By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — It’s almost time for the next dress rehearsal for No. 10 Arkansas with the real thing just 18 days away.
The Razorbacks — they went a perfect 4-0 in exhibition games in Europe in August and are fresh off their annual Red/White intra-squad scrimmage at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville on Sunday — will open the doors to Bud Walton Arena for the first time in the 2022-23 season on Monday to host Division II Rogers State in the first of two exhibition games this month.
Arkansas will follow up with an unprecedented exhibition matchup on the road against a high-major opponent in the form of an Oct. 29 meeting against the 12th-ranked Texas Longhorns at the new Moody Center in Austin, Texas. The Hoop Hogs open their regular season at home against North Dakota State on Monday, Nov. 7, in BWA.
As for Rogers State — an NCAA Division II program located in Claremore, Okla., with an enrollment of nearly 3,000 students — the Hillcats will invade Fayetteville on Monday led by 6-8 senior big man Joey Saracco (9.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 57.1% field goals, and 72.6% free throws in ’21-22). Coached by Justin Barkley, the Hillcats are looking to replace their two leading scorers that helped the team to a 16-14 overall record (includes a 9-13 mark in the MIAA conference) a year ago.
In its only game against a high-major opponent last season, Rogers State lost an exhibition game, 106-57, against Oklahoma on Nov. 1, 2021, in Norman, Okla. The following month, the Razorbacks were blasted by the Sooners by 22 points, 88-66, in a regular-season, neutral-site game in Tulsa.
Rogers State might find some hope it can compete with Arkansas on Monday when looking back at the Hoop Hogs’ result in their only exhibition game against a D2 opponent last season — a come-from-behind 77-74 win over East Central University (also located in Oklahoma) after the Hogs trailed much of the game including by double-digits in the second half.
Head Hog Eric Musselman, entering his fourth season at Arkansas, substituted liberally throughout that game instead of going with his preference of sticking to a tight 7-8 player rotation. He did much of the same in the first two summer exhibition games in Europe before tightening the rotation a bit in the final two games of the tour.
With 11 newcomers among the 13 scholarship players, the Razorbacks — picked earlier this week by the media to finish second in the SEC behind 4th-ranked Kentucky — are still looking to address problem areas in three-point shooting and turnovers, finding consistency on defense, identifying the right lineup combinations for matchup advantages, and ultimately drilling down to a reliable top 7-8 rotation to start the season.
“We’ve had probably three meetings today to go through different starting lineups,” Musselman said during his Friday press conference. “We might bring one or two players off the bench that are really starters so that we have some pop off the bench. Who starts, that might not be what the closing lineup is. But we’re still going through some stuff.
“In the past, sometimes we’ve tried to not change the starting lineup at all. There’s been other years we’ve changed it up a lot. Not really sure where this kind of takes us. I’m sure whatever lineup we put out there Monday, that’ll change the next time we compete or some time in the next few games.”
It’s all part of the ongoing player and rotation evaluation process for Musselman and his staff, which in the previous two campaigns were not resolved until mid-January when each team hit significant speed bumps nearly halfway through each of those seasons.
“This is another piece,” Musselman said of Monday’s next dress rehearsal. “Obviously there’s been the four games overseas, there’s been the Red-White game, and then there’s been all the times behind closed doors. I think sometimes players feel like, ‘Oh, I play better in a game.’ Other guys play better in practice than they do in a game. No player says that I play better in practice than in a game. Sometimes that’s a reality with some players at all levels. But there’s been so much opportunity for the players on the roster, between all the practices, as well as the time that they’ve played in front of the public eye, which is now five competitions.
“Some guys have exceeded expectations and maybe some guys are still trying to find their way. What we put out there, again, as a starting lineup, I’m not really sure. In the big position, not really sure. Small forward position, not really sure. So we’re still trying to figure out which route we might go for Monday.”
Defense is an aspect of his team’s progress that Musselman believes is not up to speed with his expectations.
“We’re not defending like I would like us to,” he said. “The truth of the matter is we play on Monday and then we play again on Saturday, two exhibition games in less than a week, and then we have three home games and then we go to Hawaii. I think there’s going to be a lot of eye-opening experiences for a lot of players out of the gate. I think after Monday we’ll be able to break down more film for them and I think the more film you have from live competition, it’s a little bit easier to teach off of our own video. I think when you watch practice video, it is what it is. But when you go against somebody else, it’s a little bit more eye-catching, maybe.
“We still have a ways to get better, but last year against a Division II team (the aforementioned East Central University), really lucky to win, probably. I thought (ECU head coach) Max Pendery did a great job with his team. They were well-prepared coming in here and that was a very, very close game last year. So we obviously grew a lot from that game until the end of the season. But our team wanted to grow, too, last year. I think that was a big part of us getting better is buy-in and being where your feet are and trying to become better each and every day.”
Musselman said he has no plans to use the near-defeat against East Central a year ago as a warning to his team.
“No, I’ll let them figure it out,” he said. “A lot of them think that they’re gamers and when the lights come on that maybe practice isn’t as important as a game, so we’ll let them feel their way through that process Monday, then the Texas game, as well. That’s why we’re playing Texas in Austin, is to get a good feel for the level of competition we’re about to encounter.”
Arkansas’ three-point shooting was bad last year, and it might be as bad if not worse in ’22-23, although Musselman is pumping the brakes for now on giving in to that notion.
