By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — There’s no shortage of hopes, dreams, and expectations for the 2023-24 Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball team, and to hear fifth year Head Hog Eric Musselman speak on his roster’s collective experience, depth, and versatility it seems he’s as smitten with this crew as any he’s had as a college head coach.
A promising ’23-24 roster on paper combined with Musselman’s four-year tenure at Arkansas being highlighted by back-to-back-to-back NCAA Tournament Sweet 16s (two of which extended to Elite Eights in ’20-21 and ’21-22) in the past three seasons sparked a surge of Hog-fan energy beginning in early June when the players converged on Fayetteville to begin limited summer practices, but that gradual snow-ball effect of growing fan hopes and dreams may have shifted into the fomenting of grandiose expectations in runaway-train-esque fashion after the preseason-No. 14 Razorbacks defeated the 3rd-ranked, veteran, and reigning Big Ten Conference champion Purdue Boilermakers, 81-77 in overtime, on Oct. 28 in a charity exhibition game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
So here we are on college basketball opening-day eve with the Hogs’ season-opener against Alcorn State just a day away at BWA. It’s when hopes, dreams, and expectations intersect with the start of the 31-game reality — the proving grounds — that will reveal to all of us what becomes of this ’23-24 Arkansas squad.
There are several lofty goals and possibilities in front of this team that on paper looks to be Musselman’s best yet with the potential to be Final Four-worthy, so let’s lay some of it out on the table and dare to dream a little more before things get real …
– Musselman is 4-0 in season-openers at Arkansas (all played at BWA) and will be looking to move that to perfection through five season-openers on Monday. He’s 95-42 overall as Head Hog, which includes a 50-9 record against non-conference opponents (including postseason) and a 45-33 mark against SEC foes (including postseason).
– Arkansas is 33-0 in non-conference home games played at BWA under Musselman, so the Hogs will be looking to add another notch to their belt against Alcorn State. The Head Hog is not undefeated in regular-season non-conference games played inside Arkansas state borders, however, as unranked Hofstra upset the 24th-ranked Hogs, 89-81, at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock on Dec. 18, 2021, as part of a rocky 5-losses-in-6-games stretch for Arkansas. Including two wins in North Little Rock, Musselman is 35-1 in non-conference games played inside the state of Arkansas.
– Arkansas has fared well in non-conference regular-season tournaments in the previous two seasons, going 2-0 to win the ’21-22 Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Mo., and 2-1 to finish in third place in the loaded ’22-23 Maui Invitational field in Hawaii. The next opportunity to add quality wins to the eventual NCAA NET resume is later this month in the ’23-24 Battle 4 Atlantis in The Bahamas with games against high-major Stanford followed by Michigan or Memphis before a final game against one of these four programs: North Carolina (preseason No. 19), Villanova (preseason No. 22), Texas Tech, or Northern Iowa.
– Preseason 2nd-ranked Duke plays at Arkansas on Nov. 29 in the first-ever ACC/SEC Challenge — just 25 days from now — marking just the fifth time (a rubber match, if you will) the two teams will have played as the series is knotted up 2-2. In each case, the stakes have been high. The Razorbacks defeated the Blue Devils in the biggest matchup ever between the two schools — 76-72 in the ’93-94 national title game in Charlotte, N.C.– and Arkansas came out on top when the two teams squared off in the ’90-91 preseason NIT final four in New York City (Duke would go on to win the national championship that year). Duke’s wins over Arkansas came in the ’89-90 NCAAT Final Four in Denver and the ’21-22 NCAAT Elite Eight in San Francisco, the latter of which was in Musselman’s third campaign leading the program. Both teams were nationally ranked in each of their four previous matchups, and it seems both are on a trajectory to make it five in a row when they square off next month.
– Can there be, will there be, any kind of strange the-national-title-runs-through-Duke symmetry to exactly 30 years ago when Arkansas won it’s only national title in basketball by defeating the Blue Devils in the championship game? As absurd as that may seem, the matchup historically has directly determined the champion (once), or determined a championship-game berth (once), or determined a Final Four berth (once), or preceded a national-title run (once). The history between these two is limited but ultra-significant when it comes to postseason riches.
