By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — Now that the 2023-24 Arkansas men’s basketball team has its annual Red/White intra-squad scrimmage under its belt, the next time the lights come on with game officials and fans in seats will be the Razorbacks’ first of two exhibition games as Division II Texas-Tyler will invade Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Friday, Oct. 20.
Game time for the first exhibition tilt will be 6:30 p.m. CT (there is no TV or livestream), and that contest will be followed by the Hoop Hogs’ second and final exhibition game — a charity event and a much-anticipated matchup against Big Ten powerhouse Purdue at 3 p.m. CT, Saturday, Oct. 28, BWA (SEC Network-plus livestream).
Coming out of the Red’s 88-70 runaway win over the White on Wednesday at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville after the team’s were knotted up 41-all at halftime, let’s run through my observations on the three highest priority developments emerging for head coach Eric Mussleman and his team as they prepare for two more October dress rehearsals.
1. Best ability is availability. Musselman’s biggest task is getting everyone healthy and ready for the start of the regular season. Star sophomore forward Trevon Brazile and highly regarded junior transfer guard Khalif Battle both did not play (DNP) in last week’s Red/White game. Brazile is on pace to make a full return for the start of the regular season in early November after rehabilitating his surgically repaired knee due to an injury that sidelined him for the team’s final 27 games a season ago, while Battle has been dealing with a nagging foot injury that took him from going through pre-game warm-ups with intentions to play to sitting out the scrimmage in street clothes, on crutches, and wearing a walking boot.
Although Brazile is on course for his return as planned while Battle’s injury is not considered serious based on medical testing and evaluations, it remains noteworthy that for personnel rotation purposes and availability that impacts the team’s depth in both the frontline and backcourt that Musselman, his coaching staff, and the players remain a bit in the dark for now regarding how everything will fit together once, and if, everyone returns as expected.
Both players were projected as top-rotation pieces in Musselman’s plans, and at least one (Brazile) if not both will be plugged in as day one starters assuming they are ready for the season opener at home against Alcorn State on Nov. 6.
It seems Musselman is in no hurry to have Brazile fast-tracked to play against Texas-Tyler (just 12 days from the time of this published article), which seems prudent given the Head Hogs’ stated timeline for his versatile frontliner to return to live, full-contact 5-on-5 scrimmaging that is still about a week away. Regarding Battle, his situation seems day-to-day although that has not been intimated by the coaching staff. He missed latter portions of summer limited practices as well as the start of fall practices.
Even when both players return, there are several immediate questions that come to mind: How long does it take each to perform at optimal levels even if they are 100% cleared to compete? How does it impact on-court chemistry and personnel rotations? How does it impact playing time, both in terms of how much can each player participate in stretches and blocks of game action and consequently how that impacts playing time and roles for others?
Here are my latest Top 8 rotation takes …
– Trevon Brazile (starter at the 4-spot once fully ready to go)
– Davonte “Devo” Davis (starter and team leader, strong second half in Red/White scrimmage)
– El Ellis (starter at point guard, had arguably the best overall floor game in the Red/White scrimmage)
– Makhi Mitchell (starter, dependable at center)
– Tramon Mark (starter in the backcourt OR sixth man role, jack-of-many-trades type impact)
– Khalif Battle (starter at shooting guard OR Top 8 rotation once fully ready to go)
– Jalen Graham (backup at center behind Mitchell and in the Top 8 rotation)
– Chandler Lawson (backup at the 4-spot behind Brazile OR starter at the 4 while Brazile is out) AND / OR Jeremiah Davenport (backup on the wing OR potential starter if Battle is out) AND / OR Joseph Pinion (backup on the wing OR potential starter if Battle is out)
– Just outside the Top 8 (for now, but subject to change): Layden Blocker (will serve as backup point guard); Baye Fall (6-11 center could push into the Top 8 rotation based on any kind of attrition at the center spot); Denijay Harris (gives the Hogs depth and another 3/4-combo option at forward).
2. Hogs seem legit from distance (for now)! Collectively, the Red and White squads combined for 14-of-28 from 3 (50%) with seven Hogs making at least one triple. Davenport struck for 5-of-8 shooting from 3 (62.5%) while Pinion hit 3-of-4 (75%) and Davis made 2-of-3 (66.7%) to lead the way.
Combining that effort with what media witnessed during the 45-minute open portion of the team’s Sept. 28 practice — especially the ongoing mano a mano dagger-trading by Pinion and Davenport — it’s realistic if not likely the ’23-24 version of the Hogs will be vastly improved shooting from three compared to the ’22-23 and ’21-22 squads that both ranked in the 300s near the bottom of Division 1 in shooting beyond the arc.
“I feel like I’ve always been the only shooter that’s been here at Arkansas,” said Pinion, who’s game-high 20 points led the winning Red squad. “We bring in JD, now I’ve got some competition. Competition makes everything better. That’s how you win more games, is competition. He’s really been pushing me, and I feel like I’ve been pushing him a little bit to be the best shooters we can be.”
