By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Among several things that stood out during the Arkansas Razorbacks’ practice that was partially open to the media on Thursday was a sense that head coach Eric Musselman might have assembled his most position-diverse team in Fayetteville as he enters his fifth season leading the men’s basketball program.
After doing on-court work in a limited fashion through June, July, August and most of September, Musselman’s Hoop Hogs shifted into full-practice mode on Monday, Sept. 25, and the media’s sneak peek toward the end of the week sparked some thoughts on the promise and potential of this squad that arguably should be included in the conversation for pre-season pick to with the SEC in 2023-24.
In this space we’ll make the case for what could be another deep-run NCAA tournament team come March with our Top 8 takeaways capped by my latest Top 8 player-rotation projections following Thursday’s open practice combined with what we’ve learned about the team once it began converging on campus over Memorial Day weekend in late May as we’re now just days away from the October exhibition-game season that tips up on Wednesday, Oct. 4, with the annual Red/White Showcase intra-squad scrimmage.
1. Positional versatility and skill diversity rules! Not only does this ’23-24 Hoop Hogs squad package 35 years of combined Division I experience that has allowed Musselman and his coaching staff to install more schemes at both ends of the floor sooner compared to previous seasons, but throughout the lineup — the 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 spots — this appears to be Musselman’s most balanced team in terms of having no shortage of depth at any position with multiple players being able to play at multiple spots while bringing a plethora of skills to the floor.
– At least five Hogs can play lead guard OR initiate offense in various game situations — El Ellis (combo guard), Davonte “Devo” Davis (slasher and defender supreme), Layden Blocker (combo guard, was DNP at practice on Thursday), Tramon Mark (jack-of-all-trades and elite defender), and Khalif Battle (three-level scorer).
– ALL of the aforementioned guards can man the 2-spot with Davis, Mark, and Battle able to also fit in as wings/small forwards along with sharpshooters Jeremiah Davenport and Joseph Pinion who each add good size and plus-range at the 3-spot.
– Slotting as 3/4-combo forwards are efficient role-playing senior transfers Chandler Lawson and Denijay Harris with redshirt-sophomore Trevon Brazile bringing a unique combination of skill, length, and athleticism as a stretch-4 forward.
– The duo of senior big men Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham will serve mostly as a 1-2 punch at the 5-spot with freshman Baye Fall bringing a third option at center while possessing a coveted combo of length, explosive athleticism, and quickness.
“I thought we had great chemistry throughout the summer,” Musselman said following Thursday’s practice. “Did a lot of team bonding stuff. So off the floor I think the guys got to bond maybe a little bit quicker than normal. On the floor, the effort every day is more than we can ask. They’re really, really trying. They picked up a lot of stuff.
“We’re probably the furthest advanced we’ve ever been from a scheme standpoint. We still have a lot of stuff to clean up and get better, but right now I would say that scheme-wise we have as much in as maybe like mid-year almost as far as sets and some of the things that we do offensively. And defensively we’re about where we normally are. We’re not ahead at all, but we’re not behind either defensively.”
2. Three-point shooting should improve, could be a team strength. After back-to-back seasons ranked in the 300s in three-point shooting efficiency in D1, the Razorbacks appear to be equipped to flip that script and potentially could end up counting their distance game as a team strength. Although Pinion and Davenport were back-and-forth blazing from distance during Thursday’s open practice, it’s too soon to bank on a major team improvement for the regular-season, but consider that these Hogs will roll out …
– Battle (over 37% from 3 with 2.9 made triples per game combining the previous two seasons at Temple)
– Pinion (Hogs’ best three-point shooter by percentage last season as a freshman at 38.2%, and he certainly was an automatic flamethrower fron behind the arc at practice on Thursday)
– Davenport (72 made triples last season at Cincinnati as part of 205 career three’s made there at 34.7% efficiency, and he has NBA range while bringing a fearless catch-and-shoot trigger to Fayetteville)
– Davis (led Hogs’ top-rotation players in three-point percentage last season at 34.6%, and his 47 makes were tops on the team)
– Ellis (59 made three’s last season would have led Arkansas, and his 31.1% from distance last season was better than three of the four Hogs who departed for the 2023 NBA Draft)
– Mark (shot 32.8% from 3 a year ago as he made more than 30 from distance)
– Brazile (11-of-29 from 3 in 8 games for 37.9% in ’22-23)
– Lawson (a small sample size — 7-of-14 from 3 for 50% — but Musselman has been pleased with the senior transfer’s shot selection and efficiency from beyond the arc during practices
“Well, we can’t be much worse than what we’ve shot the last three years, so I do think we are a better shooting team,” Musselman said. “That still has to happen in a game. There were times the last couple of years where we thought we could really shoot it, but you really need more than one or two guys to make shots, Obviously, in year one Mason (Jones) and Isaiah (Joe) could really stretch the defense out. To play as well as we want to offensively, we need three or four guys at a time to make consistent jump shots, as of right now we can shoot, the biggest thing is consistency will be a big thing for us.”
