By Kevin McPherson
Halfway through their four-game European exhibition tour, the Arkansas Razorbacks are off like a bullet train — ahem, make that a souped-up Muss Bus — averaging 103.5 points per game as they look to match their 2-0 finish in Spain with a couple more wins in Italy before returning home to Fayetteville next week.
The unleashing of 11 newcomers among 13 scholarship players on foreign soil to make their debuts in Hoop Hogs uniforms (albeit a Euro-styled version) adds international intrigue for a fanbase already in varying states of excited anticipation following the program’s back-to-back NCAA tournament Elite Eight finishes.
For media covering the team the past couple of weeks, the views from two partially open practices in the Razorbacks basketball performance center followed by two live-streamed exhibition games has been a stark contrast going from spirited drill work and measured scrimmaging on the home turf to experiencing the blazing pace of international play in historic cities in Europe.
So, let’s reflect on what we’ve seen so far in 49-point and 13-point wins over Valencia Seleccion and Catalan Elite, respectively, as we’re now midway through the Euro tour …
* Transition offense and smashing pumpkins! Not at all feeling rushed along by a 24-second shot clock, head coach Eric Musselman and his Hogs have actually sought to break end-to-end land speed records. With his unprecedented top-rated 11-player 2022 recruiting haul, Musselman telegraphed an upgraded roster tailor-made for elite fast-break offense and above-the-rim finishes, and so far his team has lived up to the endeavor despite suffering 34 turnovers combined in two games. Multiple Hogs with multiple run-out dunks in both games is enough to fill up most programs’ postseason highlight reels. You’ve got elite open court players in Nick Smith, Jr., Jordan Walsh, Anthony Black, Ricky Council IV, Trevon Brazile, and Devo Davis who are all capable of initiating and facilitating in transition as well as finishing plays in spectacular fashion above the rim. Barry Dunning, Jr. has also proven his chops in transition, helping make this arguably the most dangerous high-speed group of Hogs since Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson’s best 40 Minutes of Hell squads of the 1990s. Unofficially, these Hoop Hogs had 17 dunks in their first game and several more in their second outing with most of it coming on the run in the open court. And there has been nuance as Smith and Walsh cleverly weave secondary fast-break success in with the more obvious, immediate-gratification run-outs in primary fast-break opportunities. Throwing ahead over the top of defenders, pushing and navigating through traffic, or changing pace to catch the defense in let-up moments — it’s all been part of the fun-on-the-run this week. Many of the turnovers are a result of the desire to make homerun plays, but that’s part of the learning curve in Europe.
* “Burger Boys” translates in any language. The three 5-star McDonald’s All Americans with multiple 2023 NBA mock draft lottery projections have each looked the part so far. Smith‘s dynamic one-two punch as a special scorer/facilitator has been impressive while only scratching the surface of what he’ll evolve into as his freshman season plays out. Volume scoring (17.0 points per game leads the Hogs), efficient volume three-point shooting (6 total three-pointers in the two games at a 38% clip), mid-range and drive-to-the-cup craft (2 made jumpers, 1 runner in the paint, and 3 driving lay-ups combined in two games), above-the-rim finishes (2 total dunks in two games), set-up playmaker for others in both halfcourt and transition (8 total assists in two games), high energy, competitive desire — it’s all been on display. Walsh and Black already look like two-way headaches for opponents. They’re physically and athletically positional mismatches at both ends, then add in their skills and high floor IQ’s and it explains their stat-sheet-stuffing production and winning impact through two games. Walsh is averaging 10.5 points on 50% field goal shooting, 6.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.5 steals while Black is averaging a team-best 5.5 assists per game to go with 6.0 points and 4.5 rebounds. Walsh plays with a feisty-and-fierce edge while Black brings an old-soul unflappable confidence, and both are so versatile in how they gain advantages in multiple aspects of the game that much of it already feels like pro-level stuff.
* Portis-Gafford hybrid, anyone? If 6-10 with 7-3 wingspan and pogo-stick hops sounds like a description of former Arkansas star Daniel Gafford, and if 6-10 stretch-big with face-up shooting skill out to the 3-line and adequate handles to get to his spots in the mid-range and around the paint sound like former Arkansas star Bobby Portis, then a combination of both sounds like, dare I say, another potential first-round draft pick on the Hoop Hogs’ 2022-23 roster in Brazile, the sophomore transfer from Missouri. Brazile in fact does combine some of the different attributes that made Gafford and Portis uniquely great as Hogs. In both games Brazile has certainly reminded us of Gafford using his size, length, and bounce to make plays around the paint and above the rim (including that long-striding monster mash in transition in game one, remember?). Musselman has talked often of Brazile’s consistent ability in practices to step away and make shots from three or use his dribble to maneuver for mid-range looks, a la Portis. Long way to go against top-shelf competition in the non-conference and in SEC play to know if Brazile can come close to producing like Gafford and Portis did as second-year players before jettisoning off to the NBA, but at minimum he’s got an all-league-esque look to some of the things he’s already shown. He’s averaging 13.0 points on 80% shooting in Spain while blocking and altering shots on defense, although his production in rebounding has been minimal through two games. Performing consistently at a high level when it matters will be the real test for a young player who’s starting to look the part of a prototype 3/4-combo forward at the next level.
