By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — It’s rare that a team gets a second exhibition season to sort out strengths, weaknesses, and player rotations among other things, but that’s exactly what’s in store for Eric Musselman’s 2022-23 Arkansas Razorbacks as phase two of the games that don’t count starts this weekend and runs through the end of October.

With a 4-0 finish in their European exhibition-game tour in August — a sample size just large enough to expose some team positives and negatives while forging some player roles — the Hoop Hogs now shift their focus to the next stage of their dress rehearsal ramp-up to the regular season, starting with the annual Red/White intra-squad scrimmage this weekend (Sunday, Oct. 16) followed by two exhibition games against Division II Rogers State (home matchup on Monday, Oct. 24) and old Southwest Conference rival / soon-to-be-SEC-foe Texas (road tilt on Saturday, Oct. 29).

With 11 newcomers (includes six freshmen) among 13 scholarship players coupled with the fact Arkansas is set to embark on its toughest 31-game regular-season schedule to date under Musselman (so many road games against teams expected to be ranked), it seems like perfect timing for the scheduling gods to load the Razorbacks up with a total of seven warm-up games (five of which will have been played away from home before the Razorbacks’ first real game tips up on Nov. 7 against North Dakota State at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville).

Unprecedented to have that many exhibition games with the away-from-home portion being greater than 2-to-1 compared to the home slate, and certainly unprecedented to play a high-major opponent in a game that doesn’t count on the official ledger. What’s not unprecedented is Musselman, who is entering his fourth campaign as Head Hog, seeking any method he can to test, re-test, and test again his squad, especially one with an unprecedented amount of newcomers.

“I think we’re still in an evaluation period,” Musselman said during his Tuesday press conference. “I think we’re pretty good right now when we add drills. But then I think when we go live, we still have to learn to take our drill work into live action. We’ve got a long way to grow. The Red-White game will give us an ability to go back and watch film, evaluate.

“But that’s what we do every day, too. You’re watching these guys on a daily basis. We’ve taken more stats this year than any other offseason. We’re charting everything, and it’s giving us what I think is a really fair evaluation. Because when we do 5-on-0 drills, we’re charting shots. When we go live, we’re taking full stats. Just some things we haven’t really done this detailed in the past.”

Although in this space we refer to Arkansas as having two exhibition seasons, Musselman said he and his staff view the team’s journey to the regular season as being split into “three segments.”

“I think that there’s some ebbs and flows to everything,” Musselman said. “Some guys have played maybe, in practice leading up to the foreign tour, played well and then you guys, everybody on this call and our fans, got to watch on live stream, what happened in those four games, so that was another body of work. And then we’ve divided it into three segments. The third segment would be post-foreign tour, how guys are. So we have cumulative stats, which means everything we’ve done since the first time we got together, and then we also have stats just from pre-four-game European tour and then another set of stats post.

“The one thing I can tell you is from a consistency standpoint, we’re still in search of that. We have had guys that played really good in the foreign tour, maybe not had the same sets of numerical, statistical categories that fall in line with post- and pre-foreign tour, which obviously is some guys are better practice players, some guys aren’t, and that all falls into certain categories.”

So if the Hogs’ coaching staff is locked in on intense player and lineup evaluations, maybe we should follow suit. In that spirit, here are the First Four things that we’ll be paying extra attention to beginning Sunday with the Red/White game as we continue to evaluate a team that on paper and despite the hurdles looks like a Final Four-caliber roster …

1. Player rotations and personnel matchups. First, let’s hear from the Head Hog on the matter.

“Maybe six guys have really established themselves,” Musselman said. “We have four bigs that are still fighting out how that rotation is going to spill out into the first couple of games. Not a whole lot of time left after being together for an entire summer, an entire September. So, a short window now to try to solidify where they might be to start the season.”

We’ve been speculating in this space for months what a Musselman top 8 rotation would look like, and the five constants who we believe will end up playing the most per-game minutes are freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., freshman guard Anthony Black, sophomore forward Trevon Brazile, junior guard Devo Davis, and junior wing Ricky Council IV. We’re not necessarily projecting this group as a starting five, just the five who will play the most. Freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh is also in the mix to play significant minutes, which rounds out the six players we believe Musselman was referring to. At least for now, as this remains fluid. The “four bigs” he cited are senior forward Kamani Johnson (his excellent play in Europe entrenched him in the top rotation at the time) along with senior transfer Jalen Graham and senior twin transfers Makhi Mitchell and Makhel Mitchell.

