As Muss builds national brand, his roster heavy on Arkansans has Hogs hyped in ’20-21

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LITTLE ROCK — As second-year Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman continues to build a national brand and program in Fayetteville, his first full roster as Head Hog has a chance to splash big on the national stage in 2020-21 with a crew heavy on Arkansans.

Musselman — master of the transfer portal, savvy marketing and social-media puppeteer, wide-net caster of offers to 5-star and high-level 4-star prospects across the country, and recent lurer of a D1 head coach to join him as wingman in the sleeping-giant reboot of the Hoop Hogs — opens team “camp” on Monday with 8 of his 13 scholarship players hailing from the state of Arkansas. That’s 61.5% of the roster, and given the Razorbacks are a consensus way-too-early Top 25-ranked team for the upcoming season, the in-staters will have a significant say in whether or not Arkansas can establish national relevance for the first time in six years (the ’14-15 Hogs won 27 games, finished second in the SEC, and ended the season ranked 20th nationally).

Mix in three grad-transfers who come in with immediate starter value and a junior guard who by all accounts is ready for prime time after a transfer-redshirt season, and the early projections for a Top 25 team could blossom into a legitimate contender to compete for an SEC title and make a run in the NCAA tournament.

As we look at the roster dynamics, let’s start with the homegrown veterans.

Cue up The Clash and their hit Should I Stay or Stay or Should I Go and ponder the line “If I go there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double.”

Sums up the impact Isaiah Joe (6-5 shooting guard and Fort Smith native) will have if he drops out of the NBA Draft pool (deadline to do so is Aug. 3) and returns to Arkansas for his junior season, which would double the Hogs’ returning backcourt starter value as he would join fellow junior Desi Sills (6-1 combo guard and Jonesboro native) as the veteran foundation on a team with 10 newcomers.

Widely considered an early-to-mid-second-round pick if he stays in the draft or an SEC Player of the Year candidate if he returns, Joe has been mostly terrific in two seasons at Arkansas.  

After earning SEC All Freshman honors in ’18-19 when he set the school record for made three-pointers (113 at a 41.4% clip), Joe was a preseason All SEC pick as a sophomore. But he was hampered by a mid-season right knee injury and averaged only 9.2 points on 27% 3-point shooting in 5 games playing with the injury, and he missed 6 games mostly while recovering from a surgical procedure to correct the issue with his knee. The Hogs were 3-8 overall during that consecutive 11-game stretch. Parse out the rough patch of injury-plagued games and Arkansas was 6-3 in the 9 SEC games when Joe was playing healthy (3 prior to injury and 6 after procedure) as he averaged 20.4 points while shooting a collective 36-of-94 from 3 (38.3%) and 42-of-43 from the free throw line (97.7%).

Overall, Joe played in 26 games and finished the season as the team’s second-leading scorer at 16.9 points per game (7th in the SEC) and the league’s leader in made triples (94) despite missing those six games due to the injury. He also averaged 4.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.4 steals, and 36.2 minutes. He led the team in charges for a second straight season, and he was 81-of-91 from the free throw line for 89.0% (the efficiency led the team and was top 3 in the SEC). Arkansas finished 20-12, but the Hogs were 17-4 with a healthy Joe in the lineup.

Sills finished both of his first two seasons better than he started them, and he was one of four Hogs in double-figures scoring last year as he averaged 10.6 points per game (on 42.5% field goals, including 47-of-143 from 3 for 32.9%, and 64.8% free throws) to go with 3.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 31.2 minutes. He got off to a rough 2-of-32 start from distance, but finished 45-of-111 for 40.5% the rest of the way.

The duo of Joe and Sills was part of a 5-guard rotation that helped Arkansas lead the nation a season ago in 3-point field goal defense as well as finishing in the top 10 in turnover margin. Joe provided gravity floor-spacing for others — he attempted 10.6 triples per game and made 44.7% from NBA 3-range — and he was also under-appreciated as a shot-creator off the bounce (he was 89th percentile in scoring off the dribble). Sills was an opportunistic, spot-up three-point shooter whose counter-punches off defensive closeouts or good offensive ball movement were hard drives into the teeth of the defense for tough paint buckets.

