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SEC Hoops Preview: #8 Arkansas Razorbacks

When Arkansas moved on from Mike Anderson, it brought an end to a tepid but mostly consistent era. In Eric Musselman, they hired the polar opposite. Musselman’s first year produced worse results, but he was an engaging presence on social media, a hit with recruits, and able to build buzz around the fan base.


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Arkansas Preview

Last Season: 20-12 (7-11 in conference) No. 47 KenPom

My Prediction: 16-10 (9-9 8th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 6th in conference

KenPom Projection: 17-10 (9-9 in conference) No. 19

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Arkansas

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Eric Musselman | Second Season, 20-12

How Musselman fits in Fayetteville has always been a nagging question, but his resume has everything you want in a modern coach. His professional roots run deep as a NBA assistant, head coach, and G League head coach. He spent three seasons as a college assistant and four seasons at Nevada. That success in Reno came from a willingness to take in a fair share transfers, a sign of his adaptability. And Muss is not afraid of using unconventional lineups, like last year when he had Jimmy Whitt slide down from the wing to play the four or even at the five in certain situations. All in all, Muss has what it takes to be successful in Fayetteville.

Seat Temp: COLD

arkansas 10 year preview 2020

Under Anderson, Arkansas won games and remained competitive, but the program could never break through to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Had Anderson made a couple of Sweet 16 or Elite Eight runs, perhaps he’s still on the job. But if expectations are to restore the Razorbacks to their mid-90s dominance, that might be a tad too ambitious.

No doubt, Arkansas invests and can give its head coach resources, but in the high-dollar SEC, it’s still a member of the upper-middle class. It shouldn’t be long before the Hogs are back in the NCAA tournament. Maybe as soon as this year. And it’s not hard to envision Muss occasionally taking winning a couple of games when they get there. If that’s the benchmark, Arkansas might have its man.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Mason Jones professional 31 80.46% 28.15% 28.31% 25.83%
Isaiah Joe professional 26 72.08% 18.10% 16.27% 16.99%
Jimmy Whitt Jr graduation 32 91.08% 18.51% 19.51% 18.48%
Jalen Harris transfer 32 59.77% 5.56% 5.92% 6.99%
Adrio Bailey graduation 32 56.00% 8.33% 9.79% 8.89%
Reggie Chaney transfer 29 32.62% 4.86% 6.43% 4.92%
Jeantal Cylla graduation 28 15.69% 1.20% 0.20% 2.14%
Jamario Bell graduation 4 0.62% 0.00% 0.09% 0.00%
81.66% 84.71% 86.52% 84.24%

There’s no way around it: Arkansas lost a lot. I mean, a lot.

  • 85 percent of scoring
  • 86 percent of offensive value
  • 84 percent of possessions

In the span of a year, Musselman refashioned the roster in his image, but the Razorbacks aren’t losing malcontents. Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe jumped to the professional ranks. Jimmy Whitt Jr. exhausted his eligibility after a second stint with the program. And Jalen Harris decided to reboot at Georgetown.

To say Jones was incredibly valuable for the Razorbacks last year almost undersells his impact. I mean, he tallied a third of the Hogs’ points, which is ridiculous. For Jones, who only started focusing on basketball later on in high school, his rapid improvement and robust production made the decision to leave relatively easy.

The decision wasn’t as easy for Joe, who declared, came back, and declared again after the date for the NBA draft kept being pushed back. Joe possesses something front offices covet: a pure shooting stroke. Joe’s lean frame and modest strength leave lingering questions about whether he’ll be able to attack off the dribble or hold up defensively, but like Aaron Nesmith, executives put those aside if you’re reliable on catch-and-shoot jumpers.

As for Whitt, the SMU graduate transfer is familiar name for Mizzou fans. A Columbia native, he started his career with Hogs before detouring to Dallas. Last season, Whitt did a little bit of everything for Muss. (He didn’t shoot 3-pointers, though. Whitt pitches a tent in the mid-range.) Aside from logging heavy minutes, Whitt played just about every position on the floor, scored efficiently, rebounded his position, and was arguably the Hogs’ best perimeter defender.

