By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball team put a bow on its three-game exhibition season on Saturday with a dramatic 81-77 overtime win over No. 3 Purdue inside jam-packed Bud Walton Arena, giving head coach Eric Musselman valuable insight as his team next opens its regular season at home against Alcorn State on Nov. 6.
Arkansas went 2-0 in exhibition games against actual opponents — the weekend 4-point OT triumph over Purdue following a 92-39 over Division II Texas-Tyler on Oct. 20 — after holding its annual Red/White Showcase intra-squad scrimmage (won by the Red, 88-70) on Oct. 4.
Musselman came closer to revealing his initial Top 8 rotation against Purdue on Saturday, so Hogville will take a final preseason crack at what that rotation likely looks like (including game-closers) on opening day as well as identifying stock-risers with a look at all 13 scholarship players’ collective performances through their two exhibition matchups …
Top 8 rotation
– Sophomore Trevon Brazile (6-10 forward): Game-high-matching 15 points on 4-of-7 field goals, including 2-of-4 from 3, and 5-of-5 free throws to go with 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 assist, 1 block, and a boxscore plus-8 in the win over Purdue (through both exhibition games combined, he totaled 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks, and 1 assist in a collective 50 minutes while shooting 6-of-14 field goals, including 2-of-6 from 3, and 5-of-5 free throws). After not suiting up in the Red/White game on Oct. 4, Brazile had a brilliant Pro Day (Oct. 11) and saw the court for nearly half the game against UT-Tyler before showing his two-way impact and inside-out versatility against the Boilermakers on Sunday. How good this Arkansas team can be starts with TB. Starter … End-of-game-role: Closer … Stock: UP
– Senior Davonte “Devo” Davis (6-4 guard, Jacksonville): Not a volume shot-taking or scoring game for Devo — and we’ve seen that movie before — but he did contribute 2 points, a team-high-matching 4 assists, 3 steals, 2 rebounds, and 3 turnovers in 22 minutes as he sat more than 14 minutes on the bench in the first half with two fouls followed by what looked to be a head-to-head collision with Edey diving on the floor for a loose ball at the 2:33 mark in the second half that took him out of the game the rest of the way (through both exhibition games combined, he totaled 11 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in a collective 42 minutes while shooting 5-of-9 field goals, including 0-of-3 from 3, and 1-of-2 free throws). Davis is Arkansas’ top on-ball defender and is capable of having major positive impacts at both ends of the floor, and in concert with Brazile he gives the Hogs two preseason All SEC picks. Starter … End-of-game-role: Closer … Stock: UP
– Junior Tramon Mark (6-6 wing): The 6-6 transfer from Houston started and was more than just one of the Hogs’ game-closers against Purdue as he was the player of the game running the team’s offense late and hitting the game-tying three-pointer with 22.7 seconds left in regulation before scoring 5 straight points down the stretch in overtime to ice the win. He finished with a game-high-matching 15 points (5-of-10 field goals, including 1-of-1 from 3, and 4-of-8 free throws), a team-high 6 rebounds, a team-high-matching 4 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal, and a boxscore plus-6 in 33 minutes (through both exhibition games combined, he totaled 25 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks, and 1 steal in a collective 50 minutes while shooting 8-of-17 field goals, including 2-of-5 from 3, and 7-of-11 free throws). Mark looked comfortable in the role of primary ball-handler / play initiator in the closing stages of regulation and overtime, and though he missed four consecutive free throws in those crunch-time minutes, he made his last three in OT to go with a pull-up jumper at the nail to ice the win. He was effective throughout the game making plays on both sides of the ball and fit in well with the other top-rotation players, and his versatility could allow him to defend four positions when including him as a 3/4-combo forward in small-ball lineups. Starter … End-of-game-role: Closer … Stock: UP
– Senior El Ellis (6-3 guard): After looking solid, steady, and reliable playing with good pace as the team’s primary ball-handler / facilitator with an efficient scoring punch prior to the Purdue game, Ellis struggled in the lead guard role for stretches of the game against the Boilermakers as his 2 turnovers (twice what he suffered in R/W & D1 matchups combined) were compounded with picking up his dribble too high out on the floor, several passes being late or off-target, and drives to spots in the halfcourt that disrupted offensive flow, BUT in stretches where his shooter-scorer instincts took over he greatly helped the Hogs. His scoring (sprinkled in with some facilitating) spearheaded 9-0 and 9-4 first-half runs that put the Hogs in the lead, 31-26, at halftime as he led the team with 7 points at the break. Then when he was called upon once Davis left the game late in regulation, Ellis flipped that scoring switch back on in OT after three bad Hogs offensive possessions as he attacked the paint for five consecutive points to fuel a 7-0 Arkansas run that turned a 2-point deficit into a 5-point lead on the way to the winner’s circle. Ellis — he did have his bright moments