By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — In this one-and-done era when the Arkansas Razorbacks under Eric Musselman have finally found their seat at the table of sending talented prospects off to the NBA and other professional basketball opportunities after competing for just one season as Hogs, the example of what happened with sophomore stretch-4 Trevon Brazile turned into a bit of a paradox.
Brazile — a unique talent at 6-10 with 7-4 wingspan, elite athleticism, and plus-skill for a frontliner — looked to be on a path in early December for a stellar 2022-23 season in his first campaign as a Hog that likely would have led to 2023 NBA Draft first-round projections, but as fate would have it Brazile’s season-ending knee injury (and subsequent surgery) in December after competing in only nine games changed the trajectory of the fortunes for both ’22-23 and ’23-24 Hog squads.
With him, the ’22-23 Razorbacks began the season 8-1 and ranked 9th nationally as Brazile was the team’s lone inside-out-versatile big man with averages of 11.8 points, 6.0 rebounds (led the team), 1.2 blocks (led the team), 1.0 assist, and 1.0 steal in 27.1 minutes per game while shooting 48.1% from the field, including 37.9% from 3, and 67.7% from the free throw line.
Without him, the ’22-23 Razorbacks struggled in SEC play (finishing 10th in the league at 8-10) before salvaging the season with a successful run in the postseason to the tune of the program’s third consecutive run to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, a final 22-14 overall record, and final No. 21 ranking in the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll.
Just a week after Arkansas’ loss to eventual national champion UConn in the NCAAT West Region semifinals (a.k.a the Sweet 16) on March 23, Brazile announced on March 30 via Twitter “I’M BACK,” which meant a return to Arkansas for a second season in ’23-24 without entering his name in the draft to at minimum test the waters and get feedback from NBA teams.
“I didn’t get to display everything I wanted to display,” Brazile told Tera Talmadge of HogsPlus in a recent interview (you can check out the entire interview at HogsPlus.com). “I feel like I owe it to the fans to show them my full potential … Me and Muss talked a couple days after my surgery and I pretty much told him immediately that I’ve got to come back because I definitely have unfinished business here.”
It turned out to be Arkansas’ biggest 2023 recruiting win to date — equivalent to a 5-star prize already packing experience as a producer at the high-major level — in an era when retention is no given in light of the daily outpouring of college players entering the transfer portal and/or the NBA draft pool. Brazile had some 2023 NBA mock draft projections prior to his injury. He’s viewed as a 3/4-combo forward at the professional basketball level.
The support Brazile felt from the coaching staff and teammates went a long way in bolstering his loyalty to the Razorbacks.
“Me and Muss talked every day from my injury until now. The coaching staff and the players that are here, even whenever I was out with an injury, they still treated me the same and you can never repay somebody for that when you’re down at your lowest.”
The Springfield, Mo., native said his recovery progress is ahead of schedule.
“I just think my body heals differently,” he said. “I’m so confident, it’s an issue at times … All the milestones I’m supposed to be hitting I’m hitting.”
So now the multi-million-dollar question becomes: When will Brazile be rehabilitated enough to be a full-go Razorback basketball participant again?
“Early September,” he said. “I’m in the weight room just working legs out a lot (right now) … I think by the end of this I will add a few inches to my vertical … I’m going to be as confident as ever and I’m going to be very ready to play.”
Perfect timing for a full return to fall practices rolling through October to the regular-season opener in early November. Although the roster is not likely to undergo another 11-scholarship-newcomer overhaul like it did in ’22-23, there will be at minimum seven new scholarship Hogs in ’23-24.
Musselman is set to lose up to five players from ’22-23 to pro hoops — guards Nick Smith, Jr., Anthony Black, Ricky Council IV, and Davonte “Devo” Davis and 3/4-combo forward Jordan Walsh — along with the departures of forward Kamani Johnson (exhausted college eligibility), center Makhel Mitchell (portal), and small forward Barry Dunning, Jr. (portal), so retaining a frontline force in Brazile who last season the Head Hog referred to as one of the top five players in the SEC was a monumental first building block toward success in ’23-24.
Consider that following Brazile’s return announcement, it set the table for Musselman to recruit the portal for experienced and talented backcourt players as he waved the carrot of having an all-league-caliber forward and future pro to complement them should they choose Fayetteville as their next destination, and the results in a two-week span (April 3-17) landed the Hogs a five-player portal haul — senior-graduate guards Khalif Battle (Temple) and El Ellis (Louisville), junior guard Tramon Mark (Houston), senior-grad 3/4-combo forward Jeremiah Davenport (Cincinnati), and freshman guard Keyon Menifield, Jr. (Washington) — that most national college basketball analysts view today as a top 3 transfer class.
“I think with this group of guys he is bringing in they’re older, we’ve got a few really good guards — combo guards that can stretch the floor and really shoot it — so I think Muss did a really great job of going out getting some guys who are hoopers,” Brazile said.