“Different things on different days,” Musselman said of what he’s seen from the four frontliners. “Makhi Mitchell, he’s got skill to play the five, but has some four characteristics. He moves his feet really well when we switch. He’s quick around the basket. He’s got good strength. Makhel is a little bit more inside, a little bit more physical. Jalen Graham, more finesse as a post up player, and kind of can play in that 12 to 14 foot range. Obviously with Kamani Johnson, we understand great loose ball getter, incredible offensive rebounder.

“But with all of our bigs, it’s going to come down to little things like not turning the ball over, understanding second, third and fourth options, how do they fit into our culture of practice that we do every single day. A lot of the stuff that we’re doing is really new for many of our players and the pace that we want to play at. So there still has been a learning curve with many of them.”

In addition to the six aforementioned rotation players, to round out a top 8 we think a combination of two of the four bigs OR one of the bigs plus freshman wing / small forward Barry Dunning, Jr., who was in the top rotation in Europe and continues to draw praise from Musselman.

Personnel packages within the rotation give Musselman more matchup flexibility than he had in his first three seasons at Arkansas. He can go traditional lineup, big lineup, or even small-ball lineup relative to his available options. If he’s not satisfied enough to trust some of the frontline options, you might see multiple big-guard and wing lineups with Brazile on the floor, or you could see a more traditional lineup to start games with Brazile at his best position (the 4) and another big at the 5 (even if the 5-spot starter does not figure into the top 6 or 7 minute-getters).

As the Euro tour moved into games three and four, there was a tightening of the rotation in terms of minutes and roles, and the results included improvement on defense and higher functionality for stretches at both ends of the floor. The Red/White game will give everybody a chance to play, but we’ll be paying particular attention to the two exhibition games that follow to see how and where the chips fall as Musselman more precisely defines what his lineup will look like going into the regular season.

2. Team chemistry and on-court connectivity. Beyond rotations and personnel matchups, another aspect to consider no matter who is on the floor is the chemistry within the lineup. In two consecutive seasons with roughly half the roster having been turned over in each case, the Razorbacks struggled mid-season with poor starts in SEC play as noticeable connectivity problems in the rotation played out on the floor. In both instances, Musselman — a master at solving basketball-related puzzles — tweaked his rotations in ways that served significant improvement on the defensive end of the floor first, and everything else fell into place in blue collar ways as the Hogs were TWICE arguably as good as any team in the country beyond mid-January.

Given that it’s still October, there is no expectation right now to see a finely tuned team at either end of the floor, however there are reasonable expectations to see the needle move in positive ways relative to how some things played out in Europe. Turning the ball over (more on that later) is one aspect of the game where it’s reasonable to think the team will show improvement in this second exhibition season. Getting to the free throw line is another (the Hogs collectively managed only 41-of-58 from the foul line for 70.7% in Europe, which not only fell well short of their program standards but also checked up short relative to the collective free throw totals of their four EurOpponents).

Communication, footwork and positioning, spacing, getting to the right spots and getting there on time, closing out effectively, help rotations and recovery, playing with hands up while also making plays on the ball, getting back in transition — these are just a few of the defensive nuances in Musselman’s system that must be fine-tuned among individuals as well as the 5-player units on the floor working together. Talent and upside are great, but Musselman demands execution with attention to detail and for him that winning formula has started first on the defensive end of the court.

On offense, a blue-collar just-get-it-done formula played out in previous seasons as the team was proficient at generating scoring via attacking the paint and rim, drawing fouls with subsequent elite levels of free throws attempted/made/efficiency, and maximizing offensive rebounds for putbacks. As it turned out in Europe, that formula was similar except for the free throw categories that we believe had more to do with the fickle Euro whistles than anything Arkansas did wrong. But getting to the rim in both half court and in transition as well as offensive rebounding were outstanding in Europe — the team was an impressive 142-of-221 on two-point attempts (included 40 dunks in four games) for 64.3%, and they pulled down 55 offensive rebounds for an eye-popping 13.8 per game while converting many of those extra chances into points.

These are all big-picture team dynamics to keep an eye on over the next few weeks in games that don’t count, but drilling down a bit more are the smaller pieces that must fit together for the bigger picture to come into focus.

Just one example of a personnel combination challenge/opportunity in the rotation that we’ve touched on is Smith and Black co-existing on the court as two players who can run the offense. Black is more facilitator-first and less shooter/scorer, a scenario that can be flipped in describing Smith. However, Smith is the biggest offensive threat on the team with the ball in his hands because he can pick-and-choose when to shoot and when to facilitate with a high rate of desired outcomes (this was demonstrated time and again in Europe). The possibilities exponentially increase if he’s doubling as a lead-guard and off guard, especially envisioning two-man pick-and-roll sets and other interactive sets with him either initiating the action on the ball or running to spots and peeling off screens to catch-and-attack off the ball.

