By Kevin McPherson

FAYETTEVILLE — Eric Musselman has Arkansas men’s basketball consistently among the top 10 programs in the nation if you look at final poll rankings and NCAA tournament Elite Eight finishes spanning the past two seasons combined with current way-too-early preseason Top 10 rankings for 2022-23. Then factor in two top 5 recruiting classes (2020 and 2022) along with the best social media game in the land, and there’s a case to be made that Musselman has his Razorbacks knocking on the door of national-top-5-program status.

Now we’re talking blueblood territory.

There’s a lot of weight that goes with that, now mix in fevered-pitch fan expectations for the upcoming ’22-23 season, and it means everything orbiting the Hoop Hogs program is both hot and heavy right now.

Fitting, then, that our first significant glimpse of Musselman’s fourth Hogs squad was on a steamy July afternoon during a rare summer full practice (the third out of 10 in the next two weeks) that is allowed because Arkansas is close to trekking overseas for a four-game European exhibition tour in early August (no TV or radio, but Arkansas is working on livestream possibilities).

It’s bonus basketball, or call it Christmas in July for hoops junkies, on what is the launching pad for a roster that on paper — and now having seen it in person — looks to be Final Four-caliber, which if it were to play out that way would be a program first going back 28 seasons.

“Here’s the thing that’s really hard, and you hear it: To make an NCAA Tournament’s hard,” Musselman said following Wednesday’s practice that was partially opened to the media. “This is the most challenging schedule that we’ve ever had since I’ve been here. The Hawaii games, they’re going to be really, really challenging. We saw what Oklahoma did to us in Tulsa. I mean, they kicked our butt. You think about going to Baylor. We’re going to be really challenged and I think the thing I can’t answer right now is what happens when adversity hits? Because it’s going to hit. Do freshmen run into a freshman wall? Those are all things that I can’t predict. They’re things that we can talk about, they’re things that we’ll try to address before they happen — ‘Hey, if we go on a two-game losing streak, here’s how we are going to overcome that’ — and I think you always want to try to lay out all the hurdles your team can run into prior to them happening. It doesn’t do any good to react once they happen. It’s just like you want to be prepared for every late-game situation before you play your first game. I want the team to be prepared mentally (for) what can happen during the course of the season, whether it be an injury, whether it be a guy can’t play because of suspension, or whatever it may be, how do we react to all of those things? How do we react to a loss? What is it like to be around us in practice after a loss? What are the repercussions for how hard practice is going to be? All those things, I want to talk about and address.

“And then do we have great talent? Yes, we do. But this is also the youngest team that I’ve ever coached, by far. Because we’ve been really fortunate to coach a lot of veteran-laden teams. But having said that, we had a pretty good year with four freshmen a few years ago and three of them started. And we only start five, so we started three freshmen in an Elite Eight run. But we have our work cut out (for us). Our league has gotten better every year that I’ve been in it.”

Size, length, athleticism … the combination of physical attributes on Arkansas’ roster has been the talk of summer practices so far, but seeing it in person it’s quite exceptional. Musselman touted the measurables recently on Twitter to make the point that his squad’s average height and wingspan are both greater than that of the NBA team average, and it’s the first thing that stood out at practice. Trevon Brazile (6-10 with 7-3 wingspan), Jordan Walsh (6-7 with 7-3 wingspan), Ricky Council IV (6-6 and chiseled), Anthony Black (pushing 6-8),, and Nick Smith, Jr. (6-5 with 6-9-plus wingspan) — just five examples — are big relative to their positions and offer matchup problems for opponents, especially when you consider their positional skill sets.

“When we played Baylor and we played Duke (past two NCAAT Elite Eight matchups), I felt that size was a problem. I don’t think there’s any hiding that. I think going into year four the next progression was about trying to fill roster management and maybe where we lacked in the prior years. In the first year we had some really good shooters but we had a center who was 6-foot-6. Now our point guard (Black) is 6-foot-8. And Nick Smith is 6-5. So those two guys who are going to predominantly play that position, and then Devo. All three of those guys can play that position and Devo is 6-4 and he actually played the power forward position for us in year 1 in the NCAA Tournament when we played small ball.

“And we were just in a position where Jaylin (Williams), when somebody goes into that draft pool, the way the rules are set up, you just move on with your roster as soon as you possibly can because I’ve been through it with Caleb and Cody Martin, with Isaiah (Joe), Mason (Jones). We could just go on and on. So we addressed what we felt was a definite need the last two years, which was size up front. But know those guys also have to play the way we like to play, which is being able to pass, dribble, shoot. We’re not all of a sudden just going to throw the ball in the post and be a grind-it-out team with how we’re going to play. So I think it’s really important that our guys can play dribble handoffs, play off the pinch post, play off the elbow area much like Jaylin did and that was a big part of our offense.”

Basketball IQ … collectively, this is arguably Muss’ top floor IQ group, which is saying a lot given the ’20-21 squad that won 12 consecutive SEC games on their way to the program’s first Elite Eight in 26 years. It starts with Smith and Black as primary handlers and opportunistic playmakers but you also see it throughout the roster. One example is that Hogs of all sizes and positions were passing up good shots for better ones by teammates. Combining high floor IQ with all the physical gifts lends itself to the notion that this squad has the foundational tools worthy of Final Four speculation.

Defense still Arkansas’ calling card … although the offense is making strides, the Hoop Hogs still hang their proverbial hats on the defensive side of the ball. Most made field goals did not come easy during Wednesday’s practice, although all that new size and length did not seem to discourage players from attempting hard drives into the paint. Overall, guards and bigs did a solid job of staying attached, walling off drives, and contesting shots.