as a facilitator, firing a transition pass to rim-running Makhi Mitchell in the first half followed by making a deep paint-drive before kicking out for a Brazile triple in the second half — finished with 12 points (5-of-10 field goals, including 1-of-3 from 3, and 1-of-1 free throw), 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 turnovers, and a game-high boxscore plus-9 in 27 minutes (through both exhibition games combined, he totaled 21 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 turnovers in a collective 43 minutes while shooting 9-of-16 field goals, including 2-of-6 from 3, and 1-of-1 free throw). We believe Ellis likely remains as the Hogs’ primary lead guard to begin games, and now he’s shown an ability to convert to scoring guard when the game calls for it. Starter … End-of-game-role: Potential if not Likely Closer …Stock: UP
– Senior Chandler Lawson (6-7 forward / stretch-5): The 4/5-combo with a 7-7 wingspan has done more than any Hog in the offseason to go from a Top 8 rotation unknown to arguably being Musselman’s best bet to consistently play alongside Brazile on the frontline. Lawson started both preseason games, and his effort battling Purdue’s unicorn big man and reigning college basketball national player of the Year Zach Edey was significant and memorable. Lawson is a connector at both ends of the floor in that he impacts winning games by winning possessions whether the boxscore reflects a stat or not. Deflections, hustle plays, grit, and understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his game helps complement and connect what his teammates on the floor with him are doing. Against the Boilermakers, he started, he was a game-closer, and he was arguably the Razorbacks’ best two-way player as he finished with 10 points (3-of-4 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 3-of-3 free throws), 3 blocks, 3 steals, 2 rebounds, and a boxscore plus-6 in 33 minutes (through both exhibition games combined, he totaled 13 points, 7 rebounds, 5 blocks, 5 steals, and 1 assist in a collective 46 minutes while shooting 4-of-8 field goals, including 2-of-3 from 3, and 3-of-3 free throws). Lawson enters the regular season with the strongest case for biggest role and most playing time at the 5-spot, and his ability to play the 4 or the 5 makes him valuable in both traditional and small-ball lineups. Starter or Top 8 rotation role … End-of-game-role: Potential if not Likely Closer … Stock: WAY UP
– Senior Khalif Battle (6-5 guard): After missing considerable practice time in chunks stretching from July through October (plus he missed both the Red/White game and the team’s Pro Day), Battle showed up and showed well in the team’s two exhibition games as he finished the exhibition season as the team’s leading scorer (13.0 points per game) which was not an unexpected scenario when he was added to the roster from the transfer portal in April. Playing off the bench against Purdue, Battle was frisky and effective at both ends as he finished with 12 points (5-of-11 field goals, including 2-of-6 from 3), 5 tough rebounds, and 1 steal in 32 minutes (through both exhibition games combined, he totaled 26 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals in a collective 48 minutes while shooting 9-of-18 field goals, including 4-of-9 from 3, and 4-of-4 free throws). His pull-up fadeaway jumper followed immediately by a steal and Euro-step transition finish in the first half put the Hogs up by two in a defensive grind-game to that point, his two second-half triples were huge in a back-and-forth game, and most all of his rebounds were of the physical nature against a superior rebounding opponent. Battle is too good as a three-level scorer, a nearly 90% free throw shooter, and tough defender who can make plays on that side of the ball, too, for the Hogs to be at their best with him out of the top rotation. 6th man / starter role … End-of-game-role: Likely Closer …Stock: UP
– Senior Makhi Mitchell (6-10 center): Against the Boilermakers, Mitchell fared better at second glance than we first thought watching the game live. He was disruptive at times defensively with a couple of steals and a block to go with some good possessions defending Edey, but he was also a bit slow to react (some ball-watching) on defensive closeouts and not proactive enough hitting the glass on the defensive end, plus he missed a chippie layup (this was sometimes an issue last season) to go with a couple of turnovers on offense. Mitchell ended the game with 4 points (2-of-4 field goals, including 0-of-1 from 3), 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block, and a boxscore minus-6 in 20 minutes (through both exhibition games combined, he totaled 13 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block, and 1 assist in 33 minutes while shooting 5-of-7 field goals and 3-of-3 free throws). Mitchell is a major piece to what the Hogs need from their frontline, and he remains a guy (like last season) who’s looking at plugging in for at least 20 minutes per game whether as a starter or playing off the bench, the latter being the case in the exhibition season. Top 8 rotation / potential to be part-time starter … End-of-game-role: Potential / Situational Closer …Stock: FLAT
Vying for the 8th spot
This group gives Musselman options to change up the back end of his rotation based on matchups, evolving team chemistry dynamics, potential foul or injury problems, etc.