Joe and Sills will be counted on to provide more of the same offensively while adding some punch in the mid-range, which would at least be a start in offsetting the exceptional inside-the-arc production from departing guards Mason Jones and Jimmy Whitt, Jr. 

The third and final returning player with experience as a Hog in the SEC is another Arkansan — junior Ethan Henderson (6-8 forward and Little Rock native), who came on late to start in 6 of the Hogs’ final 7 games last year. Henderson was not in the top 8 rotation before he broke into a starting role, and once he did he established career highs in minutes and rebounds (30 and 9, respectively, in a win over Tennessee), points (10 in a win over LSU), and blocks (4 in a road loss against Texas A&M).

Henderson’s length, plus-athleticism, and ability to move out of his area to rebound and protect the rim are his strengths with consistent motor, footwork, positioning, and being physical while avoiding cheap fouls identified as areas that need improvement. Henderson’s the only big on the roster who will produce almost exclusively around the basket.

Yet another Arkansan — sophomore Connor Vanover, who sat out a redshirt season in ’19-20 after transferring from Cal — may be the most unique player in Razorbacks’ history. The Little Rock native is a 7-foot-3, 247-pound stretch-5, which is to say he’s the tallest Hog ever and his best trait offensively is facing the basket where he is an efficient volume shooter-scorer out to the three-point line as well as a good passer. 

Simply put, Vanover’s an alien in the college hoops-verse. As a freshman at Cal in ’18-19, Vanover averaged 7.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 17.5 minutes per game while shooting 46.9% field goals, including 35.5% from 3, and 66.7% free throws. His per-40-minute production was strong: 17.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks. He was also impressive in his only appearance as a Hog in the annual Red-White game at Barnhill Arena in early October 2019 when he had 15 points (including three triples), a game-high 7 rebounds, and 2 steals. 

After a year learning in Musselman’s system and getting stronger, Vanover should have a significant role with starter value this season. A big man who can stretch the floor and create driving lanes for others, who can be a weapon both in pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll situations, who can see over defenders and make timely passes, who is underrated and effective scoring from the mid-post, and who is a plus-rim protector when combining blocks and altered shots — ALL of it makes Vanover a matchup nightmare for opponents.

Keeping with the in-state Razorbacks theme, I give you the Fantastic Four!

Musselman’s first high school signing class at Arkansas stands as the highest-rated for the Hogs in years. ESPN ranks the class as the 5th-best in the nation. 

It’s comprised of four national Top 100 prospects from the Natural State: Moses Moody (6-6 shooting guard / wing, Little Rock); Khalen “KK” Robinson (6-0 point guard, Bryant); Jaylin Williams (6-10 forward / center, Fort Smith); and Davonte “Devo” Davis (6-4 combo guard, Jacksonville).

Analogizing with that new car smell trope, Moody arrived in Fayetteville with that day-one starter smell. The most heralded of the freshmen, Moody appears to be the most likely to crack the first five rotation early if not immediately. A highly regarded shooter-scorer, Moody has a 7-foot-plus wingspan and broad shoulders on his 6-6, 200-pound frame. 

As a senior at prestigious Montverde Academy in Florida (25-0 and No. 1 in ’19-20), Moody strung together a strong resume. He was third on the team in scoring (11.6 points per game), but he led Montverde guards and was second on the team in effective field goal percentage (70.8%) and he led the team in free throw percentage (82.6%); he made 38-of-81 for 46.9% from distance and his 60.1% overall field goal shooting was tops among guards; defensively — and this is where Moody has been underrated — he was a reliable stopper as he had 31 steals, 25 deflections, 16 blocks, and 4 drawn charges.

With the departure of the Co-SEC Player of the Year and the league’s leading scorer in Jones (he left school a year early for professional basketball), Moody has the floor IQ, talent and shooting ability, and maturity chops to replace a good portion of the offensive production that Jones generated while bringing greater value defensively. 

Robinson packs dual-threat value as a playmaking point guard who can score and facilitate, and he’s been a plus-defender throughout his high school career. 

As a senior at prestigious Oak Hill Academy (Va.) in ’19-20, Robinson was the starting point guard and the best two-way player (offense and defense) on a talent-rich team that finished the season 36-3 and at one time had risen to No. 2 in the nation in ESPN’s Top 25. He averaged 10.7 points, 7.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 3.7 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 43% from 3 and 82% from the free throw line.

