By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — No. 14 Arkansas is on a significant collision course entering its exhibition-game season given 3rd-ranked and Big Ten power Purdue is on the late-October menu for a charity exhibition game, but first the Razorbacks would like to minimize potential adversity in what is supposed to be the easier of two preseason dress rehearsals.
The Hoop Hogs will host NCAA Division II University of Texas-Tyler at 6:30 p.m. CT on Friday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville (no TV or livestream). Arkansas will then host the aforementioned Boilermakers in a charity exhibition game on Oct. 28 (3 p.m. CT, BWA, SEC Network-plus livestream) before opening its regular season at home against Alcorn State on Nov. 6.
Arkansas is picked to finish third in what is considered a loaded SEC 14-team field in terms of projected NCAA Tournament-quality teams. Still, the Hogs enter their exhibition games uncertain how much, or if, preseason All SEC first-team pick and star sophomore forward Trevon Brazile and top-rotation-projected junior guard Khalif Battle will be able to play.
Both have been dealing with injury-related situations that have either limited them during practices or caused them to miss practice altogether. Brazile (knee rehabilitation) debuted in live, full-contact 5-on-5 scrimmaging just last week, while Battle (foot) returned to practice on Monday after missing significant chunks of practice time going back to July.
During SEC media day on Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala., Musselman discussed Brazile’s timeline for a return to game action after missing the 2022-23 team’s final 27 games in what was an NCAAT Sweet 16 run.
“He’s ready to roll,” Musselman said during his interview on SEC Network. “We don’t know what he’ll do Friday when we play our exhibition game (against UT-Tyler). He might play, he might not play. He’ll for sure play a little bit against Purdue (second exhibition game on Oct. 28).”
With Brazile’s and Battle’s statuses currently unknown for Friday’s game, Arkansas’ frontline corps (big men Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham, 3/4-combo forwards Chandler Lawson and Denijay Harris, and center Baye Fall) is likely to see significant increased roles and minutes while the backcourt crew (combo guard Davonte “Devo” Davis, combo guard El Ellis, combo guard Layden Blocker, wing Tramon Mark, and wing Jeremiah Davenport, wing Joseph Pinion) may not be impacted as much.
Davis, Mitchell, Graham, and Pinion along with Brazile give Musselman a quintet of returnees to go with a highly regarded group of eight newcomers (including six D1 transfers) who are eligible to play in ’23-24.
“We’re gonna go out there & play every game like we’re playing the best (teams),” Pinion said during a zoom press conference on Thursday. “I’m really excited about playing somebody else other than my teammates.”
There’s 34 years of combined D1 experience on this ’23-24 Hog roaster, and the pieces are there for significant improvement in the team’s three-point shooting which ranked near the bottom of D1 in the previous two seasons.
Musselman has also stated he and his coaching staff were further along in the summer and in fall camp in terms of implementing offensive and defensive schemes compared to previous seasons. But in Arkansas’ annual Red/White Showcase intra-squad scrimmage played on Oct. 4 in Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville, the teams combined to shoot better than 63% from the field, including a collective 14-of-28 from 3 for 50%, in the Red’s 88-70 win. That was a glass-half full (offense) and glass-half empty (defense) dynamic for Musselman to work through in the two-week gap between the Red/White event and the upcoming tilt against UT-Tyler.
So the first pay-close-attention themes going into exhibition game one are:
1. Do Brazile and/or Battle play, and if so how much?
2. How do the Hogs respond defensively after a less-than-desired outing in the Red/White game?
3. Will Arkansas continue to show volume, efficiency, and swagger shooting three’s as a carryover from the Red/White game and the live 5-on-5 scrimmaging that media members witnessed at Arkansas practice on Sept. 28?
4. Will a trio of backcourt players (specifically Davis, Mark, and Ellis) work well together in further cementing their expected starting and/or Top 6 rotation roles?
5. Though Mitchell seems on a trajectory to resume his starting roll at center from a season ago, what does veteran frontliner Graham (he missed last week’s Pro Day, keep that in mind IF he does not play or is limited Friday) do in continuing to move the needle toward a Top 7-8 rotation role?
6. Does senior transfer Lawson continue his surge toward earning a Top 7-8 rotation role, and how do Davenport and Pinion factor into that conversation as well given their explosive distance shooting to this point coupled with other areas of their games that have been identified as needing improvement?
7. What other aspects of the game that were relatively under-the-radar talking points in preseason — i.e rebounding, fouling, and free throw shooting just to name a few — will emerge as topics of concern or strengths as Arkansas moves closer to the start of the regular season?
8. How much will the two true freshman — Blocker and Fall — play, and how will they fit in during their first-ever game against a college opponent.
9. Circling back to No. 1 on this list, how much of a glance at a true Top 7-8 rotation can fans get given the likelihood both Brazile and Battle are either significantly limited or don’t play at all (because it’s not just about assuming both will be in that top group once fully ready to go, it’s also about who consistently performs to Musselman’s expectations of playing competent defense, valuing the ball / stacking possessions of good shots on goal, and caring about the details that impact winning possessions at both ends that lead to winning games)?
Musselman is 5-1 in exhibition games at Arkansas (includes a 3-0 mark against D2 schools) with the lone loss coming on the road against then-AP-Top-25-ranked Texas last season in late October. That record also includes a real scare against D2 East Central (Okla.) in ’21-22 in a game the Hogs trailed by 14 points midway through the second half before eking out a 77-74 win at home.
As for UT-Tyler, the ’22-23 Patriots were playing .500 basketball last season before losing their final eight games in finishing 9-17 (includes a 5-17 record in conference games).
UT-Tyler head coach Tim Moser’s ’23-24 squad lists 21 players on its roster, including 10 upperclassmen and seven players listed as 6-6 or taller.
It’s a team with mostly newcomers. Senior 5-11 guard Terrell Wilson returns after averaging 7.7 points, 2.6 assists, and 1.6 rebounds in 21 games played last season while shooting 38.0% from the field, including 35.6% from 3, and 71.1% from the free throw line.