By Kevin McPherson

FAYETTEVILLE — It was a busier summer than usual for the Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball program given the four-game European exhibition tour in August and the accompanying 10 extra days of full practices in late July sandwiched between months of limited practices that began in the first week of June, but on Monday the Hoop Hoops ramped up their official preparations with the first day of full-scale practices as the highly anticipated 2022-23 season begins on Nov. 7.

Last week the Hogs wrapped up their limited, four-hours-per-week on-court instruction by working on execution and cleaning up various phases of the game. This week and moving forward with a lot more time allotted each week for practices, everything is on the table.

Following an early Monday afternoon press conference with fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman and transfers Ricky Council IV and Trevon Brazile inside Bud Walton Arena, the media were given a 30-minute window to observe a portion of practice across the street at the basketball performance center.

Defense, three-point shooting, and ball-handling/turnovers were popular topics during the presser, and certainly the latest glimpses of the 11 newcomers and 2 returnees during practice was a reminder of how big, long, athletic, talented, and versatile Musselman’s fourth Hoop Hogs roster truly is. It’s the best collection of talent he’s had at the college level now entering his eighth season as a Division 1 head coach.

For video practice highlights, interviews, and photos, click the link …

* It remains true that Musselman’s practices are intense and fast-paced with strict attention to detail. Musselman and his coaching staff were vocal, loud, and animated, and he demanded multiple times that his players communicate with the same energy and fervor.

* There was no 5-on-5 live scrimmaging during the media window, and typically there is not much of that during Musselman’s practices, but the team did face some variations of defensive pressure during several creative offensive drills meant to promote spacing, cutting, ball movement and crisp passing, and playing off of screens. Musselman said how the players execute and respond in drills and live scrimmaging will dictate the transitions from one to the other.

“I think what happens is you drill then you go live, and if they lose that — whatever you want to say — execution and are falling back into some habits that maybe we haven’t taught, then you’ve got to go back to the drills,” Musselman said. “I think it’s up to the team how quickly you can get into live, and then is that live segment just an up and back? Is it a live segment where you can go 3-4 trips up and down the floor? That’ll depend on our execution and how much we’re following scheme on both sides of the ball. And then quite frankly it depends on health.”

* There was promise during shooting drills in terms of three-point conversions, and during the press conference both Council and Brazile identified freshman 3/4-combo forward Jordan Walsh as a player who will be counted on from distance in addition to themselves and freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., who was wearing a knee brace on his right knee during practice (remember, Smith suffered a knee sprain in the final Euro game, but it is not thought to be a serious injury).

Musselman talked about three-point shooting and Walsh, but he declined to disclose specific injuries or the lack thereof.

Despite his team’s three-point shooting woes in Europe (the Hogs were 16-of-56 for 28.6% from distance as a team) — and it was certainly horrendous a season ago —  Musselman seemed cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead from distance.

“I think overall from three-point, it’s got to be a group attack on that,” he said. “Hopefully teams don’t defend like we do, which will also help because of the way we defend threes. If teams zone us, I actually think we’ll be a better three-point shooting team. The way we play man-to-man, as we saw in Year 1, we led the nation in defending the three. So, those same concepts we have guarding our own three-pointers. We don’t play segments where we play a zone. So, naturally when somebody plays a zone, I think we get our feet set more and it’s proven over time that sometimes we improve our percentage against a team that doesn’t defend like we do. So, hopefully that’ll help as well.”

Musselman acknowledged Walsh’s physical gifts and desire to get better.

“Jordan is such a great athlete.,” he said. “He’s tried to improve from his performance over in the four games overseas. He’s continued, like a lot of young guys, to try to get better with each passing day.”

As for injury updates …

“To talk about availability, injury, sickness, to me it’s kind of us behind closed doors,” Musselman said. “We have no significant injuries so to speak of. I’ll just keep that to myself I guess. When I have to give the injury report, we’ll get it out in November.”

* There were a lot of Hog dunks in Europe against actual competition, and certainly there were plenty during practice on Monday. It’s quite impressive how quickly and with ease that Brazile, Council, Walsh, freshman wing Barry Dunning, Jr , and senior forward Jalen Graham get off the floor for rim flushes. Dunning was pronounced during the presser as having the best vertical leap on the team.

* Speaking of Dunning, he was the darling of the Euro tour and continues to be so in his coach’s eyes.