* Council and Dunning are soul-snatching slashers. The talented 6-6 wings put real pressure on a defense because of their determination to get to the cup combined with their athleticism and finishing skill. It seems to matter not who steps in their way as both attack as though they are seeking those mano-a-mano challenges along the way. Council, the third-year Division 1 player who transferred in May from Wichita State, certainly can finish high above defenders but more often we’ve seen him put the ball on the deck with a quick first step to shift from the perimeter into an all-or-nothing drive through the lane toward the cup. Averaging 12.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in the two games, he already looks like a safe bet for Musselman’s Top 7-8 rotation, and there’s no ruling out a third-consecutive all-league selection — Council was American Athletic Conference all freshman team in ’20-21 and AAC Sixth Man of the Year in ’21-22 — should he realize his two-way potential. Dunning is not as seasoned or savvy yet, but he instinctively gravitates toward the rim as he looks to finish. He’s also looked confident shooting in the mid-range while infusing energy and production as he’s averaging 10.0 points through two games on the tour.
* Where oh where has my three-point shot gone? Aside from Smith’s collective 6 made three-pointers through two Euro tour contests, only one other Razorback has made more than one three through two games (Council has two, one in each game). Only Walsh and Davis have also made a three-pointer (one each through two games). For a team that ranked dismally in the 300s in D1 last season in three-point shooting, the hope for marked improvement beyond the arc has not materialized in the least bit, which may not mean much given that it’s only August and the real-thing season is still three months away. It’s also worth noting this Arkansas team should continue to thrive in transition and driving in for close-range scores compared to last season, which tamps down the pressure to make monumental improvement shooting from distance. One of the best free throws attempted and free throws made programs in D1 in Musselman’s first three years, this team is constructed to carry on in that tradition, which means possibly supplementing three-point bombs with old-fashioned, and-one three-point plays.
* Devo the leader. Whether he’s coming off the bench to help a fallen teammate up from the deck, or diving for a loose ball, or deferring as a facilitator instead of looking for his own shot, or giving helpful instructions to teammates on the court during the action, Arkansas junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis of Jacksonville is blossoming as a leader. He stands alone as the program’s only full third-year player — 1 of only 2 scholarship returnees in all — so there is extra value packed into what he brings on and off the court for this team with lofty preseason expectations. Davis has proven to be a worthy cog in the wheel of the Hogs’ successes the past two seasons, and certainly he’ll be in the mix to provide more of the same in ’22-23. Davis started on Thursday, and in a relatively close game he scored a team-high-matching 17 points (7-of-9 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws) to go with 3 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block. He scored 11 of his points down the stretch of the fourth quarter to help extend the Hogs’ from an 8-point lead to up by 17 before his team settled on a 13-point win. The staples of his offensive game are slashes to the basket and mid-range jumpers, but his facilitating, on-ball defense, and hustle to win 50/50 balls are his sharpest tools and all have been on display so far in Europe.
* Matchup versatility and personnel combinations. Lots of chatter about the big guards and wings as well as the freakish combos that Brazile brings to the frontcourt, but four more frontliners in senior 6-7 forward Kamani Johnson (10 points and 12 rebounds, including 9 offensive boards, in game two as he’s averaging 11.0 points and 10.5 rebounds in the two games); 6-9 senior Jalen Graham; and the senior Mitchell twins (6-10 Makhel and 6-9 Makhi) offers Musselman matchup versatility among the frontcourt players as well as his bigger-picture choices to play small, big, or somewhere in between with the five he puts on the floor in any given game situation. Johnson so far has been the most effective of the bigs as he’s used his bulk and savvy to carve out rebounding space, get offensive rebounds for putbacks and to extend possessions, and draw fouls to get to the free throw line.
* Defensive demands. Musselman was not pleased watching what he referred to as gambling, undisciplined defense in game one, and he did not get bounce-back results from his troops in game two as the Hogs yielded 86 points and 48.3% overall field goal shooting (including 10 made three’s at a 37% clip) while committing 25 fouls that led to 29 free throws attempts by the opponent. The Hogs did force 20 turnovers on Thursday, but that was hardly a defensive consolation prize when compared to Arkansas’ 23 turnovers on its offensive side of the ball. Part of the defensive struggles came down to playing endless personnel combinations for the first six quarters in two games, part of it was lack of discipline and busted assignments, and part of it was due to a high volume of committing fouls (48 combined in two games for the Hogs compared to 29 in two games combined by Valencia Seleccion and Catalan Elite).
* Rotation chalk talk. One byproduct of a close game packed with adversity is forcing a coach’s hand to shorten the rotation in the name of emerging victorious — that’s a good early problem to have as a coach and a team — and when you look at the playing time on Thursday, specifically the second half, the Hogs relied on 8 players who each exceeded 20 minutes of on-court time with four more who played but logged only 8 or fewer minutes each. The eight who got the bulk of the run were Black, Davis, Smith, Walsh, Brazile, Council, Johnson, and Dunning. The first six names were expected to be in that top-rotation mix, but Johnson and Dunning have done a nice job in Europe of giving Musselman multiple reasons to leave them on the floor. With two more August exhibition games to play followed by three months to get back in the lab before the start of the regular season, it’s too soon to cement a Top 7-8 group just yet. But it’s noteworthy that some have taken meaningful steps forward as they lobby for their cause.