By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — The 11th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks were not fully loaded in the backcourt through their first seven games of 2022-23, but that day has finally come and it seems likely to shape up as as an elite group while representing the best corps of guards in Head Hog Eric Musselman’s four seasons at the helm.

With the Hogs’ exhibition-season leading scorer and freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., making his regular-season debut coupled with junior starting guard Davonte “Devo” Davis missing in action while “taking some time away from basketball” against unranked Troy on Monday, Musselman was faced with some unqiue and interesting personnel choices in the backcourt as well as the frontcourt against the feisty Trojans.

Musselman predictably pushed the right buttons resulting in a 74-61 come-from-behind win as the Razorbacks moved to 6-1 while closing out their November games at the mid-point of their non-conference schedule.

Along the road to victory, Musselman inserted freshman wing/small forward Barry Dunning, Jr., into the starting lineup in place of Davis, he brought Smith in off the bench around the 14-minute mark of the first half (Smith totaled 6 minutes in his return), and ultimately he relied mostly on a veteran lineup with size as the Hogs overcame a 7-point deficit in the first half and a 3-point deficit late in the game to run away from the Trojans.

Dunning joined junior combo guard Ricky Council IV and freshman guard Anthony Black — so far the most consistent Hogs game-to-game — along with senior forward / center Makhi Mitchell and freshman 3/4-combo forward Jordan Walsh to form Arkansas’ starting five, with sophomore forward Trevon Brazile continuing his sixth man role and senior forward Kamani Johnson kicking in a second consecutive blue-collar masterpiece as all but Dunning played the bulk of the minutes in a top 6 rotation.

Council (6-6) led the team in scoring once again with a season-high 27 points (12-of-18 field goals, including 1-of-4 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws) in 39 minutes, and it was his 11 points in a 17-0 run late that allowed Arkansas to overcome that three-point deficit for its biggest lead of the game, 72-58, with just over a minute to play. Council’s deep 32-foot triple to beat the shot-clock buzzer served as the play of the game as it extended the Hogs’ lead to four points, 62-58.

His two-level scoring — an elite slashing game getting to the rim along with his impressive pull-up mid-range arsenal — mixed in with some ball-handling and facilitating have revealed he’s a multiple-option weapon on the offensive end of the floor who can be trusted with the ball in his hands late in games. His 20.1 points per game leads the SEC to this point, and he’s also chipping in 3.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.9 steals in 36.9 minutes per game. He’s shooting 51.4% from the field, including 31.0% from 3, and 73.3% from the free throw line.

Black (6-7) continued his run of double-figure scoring games that started in Maui as he had 14 points (5-of-8 field goals, including 2-of-4 from 3, and 2-of-4 free throws) to go with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals while playing all 40 minutes against Troy.

Back-to-back 26-point performances in the Maui Invitational (Black would lead the three-day event in scoring at 22.3 points per game) proved Black was more than just a stat-sheet-stuffing facilitator, a notion that was on nobody’s radar prior to last week. Defensively, he’s proven time and again to be unique and effective.

Black is averaging 14.1 points (second on the team), 5.7 rebounds (second on the team), 3.4 assists (leads the team), and 2.3 steals (leads the team) in 33.7 minutes per game. He’s shooting 50.0% from the field, including 36.4% from 3, and 78.1% from the free throw line. He was named to the Maui Invitational all tournament team and followed that up with an SEC Co-Freshman of the Week honor.

Council and Black are the only guards to start every game for the Hogs, and the fact that both have been consistently productive, efficient, and reliable game-to-game with abilities to take over and close out games means the duo has been the foundation in Arkansas’ personnel rotations and evolving on-court chemistry.

With Smith (6-5 guard) in the fold now offering similar qualities as Council and Black — consider all of Smith’s preseason accolades as a testament to his immense potentional — it stands to reason that the Hogs’ sturdy foundation will expand to three guards, even if that takes some time to evolve and materialize. Smith’s 6 minutes early in the first half gainst Troy did not yield much in the way of production — 1 rebound and 0-of-2 field goal shooting — but he did share primary ball-handling duties with Black as both handled full-court pressure admirably against the Trojans’ expanding zone defenses.