“I think just the identity that we’ve had the last three years and the road map is … defensively we’re probably still further ahead,” Musselman said. “(New Arkansas staffer and former South Dakota head coach) Todd Lee and I were talking the other day just about — because he had worked with us many years ago — and he thought just offensively we spent way more time in practices and now he thinks it’s tilted way more (to defense) just because he’s been away from me for an extended period of time. It was a really interesting observation. And he talked about the attention to detail we put in on defense and how that is such a high level.

“Offensively, we’re just sharing the basketball. It’s the same thing across the board with teams right now is understanding offensive spacing. We do have a lot of offensive sets in and I hope when we get back together in September that we’ll be able to clean up … Because my goal was to try to get our whole play package in, which is a lot of sets, then eventually be able to clean them up because we know right now we don’t have a lot of players that understand three positions and things that we expect from a versatility standpoint down the road.”

Shooting … there is no obvious answer for those questioning whether or not this Arkansas team will improve on three-point shooting compared to last season’s squad that was among the worst in Division 1. Smith, Joseph Pinion (6-5 wing), Walsh, and Brazile appear to be the Hogs’ best shooters from distance relative to their positions. Smith and Pinion, in particular, consistently knocked down three-balls in shooting drills and that carried over to the 5-on-5 live action. And Musselman believes Black and Council may be okay shooting beyond the arc, too. The ball movement and passing in practice generated multiple wide-open looks from 3, so at least that’s a start although several Hogs turned down open three looks in favor of driving into a group of waiting defenders.

“Well, I’m praying — and so is my wife — that we shoot better than last year,” Musselman said. “To make an Elite Eight and be in the 300s shoot the ball from 3 is a testament to how hard our guys played, because we were one of the worst shooting teams in all of college basketball. And the numbers tell you that.

“So we’ve got to be a lot better and I think we are. I think that at the small forward position, Jordan Walsh is a guy that is going to be able to make 3s, will make 3s. Brazile at the 4-spot should be one of the best stretch-4s in the country. We know that Nick can shoot. I think that Anthony’s an underrated shooter. So from a shooting perspective, I think Ricky Council has improved as a 3-point shooter, although he’s a really good dribble-driver, great transition finisher and a guy that can draw free throws. I think that… we should be better shooting the 3. We’ll see what the results look like.”

Transition offense … Smith and Black excelled at times during practice as playmakers in transition, both in primary and secondary break opportunities. Both are big guards with great court awareness and vision, and both grabbed defensive rebounds, pushed the ball, and made excellent passes to teammates for clean finishing looks. That kind of team-first basketball is contagious, and for now at least this squad seems more comfortable reading fastbreak options and making aggressive plays in transition than in other offensive scenarios. There was success, though, in several halfcourt passing efforts in finding cutters and rim-runners for easy looks. Some of the dribble-drive action off of screens worked, too.

“I think that the backcourt (specifically Smith and Black), they’re going to want to play out in transition,” Musselman said. “We’re going to want them to play out in transition. Both great court vision. Both really willing passers and both have the ability to score. Then with their size, uniquely have the ability to kind of see over the defense, around the defense and through the defense. So those two guys, it’s no secret are going to be a really important part to not just our offense, our defense, but maybe most importantly our transition game our opportunity game or quick-strike offense.”

Two veteran returnees … junior guard Devo Davis and senior forward Kamani Johnson were savvy leaders throughout practice, and you could tell both were comfortable executing to meet Musselman’s expectations, whether that was during drill work or in full-contact, live 5-on-5 action. Davis battled at both ends as he dug in for defensive stops while willing his way into some nice drives offensively. Johnson used his frame and instincts to carve out space for rebounds.

“We were doing a defensive drill and Devo was on the side … kind of coaching everybody from the side,” Musselman explained. “And it was just a shell defense. I kind of stopped everything and said, ‘Do you guys understand why Devo is on the sideline barking out instructions?’ Everybody had their own thoughts and reasons. I said, ‘No, it’s because he knows what it’s like to get to an Elite Eight. That’s why he’s doing that. And he knows that this is a necessary piece to be a successful team. Some of you other guys don’t know that, that haven’t won at a high level.'”

Freshmen and transfers (11 total) … the talent and confidence from all six rookies was apparent. Smith and Black were making plays everywhere at both ends. Walsh showed his three-level finishing ability and his underrated passing prowess. Pinion shot the ball well from distance and is a plus-passer from the wing as well. Derrian Ford (6-3 guard) did not lack confidence in his dribble-drive game and had some nice paint buckets. Barry Dunning, Jr. (6-6 wing / small forward) was effective shooting and he did not shy away from using his length and athleticism to mix things up defensively. Brazile is gifted, has the tools to be productive in multiple ways. Council is freakishly athletic and his head-at-the-rim dunks have the full attention of his teammates, but his slash-to-the-basket game is his greatest value. Jalen Graham (6-9 forward) showed some of his back-to-the-basket post moves, but he brings real value defensively and seemed to get to his spots and disrupt around the basket. The Mitchell twins are big and each brings something different to the team. Makhi Mitchell (6-9 forward / center) is more versatile when considering some of his face-up ability, while Makhel Mitchell (6-10 forward / center) is more physical enforcer.

“I think that, especially with some of the younger guys, it’s a good day and then you know …  it’s just naturally younger players in all sports as freshmen,” Musselman said of his young team’s growing pains in summer practices. “We have six of those guys. So patience is something I don’t have but I’m learning. I thought through five weeks Barry Dunning just really played well. Did what we were asking. He’s improved as a shooter. He’s one of the guys who gets in quite often early in the morning. His work ethic has been really good. But he’s still a younger player and a developing player.

“You know I think everybody has gotten better. That’s a goal of what we’re trying to do. We’ve been together I think for eight weeks. Us getting better as a team and then these guys getting better individually. I think they’ve all improved in some way, shape or form.”

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