By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — With Arkansas’ commitment/signing announcement from 2023 5-star prospect Baye Fall on Tuesday to add to the Razorbacks’ signing of 2023 5-star prospect Layden Blocker on Saturday, it points the program into the direction of perhaps piecing together its third national top 5 recruiting class in the last four recruiting cycles.
But it means a lot more for a program that has parlayed recruiting success into elite in-season results via back-to-back NCAA Tournament Elite Eight runs and final national top 10 rankings in 2020-21 and ’21-22.
Let’s break down the significance of Arkansas’ two-player 5-stars-only recruiting haul coming out of the week-long early signing period that ends on Wednesday, Nov. 16, for the class of 2023 …
* Fall and Blocker as complementary pieces. It automatically stands to reason that a big man and guard pairing is a natural fit to build a lineup around as soon as this time next season. But Fall (6-11 forward / center, Accelerated Schools in Denver, Colo., Rivals national No. 11 / 5-star prospect) and Blocker (6-3 guard, Little Rock native, Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kan., composite national No. 25 / 5-star prospect) are both elite when it comes to maximizing end-to-end speed, quickness, and athleticism relative to their positions, and both have a knack for making plays when the pace is frenetic, whether it’s a spectacular finish above the rim offensively or a disruptive stop as a locked-in defender. Blocker gets downhill with explosiveness as he picks and chooses whether to finish or facilitate, and Fall has the length and agility combined with his quickness to either finish off a pass or clean up a miss off the glass with a putback. Two-man game scenarios must have Head Hog Eric Musselman licking his chops as once again both players have a quickness/speed advantage relative to their positions, so the higher out on the floor they initiate their two-man action the more likely it is that both will be able to beat their defender to get open and create advantages attacking the paint and rim. These are just a few examples of why the Fall-Blocker combo looks like a winning one at the next level.
* Fall’s overall fit in Musselman’s system. For starters, Fall is a consistent volume-rebounder as a walking double-double despite a slender build, and part of that is because of his agility and length in getting above the rim quickly as well as striding outside of his area to win 50/50-ball battles. Looking back at the success former Arkansas star and current NBA big man Jaylin Williams had coming into the program as a proven, consistent volume-rebounder, we see a similar path in terms of production (not stylistically of course) for Fall, who also projects as a plus-rim-protector as a shot-blocker and shot-alterer as he continues to progress toward the college game. Rebounding and defense are staples in Musselman’s system that rewards execution while minimizing mistakes, so Fall has a head start there. Fall is a crafty interior scorer using footwork, quickness, elevation, and length to finish over defenders. He’s also improved his face-up game in terms of perimeter shooting ball-handling, according to his guardian and Colorado Hawks spring-and-summer grassroots coach Greg Willis.
* Blocker’s overall fit in Musselman’s system. Blocker is a dynamic point guard who combines explosive burst and leaping ability with a fearless attacking style to break down defenses as an elite slasher who can effectively score and facilitate for others. His three-point shooting continues to emerge and improve. Blocker is a plus-rebounder from the guard spot, and a fierce competitor who has the tools to be a consistent plus-defender. Again, Musselman loves players hard-wired to battle to win blue-collar hustle plays, and that is exactly what Blocker brings to the table. Blocker has proven to be clutch at both ends of the floor in tight, end-of-game scenarios and that fits like a glove in a Musselman system that routinely sees games come down to a final few possessions to determine the outcomes.
* Recruiting optics: Fall and Blocker continue a rising trend at Arkansas. Nothing brands a program and its players better than huge recruiting success leading to huge on-court success, and it’s that kind of symmetry that Arkansas men’s basketball has going for it now for a fourth consecutive recruiting cycle. That span includes the program’s first one-and-done (Moses Moody from the 2020 class, a lottery pick in the 2021 NBA Draft); a second NBA Draft pick (the aforementioned Williams from the 2020 class, selected No. 34 overall in the 2022 NBA Draft); three 5-star signees in the 2022 class (including the nation’s top incoming freshman in Nick Smith, Jr.); and now two 5-star signees in early portion of the 2023 class that bring the total to five 5-star signees spanning the last two recruiting cycles. When perception and reality align, it can cause a snowball effect — good or bad — and for the Razorbacks’ sake, it’s arguably getting as good in recruiting and on-court results since the program’s dynasty run from the late ’80s to the early ’90s under Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson.
* Practical effects of early and elite high school recruiting: Fall and Blocker set the table for the spring transfer portal recruiting season. With all the success recruiting the aforementioned elite high school prospects over the last several years, the entire time Musselman has been a master at mining the college transfer portal. The 2020 class that was rated the 5th-best class in the nation due to Moody, Williams, Davonte “Devo” Davis, and KK Robinson was balanced with portal prizes Justin Smith and Jalen Tate, and it was a blend of those different types of recruits that ultimately led to the ’20-21 Elite Eight. The following year with Moody gone, the other three freshman from the 2020 class returned as sophomores and eventually blended well with a mostly transfer recruiting class in 2021 when Stanley Umude, Au’Diese Toney, and Trey Wade all emerged as starters on the program’s second consecutive Elite Eight team. The current Hogs had the No. 2-ranked high school recruiting class in 2022 with the three 5-stars (Smith, Anthony Black, and Jordan Walsh) to go with three more national Top 100 high school recruits (Derrian Ford, Joseph Pinion, and Barry Dunning, Jr.) and five highly regarded transfers. The jury remains out on how that shakes out, but Arkansas has started the season 2-0 with a national No. 9 ranking, the highest regular-season ranking for the program since 1995. The point is, with two 5-stars on board early it signals a couple of things to help Musselman when he recruits the portal later: 1) that the program continues to build a nationally relevant roster to help attract veteran players in the spring when they see a couple of 5-stars ready to join them and help their cause; 2) that Musselman can continue to sell the importance of having a healthy balance of elite high school talent and veteran players from the portal, exemplifying the kind of program that can help more than one kind of recruit reach new heights in their basketball journeys.