Last year it felt like Eric Musselman and the Arkansas Razorbacks were busy solidifying themselves as a top program in the SEC. Despite a wonky roster, limited offensive options, and some early conference play bumps in the road, Arkansas turned it on and made their second Elite 8 in a row.
Each of the last two seasons Arkansas has played a bit of the same script. They turned a soft non-conference slate into a lot of wins, entered conference play and hit the skids, but revived enough to go on a run which vaulted them into the top of the league and a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. But for the hype, Arkansas has had back-to-back 18th-ranked finishes in KenPom. Good, yes, but lending the thought the elite eight runs were more based upon matchups. Two years ago, they got a bump by facing Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16 before losing to Baylor. Last year New Mexico State took down UConn in the first round, leaving a clear path to the Sweet 16 for Muss and the Hogs where they took good advantage by taking down the top overall seed in the Zags.
So, did Arkansas ride a hot streak and get lucky? Yes. Did they also make some of their own luck when they got there? Yes to that, too. Regardless of how the last two seasons ended, this is a whole new roster, and a whole new team. And they’re going to be good.
Previous SEC Previews
- 3. Tennessee Volunteers
- 4. Auburn Tigers
- 5. Alabama Crimson Tide
- 6. Florida Gators
- 7. LSU Tigers
- 8. Texas A&M Aggies
- 9. Missouri Tigers
- 10. Ole Miss Rebels
- 11. Vanderbilt Commodores
- 12. Georgia Bulldogs
- 13. South Carolina Gamecocks
- 14. Mississippi State Bulldogs
#2 Arkansas Razorbacks
Last Season: 28 - 9 (13-5 in conference) No. 18 KenPom
My Prediction: 24 - 6 (14-4, 2nd in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 12.7 - 5.3 (3rd in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 2nd in conference
KenPom Projection: 20 - 9 (11-7 in conference) No. 14
HEAD COACH: Eric Musselman | 3rd Season, 101-28
There are a lot of adjectives you can use to describe Eric Musselman, and I’m going to do my best to use them all here. An imperious personality, Muss has without a doubt turned around the expectations for an Arkansas program that was once a national powerhouse. His magniloquent style despite a diminutive stature makes Musselman a mystifying presence on the sideline. He’s spirited and resolute, brash and unrepentantly harlequin when it comes to promoting his brand, and the program he oversees. His near constant self-aggrandizement is endearing for much of the Hog fan base who have fully bought in. And for anyone on the fence, the wins and deep tournament runs have sealed the excitement for basketball in Fayetteville.
TLDR: Musselman a jerk who nobody really likes, but he’s a great coach who wins a lot, which makes Arkansas fans pretty happy. His previous success at Nevada, utilizing transfers to identify weak spots in his roster helped build the profile he’s extended to Arkansas. Expectations in Fayetteville are as high as they’ve been since the mid-1990s.
Seat Temp: COLD
Once Nolan Richardson left, Arkansas got lost in the wild a little bit. But even as they lagged behind, the program never really fell off. There were a couple dips, but even Mike Andersons worst season was of the 8-10 variety and nothing like other programs have seen. But since losing the National Final in 1995, and making the Sweet 16 in 1996, Arkansas made just 10 tournaments in 23 years and had zero Sweet 16s. Eric Musselman has changed all of that and Arkansas has itself looking like the once-proud top 25 program again.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
Another year and another max exodus of players from an Eric Musselman roster. Last season, Muss found one thing that worked, and that was pumping possessions through J.D. Notae. Notae transferred in from Jacksonville and became one of the most exciting players in the SEC. Though not always efficient, Notae was always high usage, and was capable and unafraid to take and make big shots. His 18.3 ppg accounted for nearly 1⁄4 of the entire Arkansas output, despite having the team’s lowest ORtg amongst the regular rotation.