3. Maintaining a Top 10-20 defense is attainable, and the Hogs will look to energize their transition offense. Arkansas had the Nos. 10, 11, and 17 ranked defenses in ’20-21, ’21-22, and ’22-23, respectively, according to KenPom.com‘s defensive efficiency analytics. Davis and Mark are both all-league-defense worthy, Brazile brings plus-defensive capabilities, and with Mitchell and Graham expected to make strides in their second seasons in the program along with Lawson, Battle, Ellis, Blocker, and Fall each bringing different defensive tools to the table, Arkansas has the potential to have another strong defensive unit.
A couple areas of concern when projecting the team defensively is perhaps lateral movement challenges for some along with what Musselman described as a team that he’d like to see be better conditioned collectively. The latter issue could also impact Musselman’s desire for his team to put an emphasis on becoming more of a transition team offensively.
“I think we’ve got some guys that need to get in a lot better shape to play at the pace that we want,” he said. “Even going live today, I’ve never seen a team struggle so bad to get the ball in-bounds as an in-bounder. You can bet tomorrow or the next time we get together, there will be a lot of in-bounding drills because we want to run. But I think fatigue — when we go back and watch a little bit of today — we’ll probably see a lot of guys fatiguing. When that happens, execution goes down.”
A source told Hogville earlier in the week that with the start of full-bore practice beginning on Monday, Sept. 25, that the team would likely have some “tired legs” during Thursday’s open portion of on-court work, which by the way came at the end of practice.
One player Musselman does not have concerns about — be it defensively or conditioning-wise — is veteran star guard Devo Davis.
“Devo runs on batteries, he’s bionic so I’m not really worried about Devo,” Musselman said. “I just think as a whole other than him, we’ve got to get in better shape, we really do.”
4. Frontline is divine IF / WHEN it becomes fully HEALTHY. It starts with sophomore forward Trevon Brazile, who will anchor what could prove to be the program’s deepest and most versatile frontcourt in years. We went all in with a deep-dive look at the Razorbacks’ six-player frontline in an article published earlier on Sunday, Oct. 1, here at Hogville (linked: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=759029.0).
5. Back to free throw line supremacy? The topic was nothing that was revealed in practice or talked about by Musselman afterward, but Arkansas could, probably will, return to being one of the best in D1 in free throw attempts volume and freebie shooting efficiency after a year of taking a step back at the foul line (under 70% on the season in ’22-23).
First consider the new additions — Battle (career 84.1% free throw shooter); Mark (career 79.0% on freebies); Davenport (career 78.4% free throw shooter); and Ellis (career 77.6% at the line) — provide a welcome wave of clutch free throw shooters in a system that thrives on getting to the line in volume and cashing in, especially late in close games when the margin for error shrinks.
Davis (71.9% at the line a season ago) and Brazile (only 67.7% in a small sample size) will be counted on to improve their free throw efficiency as both will likely be among the free throw attempts volume leaders. If Mitchell (65.2% last season) can bring his efficiency up to 70% and if Graham (37.1% in ’22-23) can get his to 60% or better, those would be sizable gains at the line from the frontcourt.