While veteran wings thrived under the new staff, Harris saw his role shrink. Adrio Bailey was impactful as versatile and undersized forward. Reggie Chaney filled in as a good option in the post, but with a limited role and more post options coming on board, he transferred to Houston.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Desi Sills JR CG 32 76.69% 14.01% 54.00% 11.24%
Ethan Henderson JR POST 20 14.15% 1.28% 54.40% 2.31%
Ty Stevens SR CG 6 0.38% 0.00% 0.00% -0.12%
Emeka Obukwelu SR POST 6 0.46% 0.00% 0.00% 0.05%
Connor Vanover SO POST REDSHIRT
J.D. Notae JR CG REDSHIRT
Abayomi Iyiola JR POST REDSHIRT
18.34% 15.29% 13.48%

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Arkansas

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Desi Sills | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD

One of the more underrated players on the roster last year, and maybe even the entire league, was Desi Sills. Jones was a reliable scorer. Joe was their floor spacer. Whitt was a spark plug. And Sills’ burst and quick-twitch style of attacking set Arkansas’ tempo. With so many newcomers trying to meld together, the junior is likely to see his role and usage expand, but in doing so, he’ll have to show Musselman he can be a steady contributor to a rotation that’s still in flux.

Let’s be honest here. There isn’t a lot coming back. Outside of Sills and Ethan Henderson, the few returners only logged minutes in blowouts. Henderson played sparingly early in the season, but his role grew as it went along. He’s not a guy you want running your offense through, but he can be a reliable interior defender, strong rebounder, and a safety valve in the short corner.

Then there are the sit-out transfers, starting with Abayomi Iyiola from Stetson. He was a high usage rebound machine on a really bad team before moving to Fayetteville. J.D. Notae put up enticing stats for struggling Jacksonville, but he wasn’t all that efficient. The last sit-out transfer is Connor Vanover, who transferred back home after a year at California. Vanover has great size, can step out to stretch the floor, and gives the Hogs some much needed rim protection.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Moses Moody 6’6 205 ★★★★ 45 WING
Fr Khalen Robinson 6’0 175 ★★★★ 61 PG
Fr Jaylin Williams 6’10 245 ★★★★ 80 POST
Fr Davonte Davis 6’4 180 ★★★★ 113 CG
G-Sr Justin Smith 6’7 230 Grad-Transfer CF
G-Sr Vance Jackson 6’9 238 Grad-Transfer POST
G-Sr Jalen Tate 6’6 175 Grad-Transfer CG

IMG Academy v Montverde Academy

Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Moses Moody | FRESHMAN | WING

Once Isaiah Joe (finally) decided to depart, the pressure to produce shifted to the Hogs’ top-rated recruit. Moody, a top-50 prospect, has a refined offensive package and could be an immediate contributor. And it’s not hard to imagine him quickly becoming the system’s focal point. It remains to be seen how ready Moody is for a large role, but the Hogs need him ready. There isn’t a lot of ready-made outside shooting, which is an area of expertise for Moody.

But Moody isn’t the only instant-impact recruit in the class. Khalen Robinson had a good year at Oak Hill and is explosive end to end. He should factor in early into the point guard rotation. Some of the biggest hype in the class surronds Jaylin Williams, a four-star post, who has a strong lower body and good range. He isn’t super explosive, but his skill set suggests he could have an early impact. Davonte Davis is a long armed lefty guard with a crafty ability to get to the rim.

Then there are the graduate transfers. With Musselman always prepared to remake his roster on the fly, he imported Jalen Tate, a smooth combo guard from Northern Kentucky with good positional size. Muss also brought in Vance Jackson, who was the leading rebounder for New Mexico a season ago. And Indiana forward Justin Smith also joins the roster looking to increase his role. He’s a bouncy wing with enough size and strength to defend down low.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Desi Sills Khalen Robinson
(2) Combo Guard Jalen Tate J.D. Notae
(3) Wing Moses Moody Davonte Davis
(4) Combo Forward Justin Smith Jaylin Williams Abayomi Iyiola
(5) Post Connor Vanover Vance Jackson Ethan Henderson

There really isn’t a clear picture on who is going to start and who is going to come off the bench. I’m pretty sure Smith will start, since he was a starter at Indiana. I’m also pretty confident Moody and Sills will be among the group. After that, it’s a guessing game.

Muss isn’t lacking options in the post. He can go bigger with Vanover, who stands 7-foot-3. Or he can shrink down and rely on the skill of Williams or the athleticism of Iyiola. Jackson started at New Mexico as well. Depth along the front line shouldn’t plague Arkansas the way it did last year.