Robinson’s elevated three-point shooting and his fearless and effective slashing ability are supported by an underrated drive-to-mid-range-shooting game, and he’s a hawk defensively who makes it difficult on opposing guards trying to get downhill to attack. Not shifty but possessing an extra gear to get where he wants, Robinson’s pace, feel, and ability to penetrate either upright or with some bend make him a tough matchup. He has the potential to bring starter value as a freshman. 

Williams is a sturdy 6-10, 245, and similar to Vanover he’s more of a face-up perimeter producer on offense with range out to the three-point line. But Williams — the 2020 Gatorade Arkansas High School Player of the Year — is also a proven volume rebounder. He averaged 19.6 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.5 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game as a senior, and his statement game was a 33-point and 11-rebound dominating performance going head-to-head against national Top 15 / 5-star prospect and 7-foot North Carolina signee Walker Kessler in December. Williams also averaged a double-double and was second in rebounding (10.4 per game) on the Nike EYBL circuit during its regular season in the spring of 2019.

Depending on the speed of his progression as he joins a frontline that will be top-heavy with college veterans, Williams has a chance to crack the Top 8-9 rotation. 

Davis seemingly lived in the weight room during the pandemic shutdown and arrived in Fayetteville weighing in at 180 pounds on his long 6-4 frame. He’s a big playmaking guard who sees the floor better than any prospect coming out of the Arkansas high school ranks in some time. Davis averaged 24 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists, and 3 steals as a high school senior in ’19-20 while leading Jacksonville to a co-5A state championship. He recorded multiple triple-doubles during the season. The lefty has improved as a three-point shooter — he’s getting more arch on his shot — but it remains a work in progress as do shot selection and situational decision-making. 

Davis brings an IT factor — dare we say swagger —  to the table. Musselman has noted Davis’s ability to improvise and salvage possessions when a play breaks down due to his court awareness and playmaking ability. Davis will be challenged early with finding a balance between sound decision-making in running the team while incorporating the razzle-dazzle that seems to fuel his energy and effectiveness. Top 8 or 9 rotation with starter value is a reasonable potential landing spot for Davis.

Roster transformation brought to you by the transfer portal maestro

Musselman has added a total of eight college transfers (including five graduate-transfers) while effectively turning over the roster in just over a year. Six of those transfers (including three senior-grads added in the spring of the 2020 class) will make their Arkansas debuts this season.

By all accounts, J.D. Notae (6-1 junior guard, transfer from Jacksonville) stood out as a three-level volume scorer in Hog practices during his redshirt season in ’19-20. He committed to Arkansas in May 2019 following a second-team All ASUN campaign in ’18-19 as a sophomore at Jacksonville when he averaged 15.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.6 steals in 31.4 minutes while shooting 42.7% field goals (including 32.0% from 3) plus 73.0% free throws. 

Notae is expected to play a significant role with starter value in his first season as a Hog. His versatility as a scorer will be part of the equation in replacing the three-level production that left campus when Jones turned pro. 

Three senior grad-transfers — Vance Jackson, Jr. (6-9 combo forward, transfer from New Mexico), Jalen Tate (6-6 combo guard, transfer from Northern Kentucky), and Justin Smith (6-7 combo forward, transfer from Indiana) could all be day-one starters and will certainly bring starter value to the table in their collective final season of college basketball. It’s a group that college basketball analysts view as a national Top 10 transfer class.

Following stops at UConn and New Mexico, Jackson brings perimeter offensive skill to the Hogs as a 3/4-combo forward who at 6-9 and 238 pounds will be counted on to rebound. The Pasadena, Calif., native committed to Arkansas on April 1. He started all 28 games for New Mexico in ’19-20 and averaged 11.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game while shooting 41.4% field goals (including 50-of-146 from 3 for 34.2%) and 71.4% from the free throw line. Musselman was head coach at Nevada in ’18-19 during Jackson’s sophomore season when he averaged 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.0 steals in two contests that the Wolf Pack and Lobos split. That included Jackson’s 18-point, 10-rebound, 7-assist, and 3-steal performance in New Mexico’s 85-58 upset win over Musselman’s No. 6 Nevada squad on Jan. 5, 2019.

