By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Eric Musselman sees to it that his team gets the most out of its annual 8-week limited summer practice sessions, and with the Hogs set to return to campus this weekend following a three-week break the foundation has at least been set for the upcoming 2021-22 season even if most of the blueprints remain a work in progress.
We’re going to share some of the staff’s and other onlookers’ takeaways from summer practices while also looking ahead and asking some important questions as the Hoop Hogs are set to double their on-court practice time at the basketball performance center on campus in Fayetteville.
Here’s what we learned in June and July …
* Fifth-year junior guard and reigning SEC 6th Man of the Year JD Notae is “probably in the best shape of his life. Been working in the weight room twice a day and has really been working on his game.”
* Second-year freshman Davonte “Devo” Davis came into summer sessions focused on being an elite defender.
* Second-year freshman Jaylin Williams has done a “great job taking on a leadership role and communicating.”
* Second-year freshman Kalen “KK” Robinson has turned heads at practices, according to multiple sources.
* Senior transfer combo forward Trey Wade has helped raise the level of “intensity in practices once he joined the team.”
* Walk-on Cade Arbogast has done an “incredible job of adding to (the Hogs’) culture and his teammates love him.” Walk-on big man Lawson Blake of Fayetteville “has also added to our culture.”
* Senior transfer combo forward Stanley Umude did a “great job picking up terminology. You could tell he was well-coached coming in and has added to that.”
* “All of (the Hogs’) new guys have done a good job of buying into the culture.”
* “September and October will be about continuing to figure out roles and lineup combinations.”
* When the Hoop Hogs return to the court in the coming days, the NCAA’s allotted on-court practice time will double to 8 hours per week (plus the standard 4 hours in strength and conditioning that was also allotted in the 8-week summer session).
Here’s what we’d still like to know …
* Does Arkansas have a “pro” on the team? There’s an old saying that college basketball teams worthy of deep NCAA tournament runs have at least one pro on the roster, and if you look at the Hogs’ best seasons spanning the last 35 years, that has ALWAYS been the case. Combining Arkansas’ four Final Fours and three Elite Eights during the modern era of the college game — 1978, 1979, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1995, and 2021 — each of those Razorbacks teams featured at least one future first-round draft pick that would go on to be a top 14 selection: Ron Brewer (1978 Final Four, 1978 draft pick No. 7); Sidney Moncrief (1978 Final Four and 1979 Elite Eight, 1979 draft pick No. 5); Todd Day (1990 Final Four and 1991 Elite Eight, 1992 draft pick No. 8]; Oliver Miller (1990 Final Four and 1991 Elite Eight, 1992 draft pick No. 22); Lee Mayberry (1990 Final Four and 1991 Elite Eight, 1992 draft pick No. 23); Corliss Williamson (1994 and 1995 Final Fours, 1995 draft pick No. 13); and Moses Moody (2021 Elite Eight, 2021 draft pick No. 14).
You get the point being made here. Entering each of those seasons, it was obvious the Hogs were coming in with at least one future first-round pick. Yet, this Arkansas team enters ’21-22 riding the success of last season’s NCAAT Elite Eight run and will likely find itself ranked in the preseason Top 15 without a single identifiable, sure-fire, no-doubt first-rounder on the roster. That’s not to say someone won’t emerge into a pro spotlight, or that the trend can’t be bucked, but expectations will be sky high despite the lack of a poster-boy pro on the roster.
* Is the shift to small ball something Musselman can make work with great success in ’21-22? Most likely the answer is yes, but it remains to be seen. Baylor set the curve on what a quick, fast, skilled, and veteran small-ball lineup could accomplish during last season’s run to the national title, which along the way included an Elite Eight victory over the Hogs. But in the SEC, the league champion Alabama Crimson Tide also ran a lot of small, 5-out lineups onto the floor with an emphasis on quickness, speed, skill, and athleticism.
Musselman is known for his attention to detail within his program while keeping an eye on what is working elsewhere, whether it’s in the college game, NBA, or maybe even a different sport. He’s gifted at pre-game preparation and in-game adjustments, but what also stands out is how he molds the personnel at his disposal over the course of a season. In other words, there will be a vision and plan in the preseason, and that will evolve throughout the season with adjustments on the fly as needed.
But what sets all of that up for success is his offseason moves that have been admired for both style and substance, because creating a winner starts with identifying the right pieces while building the roster.
Arkansas was lateral-movement challenged last season, and there was a collective lack of downhill burst and quick-twitch change-of-direction play-making. The collective quickness and lateral improvement should show up right away in on-ball defense, defending pick-and-roll, switching, close-outs and help rotations, and forcing turnovers.