For a while it was touch and go whether Jaylin Williams would return to school or stay in the draft, and to the Hogs’ detriment he opted to stay in the draft. Williams turned himself into one of the league’s best defensive big men, most well-known for taking questionable charges, but taking a LOT of them. He was good offensively, but it was his defense which make the difference. Stanley Umude found his role, and he attempted 352 shots, 153 of them being catch and shoots. Before he transferred from South Dakota, Umude was a possession hound. But he turned himself into a 3&D wing and was a valuable asset within that role. Au-Diese Toney figured a similar thing out, while Notae was running high ball screens, Toney and Umude spread the floor. While Toney wasn’t the shooter Umude was, he was an excellent defender and he understood he wasn’t a shooter. Of his 240 FGA, only 29 were catch and shoots; the rest were all at the rim.
Chris Lykes was a high scorer at Miami before accepting more of a backup role as he became the instant offense off the bench. Trey Wade accepted a limited role as an undersized interior defender and saw his playing time jump from early in the season.
Connor Vanover went from starter early in the season to taking 21 DNPs after the start of December. After averaging just 4.2 mpg in the other 10 games, he transferred to Oral Roberts. Jaxson Robinson transferred in from Texas A&M and never was able to consistently crack the rotation and transferred out to BYU. Khalen “KK” Robinson had trouble staying healthy and now the former top 60 guard will try his luck at Texas A&M. And Chance Moore is a former top 100 wing who left for more playing time at Missouri State.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
Davonte Davis | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD
Musselman only brings back two players who played any type of role last year for the Hogs, and leading that contingent is Davonte “Devo” Davis. One of the better defenders in the SEC, Davis is taking on the challenge of finding playing time again with a roster full of imports. He’s a bit of a hybrid player as there’s no one real spot where he fits offensively. He’s an okay ball handler, and an okay shooter. But he’s just an effective player. A good shooter in the mid-range, Davis is excellent at the rim.
It’s a question of finding the right role for Davis, though. He’s a good enough player that there will always be a role for him. And Musselman has been ruthless when crafting his rotation as the season wears along. He’s unafraid of sitting a player he doesn’t think is going to help. Even if that player is an in-state recruit, which is something far more difficult to manage for other coaches. One thing that Muss does like is experience and knowing what he’ll get from a player, and therein lies the comfort with Davis. He’s a known commodity. He may not be a great shooter, but he is a good player. He’s tough and he defends. Which should be enough to get him on the floor plenty this season.
Kamani Johnson is the only other returner of any substance, originally a transfer from Little Rock, Johnson sat out the 2021 season and played sparingly last year. Averaging less than 8 minutes a game and taking 16 DNPs, Johnson appears to be okay playing in a limited backup role. Both Lawson Blake and Cade Arbogast return as walk-ons again this season.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|JR||Ricky Council IV||6'6||205||TRANSFER||Wichita State||WING|
|SR||Jalen Graham||6'9||225||TRANSFER||Arizona State||POST|
|SR||Makhel Mitchell||6'10||240||TRANSFER||Rhode Island||POST|
|SR||Makhi Mitchell||6'9||230||TRANSFER||Rhode Island||POST|
Nick Smith, Jr. | FRESHMAN | COMBO GUARD
Watching Nick Smith, Jr. play basketball is watching a guy you know has a future in the NBA. The long, rangy, combo guard has all the tools. He’s got a quick release on his jump shot and has the ability to get in and out of his breaks in the half court and change speeds with fluidity. He’s a good passer, a good shooter, a good ball handler. He has ALL the tools. 247sports ranked him their top overall prospect, but his Composite ranking sits at 3rd. Checking early draft boards, you’ll see Smith’s name in the top 5 on most boards. Nobody is going to supplant Victor Wembanyama at the top spot or Scoot Henderson at number 2. After that, things get a bit more fluid and Smith is certainly in that top range.
Smith is a talent and is the most likely player to lead the Razorbacks in scoring. Like all freshmen there will be a period of adjustment, but it’s far easier to bet on talent and Smith has all the talent in the world.
Along with Smith, Musselman has brought in a deep and talented freshmen class. While Smith might lead the team in scoring, Anthony Black, a top 20 point guard with elite size at 6’7, might be the most valuable player. A point guard with that size is unusual, but Black is every bit a point guard. He handles well in Pick and Rolls and is able to turn the corner and get to the rim, and often makes the right read. He’s also been a good and active defender. Joining him is Jordan Walsh, perhaps the longest 6’7 player you’ve ever seen. His wingspan has been reported at 7’3, which makes him a high level defender and someone who can get his hand on the ball from nearly any angle, and contest every shot. His offensive game is still a bit rough, but as a combo forward in College he’ll be able to make a lot of things happen.
