By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Eric Musselman has worn many hats well at Arkansas since arriving as Head Hog in April 2019: Enthusiastic and energetic workaholic, genius game-planner and strategist, recruiter extraordinaire with a royal bloodline as the transfer-portal prince, social media warrior poet, and self-marketing seer whose gravity has pulled the program, its players, and its fans into his orbit.
You don’t need the state-of-the-art, ground-breaking NASA Webb telescope to look back into time and enjoy the spectacular views of 73 total wins, the best overall record in the SEC in the last two seasons, two consecutive final national Top-10 rankings, and back-to-back NCAA tournament Elite Eights spanning Musselman’s first three seasons at the helm in Fayetteville.
And though we’re three months away from the official start of the fourth running of the Muss Bus at Arkansas, what happens next is bonus basketball. In August. It doesn’t even count on the record and it’s not even technically part of Arkansas’ 2022-23 exhibition-game portion of the regular season.
But to pretend it doesn’t matter to Musselman, his players, his coaching staff, and Razorbacks fans everywhere would be disingenuous. The team-bonding and cultural-education opportunities matter, and you can bet the entire Arkansas traveling party as well as the fanbase expect to win. Fan buzz is charged up in August because the program will enter the upcoming campaign with preseason national Top 10 rankings buoyed by an 11-player recruiting class that is arguably the top recruiting haul in college basketball.
So here we are, just hours away from the first unveiling (albeit unofficial) of the ’22-23 Hoop Hogs with a Tuesday tip-off against Valencia Seleccion (12:30 p.m. CT in Valencia, Spain) as Musselman — a coaching veteran in international play — will guide his Arkansas team for the first time in a game played in another country.
It’s the first matchup of the Razorbacks’ four-game European exhibition tour that includes playing dates against Barcelona Todo-Estrella at 1:30 p.m. CT on Thursday, Aug. 11, in Barcelona, Spain; against Orange1 Basket Bassano at 12:30 p.m. CT on Saturday, Aug. 13, in Lake Como, Italy; and against Bakken Bears at noon CT on Monday, Aug. 15, in Lake Como, Italy. All games are set to be livestreamed via FloHoops.com.
For those charting a Muss-Bus-as-Head-Hog bucket list, you’ll soon be able to mark off “led Arkansas to victory in international play on foreign soil.”
* Will Arkansas’ star freshman combo guard play? There have been no recent updates regarding the injured left index finger (bone bruise, non-shooting hand) of the nation’s No. 1 incoming freshman — Nick Smith, Jr. — that kept him out of practices last week. Immediately following a practice that was partially open to media on Wednesday, Aug. 3, Musselman disclosed that Smith: a) had injured his finger earlier in the week; b) was being held out for what was initially feared a ligament issue but was later downgraded to a bone bruise; c) was day-to-day; d) might, might not play in the European tour; and e) would have a follow-up doctor’s visit on Friday, Aug. 5, to help determine his playing fate in Europe.
It’s been radio-silence on the matter every since. However, team photos that emerged on Monday from a day at the beach in Valencia, Spain, during a team function revealed Smith playing football in the shallow waters of the ocean. While doing running drills as the team practiced last week, Smith was seen wearing a small finger wrap or splint on his left index finger, yet there was no sign of a wrap or splint in the beach photos. Our best GUESS is Smith will be full-go to play this week, although that is only a GUESS with the other options being Smith will be held out of competition entirely, or he’ll play limited minutes and/or in only a portion of games. The bone bruise is not considered a serious injury, but it can be nagging with continued swelling and pain.
During a practice a week earlier — on Wednesday, July 27 — that was also partially open to the media, Smith was clearly Arkansas’ most comfortable, productive, and efficient performer as both a scorer and facilitator during 5-on-5, full-contact live scrimmaging.
If Smith plays, it could signal a higher functioning offense for Arkansas than if he were to not suit up. It also means an intriguing early look at how he and fellow incoming 5-star guard Anthony Black play together and complement each other. Both will see extended court time as backcourt mates in ’22-23, and the European tour very well could serve as a message-sender to the rest of the SEC and college basketball that the rookie tandem is ready for prime time.
The Hogs also have intriguing rotation and personnel-combination possibilities throughout a talent-rich roster. Returning guard Devo Davis, incoming 5-star talent Jordan Walsh, and transfer wing Ricky Council IV all bring something a bit different to the 3-spot with Walsh possessing 3/4-combo forward versatility to allow him to man the 4-spot in a small-ball lineup. Expect all three to factor into the Top 7-8 rotation, and add to that group frontliner Trevon Brazile, who will be the Hogs’ tallest and longest stretch-4 to date (6-10 with a 7-4 wingspan).
The options are multiple in the frontcourt with the supporting-cast quartet of Kamani Johnson (6-7), Jalen Graham (6-9), and the Mitchell twins (6-9 Makhi and 6-10 Makhel). Yet another trio of Arkansas freshmen — Barry Dunning, Jr., Joseph Pinion, and Derrian Ford — have also earned recognition from Musselman for their summer work to date.
Expect all 13 of the Hogs’ scholarship players to get significant run in Europe (assuming Smith is cleared), and for a variety of factors starters and rotations may or may not closely resemble how things unfold to start fall camp and the ensuing regular season.
* A friendly message from Arkansas’ first opponent in Spain. We do not know much about Valencia Seleccion, but we do know the club’s coach Christian Crudeli is excited about the fast-approaching opportunity for his team to compete against the Hogs. “Looking forward to meet you and play against you tomorrow night Coach,” Crudelli said in a retweet of a Musselman tweet on Monday.
