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SEC Basketball Preview: #4 Arkansas Razorbacks

Previewing the No. 4 team in the SEC, the Arkansas Razorbacks.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Illinois vs Arkansas Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

If you ignore a large segment of the season from last year, the last three seasons of Arkansas basketball have been about as good of a run as Hog fans have experienced since probably 1990 - 1996. You have to have a selective memory of ignoring December 27th through March 10th, but if you do that it’s been an incredible run.

The good news for Arkansas fans is that on March 12, Arkansas was named to the NCAA Tournament despite having lost 12 of their last 21 contests, and recording an 8-10 record in the SEC. But they got in. They then proceeded to win their first-round matchup against Illinois, then pulled off an upset of 1-seeded Kansas which led to Eric Musselman pulling off his shirt (again). But reality caught up with the rockiness and lack of depth on the roster a year ago. Their inefficiencies on offense became apparent when they ran into UConn in the Sweet 16. But by the end, Arkansas fans were able to forget about the previous two and a half months of ugly basketball and relish in their third trip to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in as many years.

So what’s in store for the Hogs this year?


Previous SEC Previews:

Arkansas Preview

#4 Arkansas Razorbacks

Last Season: 22 - 14 (8-10 in conference) No. 22 KenPom

My Prediction: 22 - 9 (11-7, 4th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 12.1 - 5.9 (4th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 3rd in conference

KenPom Projection: 21-8 (11-7 in conference) No. 14

Arkansas v Kansas Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

HEAD COACH: Eric Musselman | 5th Season, 95-42

For all his acumen as a basketball coach, Eric Musselman does enough to make a spectacle of himself and draw the spotlight to his antics as much as possible. Like whipping his shirt off and running around the court like a tween chasing after a boy band crush are all things I’d be pretty embarrassed about if I were an Arkansas fan. While I’m sure there are some who roll their eyes at all of this, they don’t seem to be very vocal about it. So the clown show endures.

There’s no denying Musselman is a great basketball coach, he exploits his opponents' weaknesses to an extreme and will hammer away at any one or two things that might work for him. Musselman has yet to field a truly good offense in his time at Fayetteville, but what he does is field an elite defense and then figure out a way to be good enough offensively.

Last season Muss pivoted away from what worked, however, as he went with youth and elite-level NBA talent. The learning curve was steep, and some poorly timed injuries stunted further growth, causing Arkansas to be incredibly beatable. So with that lesson behind him Muss went back to what worked before. Experience and the transfer portal.

Seat Temp: COLD

What’s interesting is that Arkansas has been really very good, but have they been great? Not yet. We tend to put an outlandish amount of emphasis on March success as an indicator of what is and isn’t a good season. So with two Elite 8s and a Sweet 16 in the last three years, Arkansas has been great according to a lot of people. I’m sure there are a lot of programs that would take being a top 20 KenPom team by season's end, but that’s not being great. Alabama and Arkansas both made the Sweet 16 last year but which season would you rather have had? That’s really the final step here for Musselman, to step past being good and be great. He’s built the defense before; now it’s time to field an offense that works well enough to get the Hogs to the next step.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Ricky Council IV professional 36 84.91% 21.96% 19.61% 20.58%
Anthony Black professional 36 86.71% 17.38% 19.12% 19.25%
Nick Smith Jr professional 17 30.52% 8.05% 5.27% 8.10%
Jordan Walsh professional 36 60.97% 9.74% 9.50% 9.74%
Makhel Mitchell transfer 30 26.51% 3.80% 5.86% 3.80%
Kamani Johnson graduation 27 22.08% 2.96% 3.14% 2.96%
Derrian Ford transfer 21 5.54% 0.69% 0.67% 0.69%
Barry Dunning Jr transfer 16 3.46% 0.33% 0.00% 0.33%
64.14% 64.91% 63.17% 65.45%

Arkansas lost as much or more talent to the NBA draft as teams who finished well ahead of them in the standings, which speaks to how deeply talented the roster was but also how the assembly of the roster may have been a bit mismanaged. I’m not discounting injuries, but there were four players who declared for the NBA Draft, including one lottery pick, two first round picks, and three players drafted while Ricky Council was quickly scooped up on a two-way deal after the draft by the 76ers.

Anthony Black was the biggest loss, but sometimes when you recruit freshmen this can happen. Black was really pretty good all year, and he looks like he could have become a star with some more time, but that time now will be spent in Orlando instead of Bud Walton. Black only averaged 12.8 ppg and shot a hair over 30% from deep, but his playmaking and defense at 6’7 is a rare commodity.

Nick Smith Jr. was supposed to be all that and a bag of chips as he came in as the top ranked prospect in the 247sports.com Composite ranking, but Smith injured his knee early and missed the first 6 games, came back and played in 5 games, then missed 13 more games before playing the rest. However, by then his impact was mitigated and he averaged just 12.5 points a game.