Smith’s return after missing the first six regular-season games (precautionary right knee management) was simply more about getting back on the court with his teammates than it was about production at this point as he had not gone through full practices let alone face real competition in more than a month. With five December non-conference games upcoming, it gives Smith a chance to sharpen his skills while ramping up his conditioning, timing, and production as he blends in with what looks like an all-league backcourt to this juncture of the season.

Walsh (6-7) may not be a guard in a conventional sense, but he can defend multiple backcourt positions while adding just enough perimeter offensive punch to be counted among the stable of backcourt options with the versatility to help as a forward in small-ball lineups. Walsh had back-to-back double-figure scoring games prior to Maui, and he’s been productive enough ever since with effort, energy, and execution as a defender to factor into the team’s top rotation. He’s averaging 7.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.0 steal in 24.7 minutes per game while shooting 43.6% from the field, including 33.3% from 3, and 70.6% from the free throw line.

Then there’s the situation with Davis (6-4 guard), the junior and lone veteran in the Hogs’ backcourt who was away from the team for a few days — missing only the Troy game — before annocuning his return on Wednesday.

Davis had started each of the first 6 games, averaging 8.5 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.2 steals in 31.5 minutes per outing while shooting 35.8% from the field, including 15.8% from 3, and 71.4% from the free throw line.

Davis’ quickness and slashing ability were missed against Troy, and when looking at his contributions from the previous two seasons as both a starter and sixth man on back-to-back NCAA tournament Elite Eight teams, he clearly brings positive qualities to the table that no other Hogs guard can.

Now that he’s back, and whether that’s as a starter or in a reserve role, Davis could be the key to giving Arkansas arguably the best and deepest backcourt in the SEC and one of the best in all of college basketball.

Looking at some of the Razorbacks’ team success spearheaded by the guards, the 10.4 steals per game ranks 18th in Division 1 while limiting opponents to only 4.9 made three-point field goals per game also ranks 18th in D1. The team ranks 39th nationally in defensive three-point field goal percentage (27.0%). KenPom.com‘s analytics ratings has Arkansas at No. 6 in adjusted defensive efficiency in D1.

Again, this looks like the most talented backcourt in Musselman’s fourth season at Arkansas — a huge statement given the likes of Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, Jimmy Whitt, Jr., Moses Moody, JD Notate, and others who have passed through the program since ’19-20 — and this current group of guards is verging on being elite.

It’s possible if not likely the ’22-23 Arkansas backcourt will produce multiple all-league performers, and it’s not inconceivable that more than one could be in line for All American honors.

Musselman teams have always been led and anchored by backcourt players — save for All SEC first-teamer and current NBA rookie big man Jaylin Williams last season. But the current group of guards seeks consistent assistance from a talented, tall, long, athletic, and deep frontcourt.

Brazile (6-10) has flashed brilliance as a versatile stretch-4 (11.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.0 block per game), but he’s also been wildly inconsistent with production, efficiency, and impact. The senior Mitchell twins, particularly 6-9 Makhi who’s started in all 7 games, have been consistently productive. Makhi had 14 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks in the win over Troy, which helped offset another off-night production-wise for Brazile.

Johnson had been a bit of an afterthought prior to the last two games, but his heroics in the overtime win over then-No. 17 San Diego State in the Maui finale on Wednesday, Nov. 23, followed by his 8-point, 3-rebound, and 1-steal performance in 32 minutes in the win over Troy on Monday has proven that staying ready, understanding roles, and playing within strengths are all virtues that Musselman eventually rewards.

That should serve as encouragement for senior transfer forward Jalen Graham, who has averaged only 6.8 minutes in four appearances so far this season.

Maybe the biggest takeaway from the frontline play so far is that in each game at least two bigs have stepped up as significant complements to the stellar play from the backcourt. And no matter how good the guards are, they need that support from the landlords of the paint.

It’s a season that has already seen elite guard performances while foreshadowing more to come, and if both backcourt and frontcourt continue to develop together it means that what appears to be a Final Four roster on paper now could become a reality in March.

Now that it’s all hands on deck, the first glimpse from the launching pad is Saturday when Arkansas hosts San Jose State at Bud Walton Arena (3 p.m. CT, SEC Netowrk).