Meanwhile, Sills and Robinson should get plenty of minutes at lead guard, with Notae factoring in. Tate, Moody and Davis all work best off the ball, so Muss has a lot of options at both guard and forward.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 21-10 | KenPom Projected Record: 20-10

*Due to the ongoing Covid pandemic, schedule is subject to (and likely to) change*

City Of Palms Classic

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 25 Home Mississippi Valley State 357 W
Nov 28 Home North Texas 103 W
Dec 2 Home UT Arlington 159 W
Dec 5 Home Lipscomb 173 W
Dec 8 Away Tulsa 91 L
Dec 12 Home Central Arkansas 257 W
Dec 20 Home Oral Roberts 201 W
Dec 22 Home Abilene Christian 153 W
Jan 30 Away Oklahoma State 33 L
avg 169.67 7-2

Usually, our picture for this section is players huddled around their coach, but the highlight of the Hogs’ non-conference schedule is the early favorite to go No. 1 in the 2021 NBA draft: Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham. The jumbo lead guard is a delight, possessing a polished handle, natural instincts getting north-south and plenty of leadership. After that, though, the schedule softens up. Tulsa is probably the next best matchup. After that, there are plenty of buy games, and who knows how many are knocked out by COVID-related cancellations.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 30 Away Auburn L
Jan 2 Home Missouri W
Jan 6 Away Tennessee L
Jan 9 Home Georgia W
Jan 13 Away LSU L
Jan 16 Away Alabama L
Jan 20 Home Auburn W
Jan 23 Away Vanderbilt W
Jan 27 Home Ole Miss W
Feb 2 Home Mississippi State W
Feb 6 Home Texas A&M W
Feb 9 Away Kentucky L
Feb 13 Away Missouri L
Feb 16 Home Florida W
Feb 20 Away Texas A&M L
Feb 24 Home Alabama L
Feb 27 Home LSU W
Mar 2 Away South Carolina L
avg #DIV/0! 9-9

The good news for Arkansas is its five SEC home-and-homes are manageable. If they can go 7-3 instead of .500, they’ll be in business. Winning road games against Texas A&M, Missouri, or Auburn would go a long way. There are also chances to nab a quality win when Florida comes to town. After that, there are some tough road games against Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina. For a young group like Arkansas, holding serve at home is crucial.

OVERVIEW

A year ago, expectations were low, but we felt Muss inherited really good building blocks in Jones, Joe and Harris, Once Muss added Whitt, the backcourt was stocked enough for Arkansas to be a factor. The problem was, Arkansas couldn’t get Vanover immediately eligible, creating a hole on the back line. That lack of size and rim protection proved problematic all season long. Midway through the SEC season, Joe got hurt, and it sent Arkansas reeling on a five-game skid. The Hogs managed to paper over their lack of a front court with elite guard play, and the plan only broke down when a star was sidelined.

arkansas synergy 2020

This season is closer to a complete reset. Three of Arkansas’ most valuable offensive assets are gone, including its top two scorers. Yet reboots are varied, and Muss amassed enough diverse and talented players to avoid tanking. Taking in six transfers can help you avoid that fate, but how they blend with a talented freshmen class and step up to the SEC will be key.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Arkansas

Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

The half-dozen transfers Arkansas added were relatively high usage at their old homes, but they’re coming from the Atlantic Sun (Jacksonville and Stetson), the Horizon League (Northern Kentucky), and the Mountain West (New Mexico), as well as the Pac-12 and Big 10. When players move from one power conference to another, you can expect their production to be similar. But coming from a lower level and bumping up, well, they’re not all going to be Kassius Robertson. In general, the production doesn’t follow the transfer to their new destination.

So, the approach doesn’t entirely mimic what Musselman used at Nevada, where he took in high-major talent looking to reboot in a respectable mid-major league. Additionally, Musselman didn’t rely on a deep bench, keeping his rotations short and rarely relying on youth. If those traits hold up, expect to see heavy minutes for transfers, with Sills and Moody mixed in.

However, if Muss has evolved and is willing to open up the rotation, his freshman class has enough to supplement up-transfers. That mixture looks the most attractive,

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

The fans and media are far more optimistic on the Hogs than I am, so I’m probably wrong. This roster has talent, and it won’t have nagging questions about depth. Had Joe stayed healthy, Arkansas probably avoids a losing five in a row and finds its name in the field of 68. Sure, there was roster turnover, but Musselman and his staff had a plan, executed and rebooted with players who can help the Razorbacks avoid a drop-off.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

How do all these pieces fit? And will egos not be bruised in the process? Transfers show up seeking bigger roles, while the freshmen Muss recruited likely saw a path for those same minutes. Only Justin Smith, who was productive as a role player in the Big 10, might feel confident about playing time. If Arkansas can’t get the chemistry right, the culture might be a little bit more mercenary than is healthy.


About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.


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.

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

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