Musselman to this point is pleased with what he has seen as the two star guards have complemented each other playing together while not backing down going head-to-head in practices

“Nick is a competitor in practice, he’s a competitor in shooting drills and I’m sure he’ll be a competitor Sunday for the Red-White game,” Musselman said. “He and Anthony have done a good job going against each other in practice. We went through a seven-week period where we had both of those guys going against each other and both of them playing the point guard position. And then there’s been times where we’ve played both of them together — a little bit more of late — and they’re playing well off of each other.”

Beyond that example, there are so many wing and frontline combinations to choose from, so the challenge is hitting the right notes with the right combos, which is made more complicated by the fact that aside from Davis and Johnson there has not been extensive on-court interaction among players on this team.

3. Three-point shooting. It was awful last season and the Hogs navigated that quagmire for a second-consecutive NCAA tournament Elite Eight run and final national Top 10 ranking, and there may be another gloomy forecast from distance in ’22-23. Arkansas collectively shot a woeful 16-of-56 for 28.6% beyond the arc in four Euro games, with the lone bright spot being the long-range work of Smith (he shot a team-best 9-of-23 from 3 for 39.1%). Since returning to Fayetteville for limited practices that ran through most of September before escalating to full practices over the past couple of weeks, the Hogs have continued to misfire from range, which includes shooting drills with no defensive pressure.

“We’ve got to become a much, much better shooting team,” Musselman said. “I’ve been saying that for a long time, and it has not changed. The numbers actually have remained pretty steady. So we’ve got to be a great free throw attempt team.”

As much as looking at collective team three-point shooting percentages over the next three games will be important, so will individual percentages as well as collective and individual volume of shot-attempts. In other words, who might step up and reveal efficiency and volume from distance other than Smith? And as a team, will the Hogs show wisdom as they did in Europe by limiting three-point attempts in favor of playing to the team’s offensive strengths, which as mentioned above turned out to be aggressive drives into the paint, hard rim-runs, and transition opportunities? Which players are more comfortable shooting off the bounce, which ones do better in catch-and-shoot, and who thrives as a shooter in tight/clutch game situations? So far, the one and only answer to most of those questions has been Smith.

Maybe another less-is-more approach regarding emphasis and volume from 3 will be what the doctor orders for this team that is shaping up to be Musselman’s best offensive transition group combined with the reasonable expectation it will get to the free throw line a lot. Torrential down-pours of three-point shooting may be the sexy new wave in hoops, but Musselman and the Hogs will settle for competency and modest gains relative to last season behind the arc while bringing more of that lunch-pail, blue-collar fight getting to the cup and the foul line. Dunks are sexy, too, and once again the Hogs racked up 40 in Europe.

4. Turnovers / taking care of the ball. As ugly as the three-point shooting was in Europe, the Hogs at lest kept the volume of the ugliness down to manageable levels. Not so when looking at the turnovers as the team averaged 21.0 giveaways through four games, including a high-water mark of 30 turnovers in their fourth and final game.

Picking up the pivot foot on first-step drives, simple ball-handling gaffes, telegraphed and off-target passes, stepping out of bounds on the sidelines and baseline, and a few offensive fouls collaborated for a mountain-sized stockpile of turnovers, many of which were unforced.

Upon returning home and resuming practices, Musselman had his team go through multiple ball-handling and passing drills among other creative instruction in hopes of course-correcting the turnover issues. Unlike the three-point shooting which has limits in what can be done to improve, most of what we saw in the Euro giveaway spree is correctable with a collective heightened attention to detail.

Musselman gravitates toward players who value the importance of every possession, and on offense that means players understanding that shots on goal — hopefully quality ones — are always a better alternative than a live-ball turnover. But here’s the thing: Since coming to Arkansas, Musselman has had veteran lead guards in each of his first three seasons. Smith and Black are freshmen, and even Davis as a junior has limited experience running the team as a primary handler. Patience will be the key here.

The Head Hog wants his team to push pace to play to its offensive strengths, but turnovers can be an unwanted side effect of young primary handlers playing at high-octane levels in transition and secondary break opportunities. As mentioned above, it’s hard to imagine the team being 21.0-turnovers-per-game bad AGAIN as this second exhibition season plays out, and aside from tracking the numbers themselves we’ll be watching individual decision-making on the court to see who is shoring up what to promote good offense.

Graphic via Arkansas men’s basketball

Photo via Arkansas men’s basketball