6. Hog futures look bright as team’s younger players impress. Pinion, a true sophomore, was a force offensively on Thursday, stroking shots from 3, driving to the basket, and finishing at the rim as he carried the scoring water for the White team in a narrow 15-12 loss to the more veteran Red team during live, full-contact 5-on-5 scrimmaging. That he saved Arkansas in a couple of SEC home games a season ago — coming off the bench to score 13 points twice in comeback wins over Missouri and Ole Miss — adds intrigue into what kind of role he could carve out this season, but certainly down the road next season as a third-year junior. Fall, a true freshman, made plays at both ends on Thursday with a sublime defensive sequence (shot contest, rebound, outlet pass triggering a successful transition possession followed by a confident catch-and-shoot splash from distance on offense). Although he will redshirt in ’23-24 after transferring from Washington following a Pac-12 All Freshman selection last season, rail-thin guard Keyon Menifield, Jr. showed plus-quickness with some separation burst at times as he played primary ball-handler and made some nice set-up passes for the White squad. Blocker was not at practice (wisdom tooth extraction), but based on previous source information and Musselman’s assessment on Thursday his burst, toughness, and competitiveness have been pluses since hitting the practice floor in early June.
For a variety of reasons, it’s conceivable that each of Pinion, Fall, and Blocker could factor into a top-rotation role at some point in the upcoming season.
“Well, I think one, athletically, (Pinion has) made strides,” Musselman said. “I think the injury that he had in high school is completely gone. I don’t think that’s in his mind, and he’s not wearing a brace. A year ago from today, he had a heavy brace on, and that’s hard for certain players, especially a guard, to wear. So, I think mentally, he’s overcome the injury as well. I don’t think that he’s thinking about it. His shooting has been incredible. He’s still got some things that we want him to try and focus on defensively. He got beat backdoor the other day in a situation where – we’re not a deny team. But certainly, he’s been a real pleasant piece for us since we’ve been together.
“Baye has great agility, great movement. I think that some of the schemes are a little different than he’s used to. He’s got to continue to look at the playbook and watch what we’re doing and pick up second and third reads. But, today, altered shots, ran the floor really hard. Has got to add body weight and get stronger, but certainly has had a great work ethic as well and is really trying hard … (Blocker has) been good. Plays hard, he’s competitive, plays with great speed. But we have a really good team you know and it’s competitive at all spots right now.”
7. Quick-hitters from practice and more Musselman talking points …
– Musselman was confident, dare we suggest he hd a swagger, when he spoke about his team’s work ethic, experience, and collective ability to grasp the schemes which has allowed the coaching staff to install more this offseason than ever before. This point should not be glossed over or taken as an afterthought.
– There were some rough stretches of turnovers on the perimeter after ill-advised dribble-drives, off-target passes, and offensive players getting caught in tight clusters, and Musselman addressed it afterward: “Too many turnovers and spacing has got to improve, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
– Arkansas is not only ahead of schedule in terms of installing offensive schemes, but the team is adding some NBA-schematic wrinkles to it’s offensive arsenal: “I think that we have added a lot more stuff and if you think about what we were running last year and what we’re running now, we’re running a more complicated system,” Musselman said. “We sprinkled some stuff in that has got some hybrid NBA things off the elbow.”
– As Brazile works to get back to 100% participation, he’s demonstrated great leadership according to Musselman: “He’s been great, he’s always got great team concepts and team thoughts. The guys all really like him and that helps out tremendously. And he’s one of our higher basketball IQ guys, he understands second, third, fourth options and he takes pride in the fact that he should be buddy-coaching with the guys and we need him to have some vocal leadership as well.”
8. Top 8 player-rotation projections as Arkansas prepares for three October exhibition-game tune-ups. The Hogs get things started with Wednesday’s Red/White intra-squad scrimmage followed by a home exhibition game against DII Texas-Tyler on Oct. 20 and then what promises to be a nationally relevant charity exhibition matchup at home against Big Ten powerhouse Purdue on Oct. 28.
The first two exhibition games will likely provide all available Hogs opportunities to see playing time, and if form holds true to last season when Arkansas played at Texas in its final exhibition game the third dress rehearsal against the Boilermakers might be scripted with Musselman’s first idea of a Top 8 rotation getting the bulk of the playing time.
Here’s how we have it for now projecting to the start of the regular season on Nov. 6, assuming all hands are on deck and available to play (this is subject to change as we move through October exhibition play) …
-Based on the quality and positional versatility of the roster, we see multiple fits for helping round out the Top 8 rotation, with Davenport and Lawson currently vying here but with Pinion, Blocker, and Fall each being reasonable options here as well.
For video highlights, interviews, staff and scheduling updates, and the latest in recruiting, click the link to my Hoop Hogs notebook published at Hogville on Thursday, Sept. 28 (https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=758840.0).