* Say my name! It’s Defense. Maybe the most tangibly identifiable thing that has gotten Musselman’s teams out of the proverbial mud time and again while serving as chief catalyst to his three chart-climbing and successful seasons in Fayetteville is that Musselman has emerged from under the hood every time with an all-hands-on-deck team identity solution, and that identity always lands on defense.
The Muss Bus was not always the fastest or smoothest ride around the track in ’20-21 or ’21-22, but when it found its defensive chops mid-race in each season it led to shifting into higher gears in the final laps for a legitimate chance to sprint under that checkered flag first.
So let’s acknowledge a few broad strokes from Arkansas’ defensive track record under Muss: KenPom.com‘s No. 10 in D1 in adjusted defensive efficiency in ’20-21 and No. 11 in D1 in adjusted defensive efficiency in ’21-22; the No. 1 three-point field-goal percentage defense in Division 1 in ’19-20; top 10 in total defensive rebounds in D1 in both ’20-21 and ’21-22; top 20 in D1 in blocks per game in ’20-21; top 25 in total steals in D1 in ’21-22; and since-departed-Hog Jaylin Williams serving as the D1 leader in drawn charges in ’21-22.
Those are just some of the statistics and analytics that help tell the full-season stories, but the eye test during the game-to-game journeys painted a picture that was very fluid and did not always seem sharply focused. Whatever the mid-season struggles were that saw Arkansas start poorly in SEC play the past two campaigns — poor three-point defense and spotty transition defense are two that come to mind — Musselman not only tweaked his rotations but he also punched up the right combinations on defense to correct course.
Going back to his first offseason press conference in June, Musselman was pleased with what he had already seen from his team defensively in a few limited practices, specifically the rim protection and challenges to drives in the paint. Fast-forward to the media’s two windows into recent practices and you could see how the team’s collective height, length, and athleticism upgrades backed up what Musselman had talked about weeks prior.
In 5-on-5 full-contact live scrimmaging, only lob passes over the defense in some form of transition or precision passes against defenders’ vision on hard cuts seemed to result in close-range finishes because multiple drive attempts or defended moves down low did not yield many positive results for the offense. And even when there were defensive breakdowns in live scrimmaging, that the team is tall, long, and athletic allowed players to recover and clean things up. Then in drill work, you could already see the cohesiveness in footwork and positioning, high hands, and timely help rotations.
The next test begins in a matter of hours (or minutes depending on when you read this) in Arkansas’ first exhibition game that offers the team’s first challenge against true opposition. So many aspects of defense to monitor and track, and specifically we’ll have our eyes on above-the-rim protection; cohesion in walling off drives, closing out on shooters, and help rotations; defending various screen actions; and transition defense.
And no matter what hurdles are revealed, games in August give Musselman a three-month head start on analysis and tweaks (or major revisions if needed).
* No offense, but … Okay, so while it’s true the defense has been the program’s identity with a sometimes patchwork on the offensive end, it seems as though this roster has the makings to play faster (see elite transition initiators and facilitators in Black, Smith, and Davis and elite finishers in Walsh, Council, Brazile, and the aforementioned trio of of guards) with quick strikes above the rim and electric drives to the cup. Chances are this team will take steps to improve as a three-point shooting unit, which won’t be hard to do compared to last season’s bunch that ranked in the 300’s in D1 in three-point field goal percentage.
Based on what media saw in parts of two practices, the Hogs appeared to be poised to check the aforementioned boxes on the offensive end.
The one consistent area in Arkansas’ offense in three seasons under Musselman has been the blue-collar devotion to attacking the paint and the rim, resulting in consistently elite free throws attempted and free throws made totals. Adding the better-than-the-average-NBA-team measurables in the offseason seems to telegraph the Hogs at minimum should maintain their tradition of manufacturing free throw line trips at a high rate.
So, three of the important things on offense to keep an eye during the four-game European tour are pace/transition execution, three-point shooting (volume and efficiency), and getting to the foul line/converting at the foul line.
* For the non-record. Musselman is 4-0 all-time in exhibition games coaching at Arkansas, and he can double that win total if Arkansas sweeps the week with a 2-0 run in Spain followed by a 2-0 run in Italy.
* FIBA rules! Many teams from the United States — that’s Team USA at various levels made up of professionals and/or amateurs as well as college squads — often struggle with not only the differences in international playing rules, but also by how the games are officiated while observing those rules. In case you didn’t already know, the FIBA shot clock is 24 seconds (college is 30 seconds), the FIBA backcourt violation during an offensive possession is 8 seconds (college is 10 seconds), the FIBA ball is playable off the rim (college is not playable off the rim and counts as goal-tending), and the FIBA lane is wider. Two of the biggest adjustments in the way international games are officiated are 1) traveling violations, which tend to penalize U.S. players more frequently than they are accustomed to; and 2) physicality leading to foul calls, which also can be difficult for U.S. players to make the necessary adjustments.
* Former Hog Euro tour recall. Former Arkansas star guard Dusty Hannahs — one of only 45 players to score 1,000 career points as a Hog, and he did it in only two seasons — remembers well his pre-senior-season (’16-17) trip to Spain for Arkansas’ foreign tour under then-head coach Mike Anderson. “Riding jet skis in Valencia and hanging out with my parents,” Hannahs said of his fondest off-the-court memories from the trip. As a bit of pre-game warning, Hannahs echoed the sentiment of many that “the FIBA travel violation is a big difference for players.”