“Before I left for Dallas (for the Football Hogs game against Texas A&M on Saturday), and I was lucky enough to be able to get over there in a quick manner, Barry was shooting,” said a smitten Musselman. “Sunday, I walked in to print my articles … and when I went go print, I heard a ball bounce. It was Barry. So as much as we all want to support all of our athletic programs when they’re playing, Barry’s in here working. I only use this example because he’s not going home. He’s not hanging out. He’s in the gym.

“And he’s grown as much as anybody in this program. Where that leads role-wise or whatever … but from a culture standpoint, he’s at the top of the list right now for coming in the morning. He doesn’t come in at 10 in the morning. He’s in here at 7. And so his will to do the right thing, his will and his focus to get better, probably can’t have any more focus and desire. And then following through with thoughts on how to get better, he’s been awesome.”

* Defense. It remains ahead of the offense according to Musselman, whose best teams at Arkansas have boasted defenses ranking Top 10ish in Division 1. He was not particularly pleased with his team’s defensive discipline and execution in Spain, although he grew increasingly pleased with it once the team played twice more in Italy with tightened rotations and improved attention to assignment details. In fact, he was elated with the Hogs’ defensive play following the Hogs’ best performance on that side of the ball against its final and toughest competitor in the Bakken Bears, a Danish team of veteran professionals.

Arkansas was suffocating and stifling defensively as it forced turnovers while keeping Bakken from getting clean looks which prevented the Bears from scoring a field goal until 10 seconds remained in the first quarter as the Hogs jumped out to a 20-5 lead. In the end, the Hogs held the Bears to 31% shooting from the field, including 19% from 3, while forcing 27 turnovers (that included 15 Arkansas steals) in a 70-59 win in their tour finale. In the game prior to that, the Hogs held Orange1 Basket Bassano to 30% shooting (both overall field goals and three-point field goals) while forcing 26 turnovers in a 75-54 win. The Hogs held three of their opponents below 60 points while minimizing gambling and busted assignments as the tour progressed, and overall on-ball defense (staying in front, staying attached) as well as help-and-recover execution were consistently good once the team played its final two games in Italy. Defensive rebounding (29.5 per game), steals (a whopping 14.3 per outing), and deflections were pluses. Rim protection was more than adequate (4.8 blocks per game plus a lot of altered shots).

On Monday, Musselman described the team’s defensive progression as a work in progress given roster youth challenges.

“I think our defense, for sure, is ahead of our offense,” he said. “It probably was overseas and probably still is today, but we still, like I said, I mean, I’ve got to have a little more patience with this group maybe than some other groups. When you have Jalen Tate out there or have Jimmy Whitt, those guys were basically fifth-year guys, so you tell them once or twice and it gets implemented — even Justin Smith.

“With younger players and with a younger group and a newer group, we’re repeating ourselves a lot, more so than any team I’ve ever coached. With that comes a little bit of patience, and hopefully there will be growth from September to October. We’ve got to get a lot better than where we are.”

* Offense. The aforementioned three-point shooting woes, the turnover bug (21.0 per game in Europe with three games of 20 or more giveaways, including 30 in the finale), and lack of free throw opportunities overseas (only a combined 41-of-58 from the foul line for 70.7% in four games) for a program that has been among the best in Division 1 in terms of volume and efficiency at the foul line are ALL phases of the game that have Musselman’s full attention.

“I think the one thing is younger players, whether you’ve only played one year in college or whether you’ve played two years in college or are coming from high school, valuing the ball and understanding how many close games and how each possession matters,” he said about the turnover dilemma. “That’s something we’re learning now and we have a lot of growth in that area. So, we’re trying to play a little more situational basketball, meaning we create a mojo moment and put up on the clock 13 seconds down two. How are we going to react, and then we go live on that. Just as probably every team in the country has got to get better at late-situation basketball.”

And free throws, was that about the FIBA officiating or was there more to it?

“I don’t think Commissioner [Greg] Sankey can fine me for talking about the officials overseas,” Musselman said. “But the game is officiated overall differently. I mean, from coaching the Venezuelan and Dominican national teams, the whistle is just different. They don’t protect dribble drive attacks of the rim like they do in college basketball. But we’re got to get better. Last year we were a great cutting team. We had two or three guys that were great cutters when they didn’t have the ball in their hands. We had great dribble drive attack guys. So I think there’s a whole bunch of things.

