expected but still weighs a light 185 lbs for a 6’6 wing.
Chance Moore is a rangy top 100 wing out of the basketball factory McEachern in Georgia. He’s athletic and a high level floor runner, but still has some rounding out to do with his skill level.
|(1) Point Guard||Chris Lykes||Khalen Robinson|
|(2) Combo Guard||JD Notae||Trey Wade|
|(3) Wing||Au'Diese Toney||Davonte Davis||Chance Moore|
|(4) Combo Forward||Stanley Umude||Kamani Johnson||Jaxson Robinson|
|(5) Post||Jaylin Williams||Connor Vanover|
Arkansas has already played an exhibition game, and Umude, Toney, Notae, Davis, and Jaylin Williams all started. Meaning, the above prediction is close, so I opted not to change it because Lykes still played the 4th most minutes behind Notae, Davis, and Toney. Arkansas is currently dealing with a few injuries in their front court, but Arkansas was at its best last year when playing small. And for the most part, Musselman has gone to a small ball lineup way more often than a traditional two big lineup. The rotation will be an interesting one to keep an eye on, since last year Arkansas did not go deep very often and they stuck with their top six most of the time. It will be worth watching how many guys get off the bench with regularity.
My Projected Record: 22-9 | KenPom Projected Record: x-x
|Nov 17||Home||Northern Iowa||110||W|
|Nov 22||Neutral||Kansas State||82||W|
|Nov 23||Neutral||Cincinnati / Illinois||117 / 5||L|
|Dec 1||Home||Central Arkansas||332||W|
|Dec 4||Home||Little Rock||298||W|
|Jan 29||Home||West Virginia||46||L|
Considering the preseason hype surrounding the Hogs, this is a bit of a stinker of a schedule. Maybe Muss knows something we don’t and tried to keep it light. A potential match up against top 5 Illinois awaits them in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, but that means they have to beat Kansas State first, and Illinois will have to dispose of Cincinnati, which seems likely. But outside of that, they face just one opponent inside the top 50— a forced matchup in the Big 12 - SEC Challenge against West Virginia. And they play just one, solitary power conference opponent in a neutral game: Oklahoma. If Arkansas doesn’t win at least 10 games, they’re doing something wrong.
|Dec 29||Away||Mississippi St||65||W|
|Jan 8||Away||Texas A&M||78||W|
|Jan 18||Home||South Carolina||86||W|
|Jan 22||Home||Texas A&M||78||W|
|Jan 26||Away||Ole Miss||57||L|
|Feb 5||Home||Mississippi St||65||W|
Arkansas’ permanent rivals sets them up decently enough with Missouri, Texas A&M, and LSU all predicted to have down years relative to their program expectations. Over the last few years Arkansas has split with each of these programs, but only played A&M once last year due to A&M’s month-long COVID pause. The Hogs also pulled Mississippi State and Tennessee, two good teams. But really, this is as friendly of a schedule has one could have asked for. A road opener in Starkville isn’t easy, but then four home games in the next six, with two road games at A&M and LSU. The LSU Tigers are the only top 50 team Arkansas will see until February 8th when they have a home game against Auburn. But the finish is tough, where the average opponent is 31st in Kenpom (and that includes 96th rated Missouri). So it should surprise nobody if Arkansas gets out to a fast start and slumps down the stretch. Basically, the opposite of their schedule last year.
Having Arkansas this high is a bit of a gamble, but sometimes it’s how the schedule plays out. Certainly their game against East Central should at least give everyone a little pause, but I’d expect Musselman to figure it out more so than not. He’s given himself an ample runway in the non-conference, and the SEC gave them some wiggle room early in the conference slate.
The concerns are there, obviously. On paper this looks like it should be a deep team, but when you get into the depth there are a few red flags. The interior depth is a problem. After Jaylin Williams, where does Muss go? Vanover is a defensive liability once he’s pulled away from the rim, and if he’s not sinking three pointers he’s of little to no offensive value. Kamani Johnson hasn’t done it at this level, and has been banged up in the preseason. And while there is a lot of good perimeter talent, and several who have performed it at this level, Arkansas is missing one thing they had a year ago: pro talent.
Certain things are easy to paper over when you have an NBA player on your roster, but they become much more difficult to manage when you don’t. Nobody had Moses Moody projected in the lottery at the start of last year, so maybe there is someone on Arkansas’ roster who can make that jump. But most of the time when you are working in transfers, you’re bringing in guys with proven production. It’s not only about if those pieces will fit, but will that production translate when they’re playing together?
Umude averaged 21.6 points last year, Lykes was averaging 15.5, and Toney was averaging 14.4. How do those three players, who are likely to be more of the primary options in Fayetteville, fit together and diversify their scoring output?
How do those players also integrate with the younger Arkansas natives who all stuck it out to play at home? Davonte Davis was a top 150 recruit from Jacksonville, Arkansas. Jaylin Williams was a top 100 recruit from Fort Smith, and Khalen Robinson was a top 75 point guard who was originally from Little Rock. Three Arkansas natives, along with Little Rock native Connor Vanover, who’ll be factoring in to the rotation along with Muss’ hired assassins added via the transfer portal.
And this is where I get intrigued by Musselman and the task he has ahead of him (of which he’s well compensated for). Arkansas is one of the trickier jobs where there is a good amount of basketball talent in the state, and a lot of that talent is interested in playing for the Hogs. But Muss has traditionally mixed in a lot of transfers to build his success at both Nevada and early on at Arkansas. His first team featured five in-state players, nearly all recruited to the team by Mike Anderson. Last year’s team featured 7 players from Arkansas, and this year it’s back to five. How do you blend good players from in-state who wanted to stay home and play for the Hogs, with high level transfers?
Last year it worked, because their best player was home-grown Moses Moody, while the glue guy was an Indiana transfer from Chicago. It will be interesting to watch if Lykes and Notae playing over Robinson leads to any in state turmoil.
It’s all a balancing act.
That’s why Arkansas starts as highly rated as they do. Muss has figured it all out in the past, and there’s no reason to think they won’t figure it out again. I do wonder about the top end talent, and think that might hold them back a bit. The front court gets thin in a hurry without Jaylin Williams. Muss has shown a willingness to go five guards in the past, but this version of the SEC is a different animal altogether. Regardless, it will certainly mean an interesting winter in Fayetteville, regardless of how this goes.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
Proven scoring, proven defenders, young exciting talent. Eric Musselman has everything he needs to be successful; he just needs to put it all together. Plus, with a softer runway for the team to get going early, if they can avoid an early season loss or two that wouldn’t have otherwise been predicted, the Hogs should be a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament at least.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
They’re missing the top end talent which has filtered into the roster the last few years. The incoming high-scorers are guys who got it done on poor teams where their production didn’t lead to wins at the major conference level. That lack of elite level talent, coupled with a lack of depth, could signal a bumpier year than most expect.
About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for 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 Masses” picks. 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.
* - 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.