Meanwhile, Council was the real breakout start off the roster last year, but he also fit well with what Musselman was accustomed to— a transfer with experience he could mold. Council had the physical profile at 6’6 and elite-level athleticism, and he and Black could run in transition well together. He and Jordan Walsh also formed a very formidable defensive line, capable of shutting down any number of offensive players. Although Walsh was plagued by a high foul rate, and some struggles shooting the ball.

Kamani Johnson was one of the guys I wished Muss would’ve leaned on more, mainly because he didn’t mind doing the dirty work without the ball. A physical but undersized forward, Johnson played limited minutes but was always tough on defense and the glass where 42% of his shot attempts came off offensive rebounds. It was a little surprising to see Makhel Mitchell transfer without his brother, but it happened. The Mitchell twins chose Maryland, Rhode Island, and then Arkansas together but Makhel will finish his career at Little Rock. Last both Derrian Ford and Barry Dunning Jr. were former 4-star recruits who had trouble cracking the lineup. Ford left for Arkansas State while Dunning transferred to UAB.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Trevon Brazile R-SO CF 9 16.82% 4.01% 58.47% 3.87%
Davonte Davis SR CG 35 80.07% 14.40% 50.78% 12.54%
Makhi Mitchell G-SR POST 36 50.31% 8.77% 62.35% 12.44%
Jalen Graham G-SR POST 31 20.07% 6.08% 62.69% 5.71%
Joseph Pinion SO WING 26 10.24% 2.34% 61.90% 2.24%
Lawson Blake JR CG 9 0.90% 0.11% 28.20% 0.00%
Cade Arbogast G-SR WING 9 0.90% 0.15% 40.98% 0.05%
35.86% 35.86% 36.85%
NCAA Basketball: San Jose State at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Trevon Brazile | RS-SOPHOMORE | POST

Not the most popular guy these days in Columbia, Missouri, Trevon Brazile left Mizzou in favor of their rivals to the south after a freshman season where he flashed real breakout ability. A slender 6’9 forward with big time length and athleticism, Brazile jumps off the screen when you’re watching him play because of how easy the game seems to come to him. It’s obvious why he was a hot commodity in the transfer portal, and why he was so coveted by Arkansas.

But fate intervened a bit. Brazile was coming off a 17 point effort against Creighton in the Maui Invitational, then he was even better with 20 points against San Diego State. After a quiet game against Troy, Brazile had 23 points on 7-7 shooting inside the arc, 5 rebounds and two blocks against San Jose State and looked like he was putting things together. Then the next time out he tore his ACL against UNC Greensboro after just 9 minutes of action and missed the rest of the year. Brazile was expected to be a big part of the rotation last season and missing a big who can run, defend multiple positions, and extend the floor on kick outs was a notable loss. Brazile also turned down the oppportunity to go into the draft where he was expected to be a 2nd round pick by many analysts should jump, instead the Hogs get an NBA level talent on the roster for at least one more season.

Maybe it’s weird to not feature Davonte Davis first, but it is hard to argue how integral Davis has been to the program over the last three years. He’s an energy starter, a defensive menace, and a reliable offensive weapon. Davis isn’t the guy you want to run your offense through, but as a second, third or fourth option, he’s terrific. He also took a step forward in his distance shooting with a 34.6% clip last season, it came with him taking a bit of a hit on his usually very good mid-range game.

I mentioned Makhi Mitchell splitting from his brother above, and Makhi was the better, more productive player over the course of the season. He started 31 games and was fifth on the team in minutes and was a consistent rebounder. He joins Jalen Graham as a graduate transfer playing his final COVID season for the Hogs. Graham played a reserve role but did pop off for 26 points against Florida in a home win over the Gators.

Joseph Pinion is the last remaining member of the vaunted 2022 recruiting class still on the roster. Pinion is an Arkansas native and former 4-star recruit who’s hoping to make more of a dent in the rotation after averaging 5.8 last season. Lawson Blake and Cade Arbogast are back for another year as walk-ons.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Baye Fall 6'10 210 ★★★★ 28 POST
FR Layden Blocker 6'2 180 ★★★★ 35 PG
SO Keyon Menifield 6'1 150 TRANSFER Washington CG
JR Tramon Mark 6'6 185 TRANSFER Houston WING
G-SR Khalif Battle 6'5 185 TRANSFER Temple WING
G-SR Jeremiah Davenport 6'6 215 TRANSFER Cincinnati CF
G-SR El Ellis 6'3 180 TRANSFER Louisvillle CG
G-SR Denijay Harris 6'7 195 TRANSFER Southern Miss CF
G-SR Chandler Lawson 6'7 215 TRANSFER Memphis WING
NCAA Basketball: Wichita State at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Tramon Mark | JUNIOR | WING

With such an extensive list of newcomers there are really any number of guys who could fit in here. Tramon Mark is intriguing because he fits a lot of what Musselman looks for in a transfer, projectability. Mark is a long wing who played the last few years at Houston and averaged nearly 30 minutes a game for one of the best teams in the country last year, while averaging more than 10 points per game. Throughout the season he had several stand out performances including dropping 26 on Auburn in the NCAA Tournament second round.

