By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — While the Arkansas Razorbacks have had their share of top-shelf big men over the years, the vast majority of the program’s national headline-grabbers spanning the past five decades have been backcourt stars, a trend that began in the mid-to-late 1970’s with the famed Triplets who put the Hogs men’s program on the college basketball map.
A guard/wing-themed program resurgence under head coach Eric Musselman has Arkansas nationally relevant again on an annual basis, but as a follow-up to the successes of recently departed big man Jaylin Williams — All SEC first team, SEC All Defensive team, two-and-done Hog who was drafted early in the second round of the 2022 NBA Draft — it seems Musselman has assembled a talented, versatile, experienced, and deep frontline for his ’23-24 roster that for once might just give the guard corps a challenge as the position-group strength of the team as the Head Hog enters his fifth season in Fayetteville.
The Razorbacks’ frontline could be divine IF it can get to, and maintain, full health for the upcoming season.
It starts with redshirt sophomore forward Trevon Brazile, who looked sharp during drill work during the portion of practice that was open to the media on Thursday as he showed no ill effects from his surgically repaired knee that was injured in early December 2022. Brazile did not go through live, full contact 5-on-5 scrimmaging, and the target date for that is two and a half weeks according to Musselman, who last season referred to Brazile as one of the top five players in the SEC.
“I think the target date is probably two and a half weeks, would be the target date,” Musselman said following his team’s open practice on Thursday. “But that target can move. So I call it a moving target. The one thing that I think the medical staff’s done a great job, I think TB’s done a great job, is having patience throughout this … He did play live last week. Not with our team, necessarily, but we did do 3-on-3 work. Our staff talked to a lot of NBA people on how they go about it. So I’m happy with where he’s at. When you start going live 5-on-5, that changes things, too.
“So he’s going to have an adjustment period probably the first month of the season. I don’t think we can expect a guy who has been out that long to just come in and have three and a half weeks before your first game. He’s going to be a guy just like our team we hope come March he’s taking it up another level. We’ll see with each month him getting better and better, and he’s already pretty good.”
Based on that timeline, it would seem obvious Brazile won’t compete in the team’s Red/White intra-squad scrimmage on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville, and it may be likely he won’t be ready to play in the Hogs’ first exhibition game against Division II Texas-Tyler on Oct. 20 at Bud Walton Arena. The Hogs have a third and final dress rehearsal at home against Big Ten power Purdue in a charity exhibition game on Oct. 28, which gives Brazille another tune-up opportunity before the real things begins on Nov. 6 when the Hogs open their regular season at home against Alcorn State.
A unique talent and a matchup headache at 6-10 with 7-4 wingspan, elite athleticism, and plus-skill for a frontliner, Brazile looked to be on a path through early December 2022 for a stellar ’22-23 season in his first campaign as a Hog that likely would have led to 2023 NBA Draft first-round projections. During his brief stint in the lineup, Brazile was the lone inside-out-versatile big man as he averaged 11.8 points, 6.0 rebounds (led the team), 1.2 blocks (led the team), 1.0 assist, and 1.0 steal in 27.1 minutes per game while shooting 48.1% from the field, including 37.9% from 3, and 67.7% from the free throw line in helping lead Arkansas to an 8-1 record and a national Top 10 ranking.
Once he’s cleared for full-go in ’23-24, Brazile at some point figures to be the team’s marquee player as a focal-point on offense and a potential volume rebounder and rim-protector on defense.
Brazile not only has first-team All SEC and NBA Draft first-round-pick potential, he might just have the chops to challenge for league player of the year honors. Two Hog big men — Corliss Williamson twice and Bobby Portis once — have won that honor since the program joined the SEC for the ’91-92 season. Brazile could possibly join those two, the aforementioned Williams, and the likes of Oliver Miller, Joe Kleine, Daniel Gafford, and Scott Hastings among the all-time frontline greats at Arkansas.
Expected to join Brazile in the starting lineup is senior big man Makhi Mitchell (6-10 forward / center, 7.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, and 1.1 assists in 20.1 minutes while shooting 66.2% from the field and 65.2% from the free throw line in ’22-23). Mitchell played in all 36 games a season ago and started all but one of those. His contributions were not only worthy, but it’s reasonable to think he would have been even better with a healthy Brazile at his side on the frontline. After missing all of limited summer practices for a publicly undisclosed reason (Mitchell was seen in a walking boot in a team photo that was released in early June), he returned to practice in late August but has also been limited when it comes to live, full-contact scrimmaging.