How Musselman uses the next trio of freshmen will be interesting. All three — Derrian Ford, Barry Dunning, and Joseph Pinion — are 4-star recruits with Ford and Pinion also being Arkansas natives. Pinion is the lowest rated recruit at 102, so they would all be counted on for larger roles at other programs out of the gate. Ford is a tough physical combo guard, Dunning is an athletic wing with a developing outside game, and Pinion is a skilled wing with good lateral movement and a top of the line outside shot.
Then there are the transfers. The headliner is arguably Trevon Brazile, a Missouri transfer who was an unheralded recruit going into his senior season when he exploded up the rankings. After getting healthy, Brazile was one of the few bright spots for the Tigers with his ability to play above the rim. Offensively, he’s still a work in progress, and his effort level can wane at times, but there’s no denying his ability.
Ricky Council IV transfered in from Wichita State after averaging 12.1 points per game with a 104.8 ORtg off the bench. Jalen Graham comes in from Arizona State after three mostly productive seasons in Tempe. Graham scored almost 10ppg and 5 rpg as a junior last year, but did so with increased usage and much lower efficiency. And lastly, the well-travelled Mitchell twins ended up at Arkansas. Makhel and Mahki Mitchell started together at Maryland and transferred to Rhode Island. In two seasons at Rhode Island, Makhel averaged 10.2 points and 5.6 rebounds, and his brother Makhi chipped in 9.2 and 6.8.
|(1) Point Guard||Anthony Black||Derrian Ford|
|(2) Combo Guard||Davonte Davis||Ricky Council IV|
|(3) Wing||Nick Smith||Barry Dunning||Joseph Pinion|
|(4) Combo Forward||Jordan Walsh||Jalen Graham||Makhi Mitchell|
|(5) Post||Trevon Brazile||Kamani Johnson||Makhel Mitchell|
Like the other later running previews, we get an early look of what Arkansas might be doing with their depth and can adjust thanks to exhibition games. Arkansas has played twice already, hammering Rogers State and getting blown out by Texas. In each game Musselman started his trio of 5-star freshmen, Trevon Brazile, and Jalen Graham. The only question during preseason is if anyone is nursing injuries and the staff is being careful, but this minutes distribution looks about what can be expected early. The question on whether the Mitchell brothers get more clock at the five is something to be answered as the season goes along, but Davis and Council look to be in the rotation already. Each of the last two seasons Musselman has pared down the lineup to a 6-7 man rotation late in the season. We’ll see if he keeps it that tight this year or if he loosens the reigns a bit to keep the lower-rated freshmen engaged.
My Projected Record: 24 - 6 | KenPom Projected Record: 20 - 8
|Nov 7||Home||North Dakota St.||206||W|
|Nov 16||Home||South Dakota St.||131||W|
|Nov 22||Neutral||Texas Tech / Creighton||17 / 22||L|
|Dec 3||Home||San Jose State||236||W|
As usual, Eric Musselman is an expert in crafting a non-conference schedule. It’s always good, without being too good. I’d expect quite a few close wins early in the non-con before they head to Hawai’i for the Maui Invitational for a good, but not great, lineup of teams. Annually, the Maui Invitational is one of - if not the - best MTE in the preseason. This year Arkansas is possibly the headliner facing off against a rebuilding Louisville team in the first round. Creighton-Texas Tech await in round two, with the bottom of the bracket featuring Arizona versus Cincinnati and Ohio State versus San Diego State. Both Tech or Creighton is a tough second round matchup as both teams return a lot of experienced players, and Arkansas has a lot youth.