– With Arkansas’ one-and-only national title coming exactly 30 seasons ago, could there be another kind of symmetry when comparing that era to this one? Looking at the four seasons prior to winning it all, Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson’s teams made a Final Four (’89-90), an Elite Eight (’90-91), an NCAAT Round of 32 (’91-92), and a Sweet 16 (’92-93). That’s not much different than Musselman’s teams still in contention for an NCAAT berth before covid shut things down at the start of the SEC tourney (’19-20), an Elite Eight (’20-21), another Elite Eight (’21-22), and a Sweet 16 (’22-23). Success at Arkansas does not come in a one-season vacuum, rather there seems to be program momentum building through several years of success on the court and subsequent ongoing high-level recruiting to fill in missing pieces. For Richardson, it was adding size and depth to his frontline to take the next step of pushing through to winning a national title, and for Musselman it seems he’s done the same while adding versatility and quality depth at every position in a different era in terms of valuing three-point shooting as a major piece to finding ultimate success. Both coaches focused their attention to defense first — although very different philosophically — before filling in the gaps everywhere else. While there may end up being no correlation between how things play out in year five of an escalating program when comparing ’89-90 through ’93-94 to ’19-20 through ’23-24, there are enough similarities to tempt one to believe there could be another title run in the making in Fayetteville.
– Final symmetry talking point, and this one may seem like a clumsy reach to make a point: In ’93-94, the Razorbacks played their Red/White game at Barnhill Arena before opening their brand new Bud Walton Arena with their first regular season game, although there was a bit of trial-run gamesmanship in how BWA was unveiled to the public as the Hogs officially opened with a 93-67 home win over Murray State on Nov. 29 prior to the actual BWA dedication game in front of a national TV audience on ESPN against Missouri (then a Big Eight team), a 120-68 Hoop Hogs coronation on Dec. 2. Folks generally remember the latter as the game that launched BWA and a title season. In ’23-24, again the Hogs played their Red/White game at Barnhill (of course, that’s been true four times in the last five years) before opening their season for real at BWA, and this time the trial-run gamesmanship twist was measuring up against a Top 5-ranked team (Purdue) in a home game that does not count PRIOR to doing it for real (against Duke in front of a national ESPN TV audience) just a few weeks later in a tilt that could be remembered for launching the chase for a second national title. If you don’t like making those large leaps to tie the two seasons together, then please forgive the current men’s program for laying out “94” jerseys inside BWA for students in Monday’s season-opener against the two-time defending SWAC champions. You can bet the program would like ’23-24 to run as parallel as possible to what transpired 30 years ago in ’93-94.
– Should Duke remain ranked as expected when the Blue Devils invade BWA for that Nov. 29 matchup with the Hogs, it will mark the first time a ranked non-conference opponent has played a regular-season game at BWA since then-No. 14 Minnesota endured a 95-79 loss to Arkansas on Dec. 9, 2017, during the ’17-18 campaign. Most non-conference home games do not qualify as NCAA NET Quad-1 opportunities, but win or lose the Duke game should stand as a Q1 result come March.
– Given that the ACC/SEC Challenge effectively replaces the now defunct Big 12/SEC Challenge in ’23-24, it means for the first time since ’14-15 (9 seasons) the Hoop Hogs won’t play a non-conference regular-season game after December. Not sure what, if any, impact this has on Arkansas’ season, but for the first time in nearly a decade the team will be able to keep its focus solely on league foes starting in early January with the SEC opener at home against Auburn on Jan. 4.
– Speaking of league play, the SEC appears to be its best top to bottom in years with as many as eight teams appearing to have NCAAT quality rosters when looking at things in early November. For the Hogs, slow starts have prevented the team from winning a league title in each of the previous three seasons. Musselman has repeatedly declared his philosophy of using league play as a ramp-up to the end-all / be-all NCAAT in March as a preference over actually winning the league, and we agree with that take. However, we believe this team could have the collective stuff to actually compete for an SEC crown while gearing up for a deep postseason run. The start will have everyone’s attention, and we see a four-game stretch beginning with Auburn followed by road games against Georgia and Florida before a home game against preseason-Top 20-ranked Texas A&M as the first big-cluster hurdle for the Hogs. A three-game run starting in mid-February against preseason-No. 9-ranked Tennessee at home followed by road games against Mississippi State and Texas A&M also seems critical, as does the final three-game stretch of the regular season on the road against preseason-Top-20-ranked Kentucky and preseason-Top-25-ranked Alabama sandwiched around a home game against LSU.