Combine that with the likely return of veteran Arkansas frontliners in 6-9 seniors Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham, and now the Hogs have their most veteran frontcourt-backcourt combination ever under Musselman with Brazile serving as the centerpiece with pro-level talent and measurables.
Way-too-early preseason projections for ’23-24 from the likes of ESPN (Arkansas is ranked No. 8}, CBS Sports (Arkansas is ranked No. 10), and ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi (Arkansas is a projected NCAAT 2-seed) help establish the notion that Brazile’s return and the recruiting dominos that followed have set the program up for another preseason of reasonable Final Four expectations. It’s similar to the preseason prognostications Arkansas received this time last year based on the roster having the aforementioned Hogs that are are now in the draft along with the expectations of what Brazile would bring to the table after transferring from Missouri a year ago.
For a program that just gained some traditional one-and-done momentum that helps both in-season results and recruiting — Moses Moody in 2021 was the first one-and-done in program history followed by Smith, Black, and Walsh (although Walsh has left the door cracked for a return to Arkansas) in 2023 — the Hogs are now embarking in the portal one-and-done business as Council is likely to become the program’s first transfer one-and-done to be drafted (i.e. transferred to Arkansas and played one season before getting drafted). As stated above, Brazile would have been a likely first-round pick following a full ’22-23 campaign, so he would have joined Council in helping make that program history.
As things stand now, a healthy Brazile retains his high-next-level-ceiling while having another year at the high-major college level to refine aspects of his game before considering an early departure to the 2024 draft. Given his experience in two college seasons, by the time he finishes ’23-24 he’ll have played in roughly the same amount of college games as current NBA players Isaiah Joe and Jaylin Williams did, and both Joe and Williams left for the NBA following their second college seasons that were both played under Musselman’s watch.
Every big man spanning the last eight years who left Arkansas early to play in the NBA did so after two seasons as Hogs — Bobby Portis (SEC Player of the Year and second-team All American as a sophomore in ’14-15, first-round draft pick in 2015); Daniel Gafford (first-team All SEC in ’18-19, early second-round draft pick in 2019); and the aforementioned Williams (first-team All SEC and SEC All Defensive team in ’21-22, and early second-round draft pick in 2022). Brazile seems poised to add to that strong legacy of two-and-done-as-Hogs frontliners.
Brazile has played in a total of 34 games in college (25 at Mizzou, and 9 at Arkansas) with 23 career starts. In his eight full games as a Hog (he was injured in the first half after playing only 9 minutes against UNC-Greensboro in the team’s ninth game on Dec. 6), Brazile accomplished a lot while looking like a Portis (face-up skill as a shooter-scorer) / Gafford (elite athleticism, bounce, height, and length combos) prototype.
He had two double-doubles and three games of scoring 20 or more points, including his 20-point, 9-rebound, 2-steal outing in Arkansas’ 78-74 overtime win over then-No. 17 (and eventual national runner-up) San Diego State in November in Maui. He led the team with 21 points and 12 rebounds in its 76-58 season-opening win over North Dakota State on Nov. 7, and he had 13 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks in a 71-56 victory over South Dakota State on Nov. 16.
In his final full game, and the only contest in which all 13 scholarship players were available in ’22-23, Brazile led the way with 23 points (8-of-9 field goals, including 1-of-2 from 3, and 6-of-8 free throws), 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists, and 1 steal in 30 minutes in Arkansas’ 99-58 home win over San Jose State on Dec. 3.
Brazile’s offensive versatility — ability to shoot facing from the mid-range and beyond the three-point arc, to put the ball on the deck and use his quickness to drive, run the floor and finish spectacularly above the rim in transition (or as a roller off two-man game in the halfcourt, for that matter) — combined with his rim-protection and adequate rebounding defensively make him a matchup nightmare for opponents and a coveted mantle-piece for any roster looking to build a championship roster.
As much as the ’22-23 Hogs could have kept their momentum with a healthy Brazile (i.e. his three-point shooting efficiency, albeit a small sample size, would have led the top-rotation players), it can be argued that his gifts will be even more effective a year later with multiple shot-creators and three-point shooting threats in the lineup with him, which will be the case in ’23-24.
And that brings us full-circle to the paradox notion for Hog fans raised in the lede paragraph in this space: Would you have preferred Brazile for the entirety of ’22-23 to see how a Top 10 team with him would have played out through SEC play and the postseason followed by a likely Brazile one-and-done-at-Arkansas departure to the NBA? Or, despite the dreaded nature of a season-ending injury (certainly nobody wanted to see that for Brazile or the program), does Brazile’s return due to that unfortunate circumstance work out as a blessing in disguise in some ways moving forward for a team already receiving Top 10 projections in ’23-24?
One is a rear-view mirror / “We’ll never know” premise while the other offers hope for another legitimate Final Four contender. And no matter your preference, the good news is Brazile is back for round two as a Razorback, and because of that Hoop Hog futures appear to be as bright now as they were this time last year.