Mark looks the part, and even if he’s not hitting his shots his length and tenacity should fit well within the Muss defensive scheme. One area where Mark needs to improve is with his shooting. He shot just 32.8% from deep last year but his points per shot on catch and shoots wasn’t as bad at 36.2%. He has shown steady growth year over year since shooting 24.3% as a freshmen. If Mark can round out his shooting, coupled with his ability to attack off the bounce and his defense, he won’t be in college basketball long.

It’s also worth keeping a close eye on Temple transfer Khalif Battle. Another well-traveled transfer who is taking his graduate COVID season in Fayetteville, Battle began his career at Butler, then transferred to Temple where the Owls only played in 16 games in 2021. Then in 2022 he was having a breakout season, averaging over 20 points a game when he broke his foot which ended his season. Then in 2022-23 he was healthy and he put up big numbers averaging nearly 18 ppg with a 27% usage and a 105.5 rating. A number to watch from Battle was his 47.7% on unguarded catch and shoot opportunities.

El Ellis was the best player on a bad roster and sometimes was the only positive thing going for Louisville last season. He was a heavy usage by default point guard, but with some help around him should thrive in a lesser role. Jeremiah Davenport transferred in after four years at Cincinnati, a true combo forward Davenport should fill in well off the ball and as a defender and rebounder. Muss also took a commitment from Keyon Menifield, a Washington transfer, then put him as a redshirt non-scholarship player. NIL must have helped out with that one.

Chandler Lawson has one last year to play after a mostly disappointing college career. Lawson chose Oregon out of high school and transferred to Memphis after two seasons. He’s never averaged more than 5 points per game and his high-scoring game last year was 12. He’s good defensively but anything more and you’re probably asking too much. Then Muss also added Denijay Harris from Southern Miss. He was a role-playing interior guy for the Golden Eagles, so I expect he’ll be about the same for the Hogs.

All of that and I haven’t even gotten to the duo of 4-star freshmen who should both see a fair amount of minutes. The first is Baye Fall, an athletic post with tremendous length who should factor in because of his ability to protect the rim. He’ll have an uphill battle with the depth around the basket, but his talent should get him on the floor at least for stretches. Meanwhile, Layden Blocker might contend for starting minutes at the point guard against El Ellis. Blocker is another Arkansas native who finished his high school years at Sunrise Christian in Kansas. He’s athletic and plays with good pace, and while the outside jump shot is still a work in progress, he’s an exciting prospect with a huge ceiling.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard El Ellis Layden Blocker Keyon Menifield*
(2) Combo Guard Davonte Davis Khalif Battle Joseph Pinion
(3) Wing Tramon Mark Chandler Lawson
(4) Combo Forward Trevon Brazile Jeremiah Davenport Denijay Harris
(5) Post Makhi Mitchell Jalen Graham Baye Fall

Arkansas is deep, and with so many different new parts this lineup may be hard to figure out early. Even for Eric Musselman. He’s been known to tinker with his rotation well into conference play so it’s also likely to change. Much of the lineup comes down to how they use Brazile. With him at the five, Arkansas loses some of their interior advantage, but they also gain more spots for shooters. With Brazile at the four, the defense becomes that much more stout with multiple rim protectors.

I would want more skill on the floor, trusting the length on the wing and with Brazile on the backline for rim protection. That could give Muss the shooting this team has desperately needed for the last few years. So that means that Muss is more likely to go heavy inside and make his defense all the more difficult to score on.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 22-9 | KenPom Projected Record: 21-9

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home Alcorn State 248 W
Nov 10 Home Gardner-Webb 185 W
Nov 13 Home Old Dominion 179 W
Nov 17 Home UNC-Greensboro 106 W
Nov 22 Neutral Stanford 42 W
Nov 23 Neutral Memphis / Michigan 32 / 44 W
Nov 24 Neutral TBD - L
Nov 29 Home Duke 9 L
Dec 4 Home Furman 108 W
Dec 9 Neutral Oklahoma 48 W
Dec 16 Home Lipscomb 196 W
Dec 21 Home Abilene Christian 169 W
Dec 30 Home UNC-Wilmington 148 W
avg 130.73 11-2

There are two teams that I think do their schedule the right way, that’s Alabama and Arkansas. Musselman tends to be a bit more conservative than Nate Oats, who seems to have the mentality of ‘anyone anytime’, whereas you can see Muss’s approach seems to be more constructive. He schedules a lot of good, but beatable, mid-majors. He avoids any roster duds, you’ll notice that the lowest-rated KenPom.com rated team is 248th-ranked Alcorn State. The Braves won the SWAC last season. Every other opponent is inside the top 200, and all teams with a reasonable expectation to win their league.