Musselman not only made personnel moves looking to get much better in those areas, but he identified players whose skills in combination with their physical gifts can create matchup advantages. Two examples are Umude and senior transfer Chris Lykes. At 6-6, Umude is a 3/4-combo forward with perimeter wing/guard skills, mid- and high-post know-how, and a knack for attacking the paint and rim for buckets and boards. At 5-7, Lykes is not just lightning quick, he’s skilled with clever stop-and-go and hesitation moves and feel for creating offense.
Last season’s team never forged a singular, true identity beyond being resilient, and whether it’s a more traditional lineup or small ball don’t expect anything but another hard-to-read Hog squad in year three under Muss.
* Does this Arkansas team hold its own, or better, on the glass? While the undersized Hogs were the SEC’s worst rebounding team in year one of the Musselman era in Fayetteville, they got bigger and stronger a year later through the 2020 recruiting class and cashed that in to become one of the top two rebounding teams in the SEC last season. Again, Musselman’s 2021 recruiting reveals a shift to small ball lineups, which understandably raises the possibility of a backslide in rebounding.
Arkansas has been good defensively overall the past two seasons, but what made last year’s team especially stingy during stretches of games was its ability to close out a strong defensive effort with a rebound. Offensively, getting on the glass helped turn missed shots into putbacks and free throw opportunities. Getting quicker and faster can help the Hogs force more turnovers, which in turn can help offset losses on the glass, but it’s also relative to how well this Arkansas teams takes care of the ball on the offensive end.
At first glance, one might assume the Hogs loading up on players 6-6 or smaller to go with one 6-7, one 6-10, and one 7-3 likely means compromising board work for coveted quickness, speed, and lateral movement, but that may not lead to a significant lapse on the glass afterall. With the 6-10 Williams on the floor, Arkansas boasts one of the top volume rebounders in the nation (his per-40-minute rebound average last season was 12.1). Sophomore stretch-5 Connor Vanover at 7-3 was respectable with 10.8 boards per 40 minutes. At 6-7, redshirt-junior transfer forward Kamani Johnson was a known paint and glass warrior at Little Rock in the Sun Belt Conference. At 6-6, South Dakota transfer Umude has been a plus-rebounder relative to his size throughout his college career (could he turn in a Justin Smith-esque season on the boards?), and returning guards Davis (4.5 rebounds per game a season ago) and Notae (3.1) are capable of converting a defensive rebound into a track meet heading the other way.
* Is this the season that Musselman expands his rotations? Just like a year ago when the roster personnel changed significantly, Musselman will have the Hogs experimenting with a multitude of personnel packages and rotations throughout preseason practices, and likely the tinkering will last all the way up to the first game of the season in early November. Combined with a roster that is deep with reliable options, it’s tempting to think Musselman will wander beyond his typically tight 6- or 7-man (sometimes less) player rotation.
Don’t hold your breath. Musselman most likely has a strong impression now of who will be in his top rotation.
The Head Hog prefers a group of 6 or 7 players logging the heavy minutes (there were times late last season when the rotation was effectively down to 5 players), and with success doing things that way in six seasons combined at Nevada and Arkansas, why change now? The hidden gem in mixing and matching lineups and different looks in the preseason is that it gives Musselman chess pieces to bring off the bench when needed. It’s why the back end of the top 6 or 7 can fluctuate as players develop or matchups dictate, and its why a player outside the top 9 like Ethan Henderson (since departed to Texas A&M) brought plug-and-play effectiveness off the bench late in the previous two seasons.
* Will the Hogs strike a balance between youth and transfers like they did in turning the corner a season ago? Probably not, but they probably don’t need to this time around. The freshmen (Moody, Davis, and Williams) and the transfer veterans (Smith, Notae, and Jalen Tate) were the backbone of last season’s team in equal but different parts, and it wasn’t until Musselman struck that balance in the lineup in terms of roles and minutes early in the first half of league play that the Hogs morphed into the best possible version of themselves.
Moody has moved onto the NBA, and as covid-freshmen (a.k.a sophomores in terms of playing experience) the duo of Davis and Williams are considered veterans at this point. A strong transfer class of four — Umude, Lykes, Wade, and Au’Diese Toney — combine with Notae, Vanover, and Johnson to give the Hogs a veteran-heavy group.
Nonetheless, it’s too early to assume that covid-freshmen KK Robinson and Jaxson Robinson along with true freshman Chance Moore have major uphill climbs to forge meaningful roles and minutes. That’s especially true of KK Robinson, who was as impressive as anyone in summer practices according to most accounts. Plus, he has a year in the system despite missing most of last season with a foot injury, and his potential to be a two-way force is intriguing. At 6-7, Jaxson Robinson might be the best option to replace Moody’s combo of perimeter length and three-point shooting ability, while Moore at 6-5 has shown flashes of his promise and upside.