“I do think we’ll be much better than we have been in the past throwing the ball in the post and getting fouled. Now we’ve just got to add the spacing, maybe, to allow maybe a little bit more dribble drive attacks. I think when we play big one of the areas to get better at is our big men in the dunker spot has got to relocate out of dribble drive angles. And so that’s been something we’ve added maybe from the past. If you get an offensive rebound, something the Spurs did really well with [Manu] Ginobili was have a designated cutter off an offensive rebound. So that’s something maybe we’re going to add, that element we haven’t done in the past. But we’ll get better at drawing fouls I hope.”

With Arkansas’ offensive trouble spots identified, the biggest positives in Europe were the Hogs’ determined attacks into the paint and at the rim for plus-efficiency finishes (142-of-221 on two-point attempts, most of which came at close range, for 64.3%), transition scoring (total of 40 dunks plus countless fast-break layups), and offensive rebounding (55 total for 13.8 per game).

One area that Musselman cited as improved since returning from the trip is his team’s evolving recognition of multiple options in offensive sets.

“I think we’ve improved kind of understanding second and third options on our offensive sets,” he said.

* Youth. Six freshmen. A less experienced transfer in Brazile. And even the more veteran players are new to each other (remember, 11 first-year Hogs out of 13 on scholarship). Musselman steered most topics back toward the challenges of navigating all the youth and newness.

“We’re still, I mean, we’ll go over there today and get into our defensive stuff and some of the things that we talked about on Day 1, we’re still talking about today — hand in the eyeball, no middle,” Musselman said. “I think that comes with having a really young team. I was just on the phone with Avery Johnson earlier today, and he kind of asked about our guys and was asking about the age of them, and, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen a team you’ve ever coached this young.’ With six freshmen, even TB, I mean, you’re talking about a player who is just in his sophomore year, so we have a young team, a lot of new guys.

“We find ourselves repeating ourselves a lot in practice. We’re not moving ahead maybe at the rate that I want to because of having to repeat things, so we’ve got to move the chains every week little bit further. We can’t keep staying where we are, and with that, when something gets taught, we’ve got to take from the chalkboard to the practice to the drills to live action. They can’t just go from the chalkboard to drills, then when we go live we fall back into to other habits. We’ve got to grow. Right now, we need to see quicker growth now that we’re into this 20-hour segment than maybe what we’ve seen in a shortened four-hour segment that we’ve been in per week.”

* Now’s not the time for rotation talk? We’ve speculated multiple times in this space since early June about a top 7-8 rotation, and certainly a Top 8 emerged in Europe — Smith, Black, Brazile, Council, Walsh, Dunning, junior guard Devo Davis, and senior forward Kamani Johnson. As of now, Musselman’s not having it when asked about roles, minutes, and rotations looking ahead. The nuances of personnel combinations that gel, specific matchups against opposing teams, individual player improvement, and other factors will define the rotation decisions as being more like a moving target than an established, static plan.

“I think if you look back at rotations and stuff, where was Trey Wade as far as his rotation, the responsibilities, where was he in November?” Musselman quipped. “And then where was he against Gonzaga? You’re guarding Chet [Holmgren]. You’ve got to make a three in the corner when they don’t want to guard you and [Drew] Timme is standing in the lane and you’re 35 feet wide open and you’ve got to make that shot. And we’re going to run a play for you because we know Timme wants to stay in the lane and not come out and guard you. So the importance of maybe where Trey Wade was against Speedy Claxton’s team (Hofstra) in (North) Little Rock, and then where he was in San Francisco against Gonzaga, altered drastically. Even the year before, you look at where Devo’s role was, and J-Will’s role, their first 15 games as freshmen. Kind of bit minutes, but then they end up starting in the NCAA Tournament and Devo ends up hitting a humongous shot for us to advance. And their roles weren’t like that [earlier in the season].

“So I think where we are today, where we’ll be in November and where we’ll be [later in the season], I think it’s our job as coaches to keep an open mind with guys that keep getting better, and guys that have a feel for, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get better in this aspect.’ And then they just keep getting better in November and December. So I don’t ever want to be a coach that has something set rotation-wise. I want the players’ performance to dictate minutes and roles.”

* Reminder that Hoop Hogs’ Pro Day is fast-approaching (previously reported content): Arkansas will host its annual Pro Day on Wednesday, Oct. 5 — just over two weeks from now — with NBA scouts invited to come in and evaluate the ’22-23 team. Multiple scouts told Hogville they intend to attend, with one saying he believes Arkansas has four potential first-round draft picks — Nick Smith, Jr., Anthony Black, Jordan Walsh, and Trevon Brazile.

Photos via John James and Kevin McPherson