They participate in the Battle For Atlantis, where they’ll face Stanford in round one, then either Michigan or Memphis in the next round. The third game could feature North Carolina, Villanova, or Texas Tech. Then they scheduled a home game against a national title contender in the Duke Blue Devils. But the rest of the schedule is a bunch of winnable home games against good mid-majors.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 6 Home Auburn 15 W
Jan 10 Away Georgia 57 W
Jan 13 Away Florida 39 L
Jan 16 Home Texas A&M 24 W
Jan 20 Home South Carolina 66 W
Jan 25 Away Ole Miss 82 L
Jan 27 Home Kentucky 18 W
Jan 31 Away Missouri 55 L
Feb 3 Away LSU 47 W
Feb 10 Home Georgia 57 W
Feb 14 Home Tennessee 8 W
Feb 17 Away Mississippi State 27 L
Feb 20 Away Texas A&M 24 L
Feb 24 Home Missouri 55 W
Feb 27 Home Vanderbilt 79 W
Mar 2 Away Kentucky 18 L
Mar 6 Home LSU 47 W
Mar 9 Away Alabama 10 L
avg 40.44 11-7

The good news for Arkansas is that the schedule doesn’t look like one that’s tripped them up each of the last three years. Three years ago Arkansas lost four of five games, two years ago they lost their first three SEC games, and last year they started 1-5. This year the first three games are all games they should win. Auburn to open things, but it’s at home. Then two road games, but both against teams Arkansas should be better than. The first game that should be a real challenge for them to win is at Florida, but that’s a winnable game. Then it’s back home against Texas A&M, which should be an early key test for both teams hoping to stake a claim towards a conference championship.

The home and home schedule of two teams at the top of the league (A&M and Kentucky), two teams towards the bottom (LSU and Georgia, and a team in the middle with Missouri, means Arkansas is a few road wins from putting themselves in contention for a league championship.

OVERVIEW

Expectations are certainly high in Fayetteville. If any KenPom projections are correct Arkansas will finish with its highest-rated team in the KenPom era, which currently goes back to 1997. EvanMiya.com is also high on the Hogs rating them 19th.

Obviously putting them 4th says there is a belief here that Arkansas can contend for a league title. I think there are probably five teams with a realistic goal of winning the league, just on paper. There are always surprises in league play, but even if you want to expand the league contenders a bit the Razorbacks are very much in the mix.

But before anyone anoints them, you have to point out that Arkansas had three NBA players on their roster last year, and one who got a two-way deal, and still only went 8-10 in the SEC last year. If they could score the ball more consistently a year ago, they probably beat LSU, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt and then they’re 11-7 and probably a 6 seed. They also nearly lost at home to Missouri due to their lack of offense, and also nearly lost on the road to South Carolina for the same reason.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Illinois vs Arkansas Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Under Musselman, Arkansas has not finished in the top half of the country in three point shooting. His attempt at navigating a league schedule with a talented, but also very young, group of stars, wasn’t a success. Knowing that he’s been very good with older guys, it made all the sense in the world that Musselman would turn to the transfer portal to backfill his losses.

But what didn’t make sense was going after so few guys who can help spread the floor. The only player on the roster who can shoot it is the 6’9 forward Trevon Brazile. I think the hope here is that by taking El Ellis, Khalif Battle, Tramon Mark, and Jeremiah Davenport you aren’t asking them all to be the primary offensive guy. So with less pressure on them to create perhaps it helps increase their shooting percentages.

Arkansas should again be elite defensively. I expect the defense will be good enough for them to at least win 20 games or more. But the difference between being good and winning 20 games, and being great and winning closer to 30 games lies in their ability to score with regularity. If all these weapons work together and the offense clicks, this is a team to watch as a potential Final Four threat. But that “If” right now is doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

If you’ve got Eric Musselman on the sidelines you know the defense is going to be good enough to get this team to an NCAA Tournament. All Muss needs to get further is a competent offense, and there are going to be options for him to work with.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

It might be hard to convince Arkansas fans of this, but Muss is fallible, and last season a team with that much NBA talent on the roster was just a mediocre outfit. They could be better this year but they also have less NBA talent on the roster than a year ago. So it stands that the Hogs being an elite squad isn’t written in stone, and they still need to figure out a way to score the ball effectively and have a reasonable three point shooting percentage.


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.


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.