– Counting the Razorbacks’ 81-77 overtime exhibition-game win over No. 3 Purdue at BWA on Oct. 28, plus the aforementioned home tilt against No. 2 Duke and a Feb. 14 home date against SEC foe and No. 9 Tennessee, it means Arkansas will host three teams in ’23-24 that were preseason Top 10-ranked teams.
– Musselman is the only coach at Arkansas to win at least 20 games in each of his first four seasons at the helm, and not only is that number expected to swell to five but he’s on track to reach 100 Arkansas wins faster than any coach since Naismith Hall of Famer Eddie Sutton, who from ’74-75 through the first six contests of ’78-79 reached that milestone in only 124 games as head coach.
– Arkansas had at least two players in each of the previous three seasons enjoy some combination of postseason SEC and/or national honors — Moses Moody and JD Notae in ’20-21; Notae and Jaylin Williams in ’21-22; and Anthony Black, Ricky Council IV, and Davonte “Devo” Davis in ’22-23. There’s potential that number could rise to three again as it did a season ago, or more, in ’23-24. Star sophomore forward Trevon Brazile and star senior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis have been tabbed by both the league coaches and media as preseason All SEC picks, while junior transfer wing and former American Athletic Conference Sixth Man of the Year Tramon Mark was named one of 20 players in Division 1 on the watch list for the postseason Jerry West Award which goes to the nation’s top shooting guard. There could also be all-league value in transfers Khalif Battle, El Ellis, and Chandler Lawson depending upon roles, production, and the success of the team.
– Arkansas had success placing its players on the postseason SEC All Defensive team the past two seasons — Williams in ’21-22 and Davis in ’22-23 — but dare we say the Hogs could have as many as three players coming into ’23-24 who could be viewed as serious contenders to make the league’s all-stopper team in March? Davis and Mark give Arkansas a viable path to place two Hogs — again, how well the team does and perception of each player will factor in — on the all defensive team, and there is a foreseeable way that Lawson could land there as part of a two-Hog entry as we do not see the league rewarding three Hogs with this honor barring an undefeated SEC run during which Arkansas shatters some defensive records.
– Arkansas has had one SEC Player of the Year in the previous four seasons (Mason Jones in ’19-20 was Co-POY), and all-time since joining the SEC in ’91-92 the program has had four seasons of boasting the SEC POY (Hogs icon Corliss Williamson nabbed the honor in back-to-back campaigns, ’93-94 and ’94-95, and Bobby Portis did in ’14-15). Brazile should fairly be in the preseason conversation for ’23-24 SEC Player of the Year, although officially that nod went to Texas A&M’s Wade Taylor IV when the league’s media voted on preseason honors last month. Framed as one of the top 5 players in the league by Musselman a season ago at the time he went down with season-ending knee injury during non-conference play in early December, Brazile returned to full-participation in practice less than a month ago but has since blown away NBA scouts during Arkansas’ Pro Day on Oct. 11 before starring in the Hogs’ aforementioned win over the highly regarded Boilermakers on Oct. 28. Although Brazile is the front man of this Arkansas team, do not eliminate the possibility of Mark or Davis emerging in player of the year conversations as things play out. For any player to emerge in POY consideration it will take an otherworldly productive season (see Hog Mason Jones as Co-POY in Musselman’s first season at Arkansas in ’19-20 when the team finished with a 7-11 league record) OR it takes a consistent, highly productive season as the perceived top player on a team that wins or seriously challenges for the league’s regular-season title in the absence of an otherworldly season by an individual player similar to Jones in ’19-20 or Kentucky’s Oscar Tschiebwe in ’21-22.