– Senior Jeremiah Davenport (6-6 wing): He can be a flame-thrower from 3, and because of his quick catch-and-shoot release, his range, and rapid-fire ability to put up double-figure points he offers the Hogs a valuable wrinkle in the offensive game plan — gravity floor spacer and pace / ball-movement promoter. Against Purdue, Davenport contributed 5 points (2-of-5 field goals, including 1-of-4 from 3), 1 steal, 1 turnover, and a boxscore plus-3 in 11 minutes off the bench (through both exhibition games combined, he totaled 18 points, 1 rebound, and 1 steal in a collective 27 minutes while shooting 6-of-14 field goals, including 4-of-11 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws). The defensive side of the ball and some decision-making issues on offense prevent Davenport from being a lock in the top rotation, but on the positive side his size could allow him to slot in as a 3/4-combo forward in small-ball lineups. Top 8 rotation potential … End-of-game-role: Situational Closer …Stock: FLAT
– Senior Jalen Graham (6-10 forward / center): Graham missed the Hogs’ Pro Day before missing both exhibition games with back spasms, and what once looked like a sure bet for the teams’ Top 8 rotation has turned into a dicey scenario entering the regular season in a week’s time. Graham made strides in terms of effort and paying attention to detail during offseason practices (June, July, August, September, and early October) according to Musselman, but just going off his track record last season as a defender (because we did not see him in exhibition games this month) it would seem both Lawson and Mitchell are ahead of him defensively with Lawson offering more inside-out versatility on offense. Graham can play the 4 of the 5, but it seems he’s a better fit on the floor in a traditional lineup vs. a small-ball unit. Top 8 rotation potential … End-of-game-role: Potential but NOT LIKELY Closer …Stock: FLAT
– Freshman Layden Blocker (6-2 guard, Little Rock): The rookie guard was a plus off the bench in both exhibition games, but especially against Purdue in both halves of a tight game against one of the best teams in the country. Blocker was fearless attacking the rim for two layups, he had a nice lob pass to Brazile for a finish in the first half, then in the second half he had a clutch pull-up 20-footer to beat the shot clock. One very interesting development was Musselman inserting Blocker into the game as a defensive closer on Purdue’s final offensive possessions to end both the first and second halves. Blocker finished with 6 points (3-of-4 field goals), 1 assist, 1 turnover, and 3 fouls in 8 minutes off the bench (through both exhibition games combined, he totaled 11 points on 4-of-10 field goals, including 0-of-1 from 3, and 3-of-5 free throws plus 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal in 29 minutes). It’s a hurdle because of the veteran backcourt quality ahead of him right now, but because of his toughness and defense do NOT count out Blocker from a situational top rotation role. Top 8 rotation potential … End-of-game-role: Situational Closer …Stock: UP
– Sophomore Joseph Pinion (6-5 wing, Morrilton): Pinion had a mostly productive exhibition season, and he offers a similar value to Davenport as a volume and efficient three-point shooter and floor spacer on offense while being a question mark in terms of on-ball defense. Against Purdue, Pinion finished 0-of-1 shooting from 3 with a boxscore plus-5 in 6 minutes off the bench (through both exhibition games combined, he totaled 9 points, 1 rebound, and 1 block in a collective 22 minutes while shooting 3-of-8 field goals all from 3). Pinion seems interchangeable with Davenport in how both could factor into a top rotation role. Intriguing notion that he could man the wing with Davenport as a 3/4 combo forward in a small-ball group to force defenses to alter their strategies. Top 8 rotation potential … End-of-game-role: Situational Closer …Stock: FLAT
Next up providing depth
– Freshman Baye Fall (6-11 center): The 2023 McDonald’s All American did not play against Purdue, but what we’ve seen so far reveals his defensive value being greater than his offense, which means he could be helpful as a stopper if/when he’s pressed into duty. Against UT-Tyler in the first exhibition game on Oct. 20, Fall finished with 6 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal, and 0-of-1 field goals in 11 minutes. Fall is outside the Top 8 rotation for now. Stock: FLAT
– Senior Denijay Harris (6-7 forward): The Southern Miss transfer did not play against Purdue, but what we’ve seen so far tells us his blue-collar effort, maturity, and understanding of his role are invaluable in practices and as a reserve who will be ready if/when his number is called during the regular season. Against UT-Tyler in the first exhibition game on Oct. 20, Harris had 6 points (2-of-4 field goals and 2-of-3 free throws) to go with 3 rebounds and 1 steal in 14 minutes). Stock: FLAT
Photo by Hogville’s John D. James