It’s that first-hand familiarity that moved Musselman to go after Jackson once he hit the portal in late March, and it no doubt fuels the Head Hog’s vision and plan for Jackson’s role in the upcoming season.

Tate is a three-time Horizon League All Defensive Team honoree whose size and versatility as a combo guard is thought to be Musselman’s response to losing Whitt. Tate is capable of handling all three backcourt positions at both ends of the floor. He started 20 of 22 games at Northern Kentucky in ’19-20 and averaged 13.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.9 steals in 30.2 minutes while shooting 48.5% from the field (including 18.2% from 3) and 67.6% from the free throw line.

He did not play when Northern Kentucky lost at Arkansas, 66-60, on Nov. 30, as he missed a few games early in the season with a left hand injury. But Musselman game-planned as though Tate would be available to play in that game, and it was film study and scouting analysis that drove Musselman’s pursuit of Tate in early April once he entered the portal.

Smith is the most recent of the trio to join Arkansas after coming aboard in early June as once again Musselman courted a player he was familiar with. At 6-7 and 230 pounds, Smith has versatile defensive ability that seems NBA-esque as he can cover guards and small forwards out on the floor while using his elite, 48-inch vertical leap to defend at the rim. Smith started all 32 games as a junior at Indiana in ’19-20 and averaged 10.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.0 steals in 30.4 minutes per game — all career-high marks — while shooting 49.2% from the field (including 10-of-38 from 3 for 26.3%) and 67.3% from the free throw line.

In 3 career games played against Arkansas — a 71-64 home loss last season and a home-and-away split in ’18-19 — Smith registered a combined 9 points (on 3-of-13 field goals and 3-of-6 free throws) and 9 rebounds in 51 minutes.

Rounding out the roster is junior Abayomi “Baybe” Iyiola (6-8 forward, transfer from Stetson) who sat out his transfer-redshirt season at Arkansas in ’19-20. Iyiola adds depth as an insurance policy on a frontline that now has five players who stand at least 6-8 in height. Iyiola started all 31 games at Stetson in ’18-19 and averaged 10.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks in 22.9 minutes per game. 

Takeaways and analysis

* Counting all of the 13 scholarship players, this is the biggest (combination of height, length, and weight) Arkansas team in recent memory. 

* Don’t let the 10 newcomers thing fool you, this is a veteran team. Again, assuming Joe comes back, you’ve got three returning players with SEC experience, three transfers with D1 experience who just spent a season learning in Musselman’s system, and three grad-transfers with D1 experience. The X-factor, though, is Musselman’s decades of experience in managing professional rosters that see annual turnover in bulk. 

* By our analysis, Arkansas will have at least 12 players with reasonable potential to crack the top 8 or 9 rotation, and most of those can offer legitimate starter value. Musselman’s track record in five seasons as a college head coach reveals he prefers a rotation of 7 to 8 players. Something’s gotta give.   

* Both sides of the ball. Arkansas appears to have the pieces to improve defensively, specifically interior defense and rebounding while potentially not suffering much slippage (if any) from last season’s perimeter defense that stood as one of the best in the country. And it could be the most dangerous three-point shooting team Arkansas has ever put on the floor: Joe, Moody, Sills, Vanover, Notae, Jackson, Robinson, and Williams are all capable of providing efficiency and effectiveness as volume shooters from distance. It also looks like one of the best passing teams at Arkansas (thinking we’ll see more pass-before-drive offense). Musselman has said the goal is to see 200 passes per game, and ’20-21 will likely offer more of that than ’19-20 did.

* Reasonable ceiling. If the way-too-early Top 25s that include Arkansas have any worth — and they do with the caveat that Joe returns — then let’s take it a step further and suggest this squad appears to have the stuff to make a run to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend (that’s at least a Sweet 16, which would be the first in the program in 25 years / ’95-96). This looks like a team that can win 24 or more games in the regular season as it slots somewhere in the top 5 of the SEC. Replacing the production and experience of Jones, Whitt, Adrio Bailey, Jalen Harris, and Reggie Chaney won’t be as much of a chore as meshing talents, matching up strengths, masking weaknesses, and building buy-in will be in the quest to forge strong team chemistry. The individual pieces are there, now Musselman is tasked with harnessing those into a team capable of competing for an SEC title while posing a legit threat to make a run in the Big Dance. 

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