By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The running of the Hoop Hogs in Europe is winding down, so let’s get to five quick points prior to Arkansas’ fourth and final game on Monday against the Danish pro club Bakken Bears (noon CT in Lake Como, Italy), including a brief look at what should provide the toughest test to date for Eric Musselman’s 2022-23 Razorbacks.
1. What we think we know: Freshman 6-5 combo guard Nick Smith, Jr. looks destined to be the team’s leading scorer in ’22-23, and an experienced pro team like the Bakken Bears will test him. Through three games, Nick is averaging an efficient team-leading 18.0 points per game (on 52.5% field goal shooting, including 44.4% from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws) to go with totals of 11 assists, 8 rebounds, and 8 steals. Freshman 6-7 point guard Anthony Black is most likely to lead the team in assists and possibly minutes played per game in ’22-23 as he’ll also stuff the stat sheet in other areas of the game on both sides of the ball. Whether as starters or playing off the bench, veterans Devo Davis (6-4 junior guard) and Kamani Johnson (6-7 senior forward) know their roles, they play hard with a focus on winning one possession at a time, and they embody the effort and drive that Musselman hopes is infectious with the rest of the team. Sophomore 6-10 forward Trevon Brazile has flashed all-league talent when looking at his consistent scoring production with elite shooting efficiency, his rim protection, and his potential to be a volume rebounder at both ends.
2. What we’d like to know: How many (if any) of these Arkansas big men — Jalen Graham, Makhel Mitchell, and Makhi Mitchell — will step up to challenge for the Top 7-8 of Musselman’s rotation when it matters three months from now. The Bakken Bears will offer a bigger challenge and opportunity for the trio than the previous three European opponents, that is unless Musselman tightens his playing rotations on Monday to give his team its best chance to win. Can these three versatile and talented wings — 6-7 freshman 3/4-combo forward Jordan Walsh, 6-6 junior Ricky Council IV, and 6-6 freshman Barry Dunning, Jr. — EACH secure a spot in a Top 7-8 rotation. It may be more likely that only two will come the regular season, but in Europe all three have been in the Top 8 as each have been productive and fearless as they relentlessly attack at both ends of the floor.
3. Musselman’s leash: Of course he’s given all 13 scholarship Hogs a start while substituting liberally to evaluate endless personnel combinations, but drink it in now Hog fans because these are special European exhibition tour standards and we all know this will not be the modus operandi during most of the regular season. Yet Muss has not completely taken leave of his tendencies as we’ve seen him check players out of the game as quickly as he sent them in based on busted assignments and mental mistakes. From this vantage point, Musselman has executed his Euro tour gameplan as expected, yet there may be intrigue come Monday against the Bakken Bears as there may be reasons for Musselman to tighten up his rotation. How the game evolves likely plays into how Musselman sorts out playing time, which was the case in the Hogs’ second game (in Barcelona) that was tightly contested causing the Head Hog to shorten his rotation down to eight players.
4. Game 3 grades: Arkansas (3-0 on its Euro tour) had a bounce-back game defensively in a 75-54 win over Orange1 Basket Bassano on Saturday. The Hogs held their opponent to 54 points on just over 30% field goal shooting — that percentage applied to three-point field goal defense, as well — while taking 18 steals as part of forcing 26 turnovers. But the Hogs also gave up 9 offensive rebounds while committing 15 fouls, the latter leading to 14-of-16 free throw shooting for the opponent. Defensive grade: A- … Offensively, the Hogs attacked the paint and rim for seven dunks and countless layups / close-range field goals while shooting 47.1% overall from the field to go with gathering 15 offensive rebounds, but only 17 assists against 20 turnovers, 3-of-11 shooting from 3 (27.3%), and 8-of-14 shooting from the free throw line (57.1%) were glaring enough to cast a bit of shadow over a 21-point win. Offensive grade: C+
5. The Bakken Bears, a brief preview: The Danish professional club has a proud and storied history in both Denmark and European championship-level competition, sporting 19 titles in Denmark and 3 berths into the FIBA Europe Cup semifinals. This will not be an opponent piecing together a roster of random available club pros for the purpose of playing a game, this is an organized pro team that has a roster of experienced veterans (ages ranging from early 20s to early 30s) from various countries including the United States and Canada. The team is currently in training camp preparing for its ’22-23 season with Monday’s stop in Italy to face the Hogs just part of its preseason equation against collegiate teams from the United States. On Saturday, the Bakken Bears defeated NCAA Division1 program Drexel, 70-63. Drexel came into that game owning a 32-point win over Orange1 Basket Bassano, the Hogs’ most recent opponent. One of the newest members of the Bakken Bears is 33-year-old 6-4 combo guard Skyler Bowlin of Paragould, Ark., who in June signed a two-year deal with the club after playing last season in a German pro league where he averaged 9.2 points (37.5% from 3) and 3.5 assists. The Bears will offer more collective size, skill, and quality depth than Arkansas has seen to date on its Euro tour. As mentioned above, Musselman may very well go into the matchup with a gameplan to tighten his rotations.