Mitchell brings efficient scoring and underrated passing to the offense, and he’ capable of having double-digit scoring and rebounding games as well as providing rim-protection as a shot-blocker.
Senior frontliner Jalen Graham (6-10 forward / center, played in 31 games last season as a Hog and averaged 5.2 points and 2.3 rebounds in 9.4 minutes while shooting 65.5% from the field and 37.1% from the free throw line) has turned a corner regarding effort and focus in his second campaign as a Hog, which would seem to indicate he’s in line to increase his role and playing time in ’23-24.
A second-team All Pac-12 selection two seasons ago at Arizona State, Grahma was effective on a couple of drives within 15-feet of the basket that led to him scoring in his Red team’s 15-12 scrimmage “win” over the White team on Thursday, he seemed to be more engaged defensively during the scrimmaging, and he was as active and alert as anyone during drill work that focused on retrieving and saving in loose balls.
“I think that Jalen Graham’s practice habits have improved for sure,” Musselman said. “You know Makhi (Mitchell) practices hard, competes, just working on him embracing the team and not getting frustrated. I think we’ve identified a couple areas for both of those guys to work on and I think they’re both working on them. Still got to improve in some stuff.
“But Graham, we all know, Jalen can really score the ball. Comes down to loose balls defensively. Physicality, those are the things that will allow him to have an expanded role and then with Khi, he’s a really underrated passer. I mean, when we back and watched a lot of the film, he’s a willing passer too. He can make the offense go from second side to third side and back to the fourth side.”
The duo of senior 6-7 forward transfer newcomers — Chandler Lawson and Denijay Harris — comes in with experience as efficient role players with both offering value in the frontcourt. Lawson’s 7-foot-plus wingspan was put to good use on Thursday as it helped him finish off a lob pass at the rim with a dunk, and he also got deflections and altered passes and shots as his length allowed him to have success defensively.
“Chandler Lawson has been really good, too, for us,” Musselman said. “Because he can make threes and I would say, back to the question of, I mean he’s picked stuff up really, really quickly. You know, one of our themes this year has been all in, and he’s been a guy that’s been all in. Like, we tell them to talk on defense and we tell them to close out and he does that. So, I think when you got a guy that does all that stuff, it kind of helps them move a little bit on the depth chart ladder.”
Freshman big man Baye Fall (6-10 center, 2023 McDonald’s All American) was impressive at times during practice on Thursday, and a couple of instances during live, 5-on-5 full-contact scrimmaging stood out: 1) Fall contested a drive into the paint using his length to alter a shot, he ran down the defensive rebound, then triggered a successful fastbreak opportunity by making a quick outlet pass; and 2) Fall knocked down a smooth and confident three-pointer off a catch-and-shoot opportunity.
Because of the veteran frontliners ahead of him coming in with a combined 18 years of D1 playing experience, it may be that Fall begins the season outside the top 4 rotation when looking at the frontcourt, but his combination of length, quickness, athleticism, and agility separate him from all but Brazile.
“Baye has great agility, great movement,” Musselman said. “I think that some of the schemes are a little different than he’s used to. He’s got to continue to look at the playbook and watch what we’re doing and pick up second and third reads. But, today, altered shots, ran the floor really hard. Has got to add body weight and get stronger, but certainly has had a great work ethic as well and is really trying hard.”
As a unit, the six-player frontline offers the best combination of depth, size, length, talent, experience, and proven production at Arkansas in years, maybe ever (will be hard-pressed, though, to surpass the ’93-94 Hogs’ national title team’s frontline impact of Williamson, Dwight Stewart, Darnell Robinson, Lee Wilson, Elmer Martin, Ken Biley, and Ray Biggers).
Again, getting healthy and maintaining a full-strength frontcourt throughout the season will determine how effective this group can be, and because it could challenge the backcourt for position-group supremacy this season it bodes well for a team that is looking to move the program needle from recent NCAA Tournament Elite Eights (two) and a Sweet Sixteen to a deeper March run all the way to the Final Four.
For video highlights, interviews, staff and scheduling updates, and the latest in recruiting, click the link to my Hoop Hogs notebook published at Hogville on Thursday, Sept. 28 (https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=758840.0).