The Crimson and Cardinal Classic in Tulsa looks like a good matchup against Oklahoma. And a sort-of neutral court matchup against Bradley could get a little tricky. Then Arkansas gets a really difficult game at Baylor in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. The Bears have one of the country’s best freshmen in Keyontae George and sport a top 10 preseason ranking in KenPom.
|Jan 21||Home||Ole Miss||49||W|
|Jan 31||Home||Texas A&M||45||W|
|Feb 4||Away||South Carolina||78||W|
|Feb 11||Home||Mississippi St||53||W|
|Feb 15||Away||Texas A&M||45||W|
Each of the last two years, Arkansas has started slow: 2-4 in 2021 and 0-3 in 2022. I could see a similar start to the season if the Hogs aren’t careful. Starting on the road at LSU is a game Arkansas probably should win, but the Tigers have experience playing for Matt McMahon, and it’s possible Muss is still figuring out his rotation by that point. The second game is a home game against a Missouri team they should beat, but then a road trip to Auburn and a home game against Alabama could spell a 1-3 start. Then you add in the fact the Razorbacks have Kentucky, Texas A&M, LSU, Alabama, and Missouri all home-and-home. Right now, LSU and Missouri aren’t projected as tournament teams but they’re not far off. So, there aren’t any real breaks there.
It’s inarguable the first three seasons under Eric Musselman have been a success. But the success has brought changing expectations, and Muss has been as aggressive as any coach in the country in assembling a new roster each season through the transfer portal. Now he’s out-recruited himself and has a deep roster full of talent. Players transfer in, sign letters of intent, and they’re all used to being at the top of the pecking order. To date, Muss has been an expert at making the pieces fit by the time mid-January rolls around, but he’s also done so by trimming his rotation and leaving players out in the cold.
In terms of raw NBA talent, there might be more of it on the Arkansas roster than anywhere else in the SEC. Nick Smith is without a doubt a lottery pick. Anthony Black is currently slotted into the top 20, Trevon Brazile is a low 2nd round pick if current projections hold. Jordan Walsh is not currently on Sam Vecenie’s board in either of the two rounds, but he was on Johnathan Givony’s big board in the first round with his most recent update. There are potentially three 1st round draft picks, and four overall picks if the hype around Brazile is to be believed.
With five transfers and six freshmen, this is unlike any roster remake Musselman has dealt with to date. Last season Arkansas imported six new players total with just one freshman, and none of them were projected draft picks. Two years ago, it was a similar story: seven imported players with four of them being freshmen. None were projected NBA draft picks. Moses Moody turned into one, and was drafted by the Golden State Warriors. So, this experiment is a new one for Muss.
But we’re still sitting here with the Hogs ranked second for a reason. At this point, after two seasons of Muss figuring it out through the season, I’m trusting him to figure this out. His talent level is higher, and while it’s never easy to get high level performances from young talent, Muss has done really well at putting the players he trusts in good position to make the easy reads and simple plays.
Like a good offensive coordinator with a favorite run play, you can count on the Razorbacks to figure out what is going to work, and keep going to it. The benefit of having that approach, is if what works is something like “high ball screen with Nick Smith, Jr.” then there’s no really good way to stop it. Talent is going to win, and Smith and Black and Walsh are not only talented, but they also complement each other's talent well. The last few years Muss has built elite level defenses and had offenses which could do just enough. If the freshmen buy in defensively, the offensive talent can be overwhelming and that is the kind of team who can challenge for a league title.
That is a big if. You saw some early growing pains with the Hogs being gutted by Texas in an exhibition game. But this team was never going to be one which dominated from the jump. It was going to need a building process over the first few months before we can see what kind of ceiling they really have.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
This is Arkansas’ most talented basketball team in a long time, possibly since Nolan Richardson roamed the sidelines. The best place to start with any basketball team is having high-end talent and letting the rest fall where it may. There aren’t many teams in College Basketball who will boast three NBA 1st round draft picks. There aren’t many teams who can do that any year, much less this year. But if there are, they are probably a very good team. I expect by the end of the year Arkansas will be that too.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
If there are pessimistic Hogs fans out there, let me know. But if you’re looking for a reason for skepticism this year, it’s that these kinds of experiments with top end lottery level talent rarely work outside of places like Kentucky or Duke. If there are enough early bumps it's easy to see how this could go a bit sideways, especially after getting housed by Texas. Muss is a good enough coach I’d expect them to be ok, but this is also the first time he’s done it. And he’s never really had to rely upon freshmen to get things going.
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.