“Yeah, I think we will (improve) just because we’re not going to be playing as many guys,” he said. “And so, I think that just naturally … shooting the ball, it’s about which guys shoot the highest percentage, and those guys, you know, getting their feet set. We have learned some things, like Ricky (Council IV) and I just met a little bit ago. When Ricky doesn’t put the ball on the ground on his three-point shooting, he’s much more effective than when he plays off the bounce from three. So, that’s just a little thing that we’ve just learned over the summer and time together. He’s so mature, he walked into my office today and said, ‘Coach, I got you on putting the ball on the deck and shooting a step-back three as compared to my feet set.’ So, I think as we get to know the players’ games, what areas they’re most comfortable shooting the three… We’ve certainly found, just in a halfcourt, not necessarily three-point shooting, the number of passes we have on a possession will correlate with a higher shooting percentage, as well.
“So, we just might not be a team that’s a one-pass shot team. We might be a team that passes it two or three times, where as the last couple of years, whether it be Mason Jones or Isaiah Joe or JD Notae, we took a lot of quick shots at times. “
The Hogs collectively shot 8-of-32 from 3 — both the Red and White teams were bad — for 25.0% in Sunday’s intra-squad scrimmage, which was a tick lower than their collective 16-of-56 for 28.6% beyond the arc in the four Euro games.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* A couple of our favorite Muss musings from SEC media day: Musselman, forward Kamani Johnson, and junior guard Davonte “Devo” Davis took their turns at the podium to answer SEC media members’ question on Wednesday in the league’s annual media event in Birmingham, Ala, and two of Muss’ responses grabbed our full attention.
– Muss on guard Nick Smith, Jr., who is considered by many to be the top incoming freshman in college basketball: “I think he is used to playing with expectations throughout his high school career. He has had high expectations. He is a player that kind of moves on the floor effortlessly almost like he is on skates. He is cosmetically pleasing to watch offensively with the way that he can find seams in the defense, and he is a really good shooter as well. Can play both the point guard or the off guard for us, and obviously has an incredible bright future as well.”
– Muss on the idea being floated to the NCAA to consider an expansion of summer exhibition play to be an annual thing with multiple-Division-1 team events similar to what plays out during regular-season non-conference action during November and December each year: “On the summer basketball, I think it’s an awesome idea. Talking to our players, even this week, it’s really hard to have this gap between games, and we played a few weeks longer than other people even. I can’t imagine if your season ends on the last regular season game. So I think it’s a great idea. You look at what the NBA has done where they take over July. Incredible what they’ve done from a TV standpoint. People are talking about the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas rather than talking about Major League Baseball during their regular season.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* Smith racking up preseason national and league honors: Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., had been stockpiling preseason honors for weeks before adding three more from CBS Sports bridging Thursday to Friday: Second team All American, National Freshman of the Year, and SEC Freshman of the Year.
Add those to …
– All-America fourth team (Blue Ribbon Magazine)
– National Newcomer of the Year (Blue Ribbon Magazine)
– No. 2 on Andy Katz/NCAA.com national Impact Freshmen list
– No. 2 on CBSsports.com national Impact Freshmen list
– SEC Freshman of the Year (Blue Ribbon Magazine)
– First Team All-SEC (media)
– First Team All-SEC (Blue Ribbon Magazine)
CBS’s Kyle Boone said of Smith: “Arkansas runs one of the most guard-friendly systems in the country with Eric Musselman, and Smith, the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 cycle, steps into arguably the biggest opportunity for any freshman in the sport. The team lost 87% of its scoring and 78% of its assists from last season’s team that advanced to the Elite Eight. Smith should shoulder a significant load in both categories as he looks to push the Razorbacks to the top of the SEC.”
Musselman had more to say about Smith on Friday.
“I think his competitiveness stands out,” Musselman said. “His ability to score. I think Nick has had such a spotlight on him that there’s probably not a lot that hasn’t been said because he’s had such bright lights on him for not just since he’s got to Arkansas but well before he got here.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* Razorbacks recruiting updates: Arkansas coaches continue to hit the road to visit prospects, recruits continue to list the Hoop Hogs among their top school choices, and potential visitors continue to target potential visit dates to come to Fayetteville.
– Arkansas assistant coach Gus Argenal was in central Arkansas on Wednesday, Oct. 12, to attend practice at Little Rock Central and Benton to see 2024 5-star Hog offer K. Annor Boateng (6-6 wing, Arkansas Hawks) and Terrion Burgess (6-9 wing, Arkansas Hawks), respectively. Burgess attended the Red/White game at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville four days later.
– Arkansas made the Top 13 list of college choices for 2024 5-star prospect Trentyn Flowers (6-8 wing, Combine Academy in Charlotte, N.C.), who was visited twice by Arkansas assistant coaches in the past 10 days. Flowers’s list includes the Hogs, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Oregon, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisville, Florida State, Georgetown, Creighton, Virginia Tech, and Georgia State.
– Arkansas made the Top 8 list of college choices for 2024 4-star prospect Labaran Philon (6-3 guard, Mobile, Ala.), who is the cousin of former Razorbacks football star Darius Philon. Labaron Philon’s list includes the Hogs, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Kansas, Michigan, Ole Miss, and Cincinnati.
– 2025 guard Kayden Edwards of Duncanville, Texas, is in touch with Arkansas in an effort to set up an unoffical visit, according to a source, with the possibility of coming in on Saturday, Jan. 21, for the Hoop Hogs’ home game against Ole Miss.
Photos by Hogville.net‘s John James …