By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — For the first time in the Eric Musselman era as Head Hog, and for the first time in 28 years in the program, Arkansas men’s basketball will BEGIN a season ranked in the Associated Press Top 10.
Musselman’s two previous Hoop Hogs teams ENDED their seasons ranked in the national Top 10 human polls after back-to-back NCAA tournament Elite Eight runs (2020-21 and ’21-22), but these ’22-23 Razorbacks have checked in at No. 10 in the first AP Top 25 poll of season that was released on Monday.
It marks the seventh time in program history that the Hoop Hogs enter a season ranked in the AP’s Top 10. The previous six times break down this way: Five under Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson (No. 1 in ’94-95, No. 2 in ’93-94, No. 2 in ’91-92, No. 2 in ’90-91, and No. 9 in ’89-90) and once under Naismith Hall of Fame coach Eddie Sutton (No. 7 in ’77-78).
Also ranked in the first AP Top 25 poll of the season are at least nine Arkansas matchups in ’22-23 — against No. 4 Kentucky (SEC foe, two games, home and away); No. 5 Baylor (road game as part of Big 12/SEC Challenge); No. 9 Creighton OR No. 25 Texas Tech (one of the two will be Arkansas’ second-round opponent in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii in November); No. 11 Tennessee (SEC foe, road game); No. 12 Texas (charity exhibition road game); No. 15 Auburn (SEC foe, road game); and No. 20 Alabama (SEC foe, two games, home and away). There’s also the possibility the Hogs could face either No. 17 Arizona or No. 19 San Diego State in their third and final game of the Maui Invitational.
Musselman is 73-28 overall in his three seasons at Arkansas, which includes a 36-22 record against SEC teams and a 6-2 mark spanning two NCAA Tournaments.
Based on putting together arguably the top recruiting class in the nation — 11 newcomers including three freshmen who were 5-star recruits coming out of high school — coupled with the aforementioned proven track record in his two most-recent seasons, Musselman has re-established the Arkansas Razorbacks as a national brand and a Final Four contender.
“It doesn’t really mean anything,” Musselman said during his post-Red/White-game press conference on Sunday when asked about rankings for his program. “It’s good for the fans and media. We already have a target on our back. Whatever the poll says making the Elite Eight back-to-back. That isn’t something we have talked to our team much about, but we will start to as we start creeping closer and closer to games because teams, even though we only have two returning players, just having Arkansas across the front of our jersey puts a little bit different dynamics right now when we play people.
“I think our guys have to understand the responsibility that comes with that. When you are on the other end and a lot of teams overlook some people you and you sneak some wins. We’re not going to be able to do that at all.”
Two of the top performers from the Hoop Hogs’ intra-squad scrimmage — senior transfer forward / center Jalen Graham and freshman guard Anthony Black — responded questions about rankings that were also posed to them on Sunday.
“To me that means nothing,” Graham said. “We’ve still got to come out here and compete and show everybody we’re a Top 10 team.”
“I would say our goal is to be a Top 5 team,” Black said. “I think it’s fun and that’s a pretty good starting point for us since we’ve got a lot of new players. So I think that’s a good position and keeps us kind of neutral where we’ve still got a lot to work for. It’s not too high where we are on the top or too low where we are on the bottom.”
Before their first regular-season game at home against North Dakota State on Nov. 7 — that’s opening day for all of college basketball — the Razorbacks will host Division II Rogers State (7 p.m. CT, Monday, Oct. 24) in the first of two exhibition games with the second tuneup scheduled against the Texas Longhorns on Saturday, Oct. 29, in Austin, Texas.