The three’s were raining via halfcourt off dribble-drive set-ups, brisk perimeter and inside-out ball movement, drive-and-kickout passes, and secondary transition opportunities. This renewed competency shooting from three and how that creates spacing and gravity out on the perimeter to keep defenders from crowding and clogging the lane should create bigger and cleaner driving lanes for the Hogs compared to the past two seasons, which was a goal for Musselman evidenced by his offseason transfer-portal recruiting and offensive scheme choices heading into this season.
Pinion is stronger and has confidence creating drives off the bounce to keep defenders guessing, Davenport is a sniper from distance with Isaiah Joe-esque feel on catch-and-shoot opportunities from NBA range, Davis continues to be an efficient volume option from three, and others including frontliners are adding a distance game into the mix.
“The shooting is obviously … we’re going to be able to stretch the defense out a little bit more than maybe we have in the past,” Musselman said in his post-Red/White game press conference. “So really pleased with our shooting. Pretty pleased with how the flow of the offense is. We’re running an offense what we ran for about 10 games two years ago that’s kind of what Milwaukee (Bucks of the NBA) ran two years ago. And it requires a lot of thinking and a lot of reading and pretty happy with how far advanced the guys are with that.
“Obviously we’ve got to get a lot, lot better. Some guys are further advanced on knowing this than others, but that’ll hopefully come over time.”
If three-point shooting is to be a strength on offense this season, and possibly THE strength for multiple players vying for top rotation roles, it seems in order that Musselman should consider three-ball friendly personnel packages while making some adjustments where and when necessary to cater to those strengths at times (more on that down the page as Musselman addressed that very notion).
3. So, both the offense and defense are ahead of schedule? Musselman has acknowledged multiple times spanning the past few months that he and his coaching staff have been able to implement sooner more of their offensive and defensive schemes with this team when compared to the timelines of doing the same with his previous four Hog squads. It’s a group of Hoop Hogs that bring 34 years of combined Division 1 playing experience among the 13 scholarship players (5 returnees and 8 newcomers) who are expected to be available to play in ’23-24.
However, there are still challenges on both sides of the ball — turnovers on offense and lateral movement issues on defense allowing offensive players to get to the middle of the floor are just two areas of concern, plus conditioning issues as described by Musselman that could impact the Hogs’ execution at both ends of the floor.
But for once under Musselman, the offense appears to be ahead of the defense in the pre-season stages of the ’23-24 campaign.
In addition to what Musselman has seen from his team during practices inside the basketball performance center are the offense-dominant numbers from the Red/White game — 158 total points scored and a combined 63-of-101 overall from the field (62.4%) that included the aforementioned 14-of-28 effort from 3 (50%). On the flip side for the offense, the teams combined for 20 turnovers.
The Hogs are employing some of the Milwaukee Bucks’ NBA offensive schemes they initially ran for several games two seasons ago. In the Red/White scrimmage, the teams’ transition offenses looked effective while the transition defenses were slow to challenge and protect the rim on drives to the basket and slow to close out on shooters on the perimeter. The preference of some players to run out in transition offense after defending a shot on goal brings up defensive rebounding concerns for Musselman as well.
“It’s really interesting because with every new team a coaching staff has a vision of what they want,” Musselman said. “We noticed it about two weeks ago, that we have some guys that have an innate ability to contest a shot and then fly and release early. Not something that we’ve done in the past, because we focus so much on defensive rebounding. But we do have some guys that just innately contest and fly which is a — you know it happens in the NBA all the time. If we can get the other four guys to defensively rebound at a high level, we’d like to continue to contest and fly just because we have two or three guys that have been doing it their whole life and it just kind of happens. It’s not anything we taught and when you have a player that through instincts can be effective, you want to let them go. And maybe as coaches we’ve got to adjust. Now, like I said, we can’t do that if the other four don’t defensive rebound.
“I think our secondary (offensive fast) break is — I think this Bucks (offensive scheme), we’re running it after misses. And then we’re going to our half court package on makes and I think that they understand there’s five spots on the floor have to be occupied. And they’re doing a good job of owning the corners, running to the corners as quick as they can, getting to the two 45-degree and then having a trail guy regardless of what position you are.”
For a program that sported the 10th-, 11th-, and 17th-ranked defenses in KenPom.com‘s efficiency ratings in Division 1 spanning the past three seasons, respectively, the early look on the defensive end of the floor has not lived up to Musselman’s expectations.
“Surprisingly, we’ve gelled pretty good offensively and need to gel better defensively, and a lot of the time it’s the opposite,” Musselman said. “In my tenure, it’s been really good defensively and not-so-cosmetically pleasing offensively until we get to March. And even then, it’s (the offense) probably not real cosmetically pleasing.”
Our guess is Musselman is prioritizing defense above all else in the two-week gap between the Red/White game and the first exhibition contest against DII Texas-Tyler.
For game details, highlights, quotes, and more from Arkansas’ annual Red/White Showcase that was played on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville, check out my game story published at Hogville (linked here: https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=759049.0).