LITTLE ROCK — There’s a lot of moving parts in an Eric Musselman basketball program. From the daily deluge of social media outreach to player (and now coaching staff) musical chairs to the dizzying speed-dating courtship of transfers and high school prospects, the Muss Bus is constantly navigating a course clustered with hair-pin turns, treacherous climbs, and steep descents that makes even the Ozark-to-Fayetteville Pig Trail seem tame.
Musselman’s 25 months as head coach at Arkansas has been mostly a moving-target, turn-and-burn approach, and certainly the proof that a college program can be both NBA-transactional and successful is Musselman’s recently completed second-season national No. 6 final ranking following an Elite Eight run in the 2020-21 NCAA tournament. The latter two marking the first such finishes at Arkansas in 26 years.
Musselman and the Razorbacks are nationally relevant. And though the frenzied genius of the mad-scientist moves served as an undeniable significant ingredient in the Hoop Hogs’ success, the biggest factors in last season’s run were NOT baked into the Head Hog’s initial plans for the ’20-21 season: the FRESHMEN.
A ’20-21 preseason-planned personnel rotation that left 75% of a national Top 5 recruiting class on the outside looking in at Musselman’s top 7 players in terms of minutes and roles mostly stayed that way through the first half of the season, resulting in an NCAAT “bubble” forecast as late as Feb. 2 when at 13-5 overall (5-4 SEC) and with a respectable NET ranking of No. 33 the Hogs found themselves projected as a play-in 11-seed by ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi.
At the time, Arkansas had won three consecutive SEC games that would eventually snowball into a historic 12-game league winning streak — a first since the ’93-94 national championship team — to vault the Hogs to a 22-6 overall record (14-5 against SEC teams) and a national Top 10 ranking heading into the NCAAT as a national 3-seed. And though more than one factor played into the shift from bubble team to national relevance in a matter of a handful of weeks, none was more important than Musselman’s move to push freshmen Davonte “Devo” Davis and Jaylin Williams into significant minutes and meaningful roles alongside freshman phenom Moses Moody, who had arguably the greatest rookie season in school history.
No matter how or when it happened, once Musselman flipped that switch it ignited the greatest collective-freshman-class season ever at Arkansas when factoring overall rookie production and impact with final team results, which is a huge statement when considering the first-year accomplishments of the 1988 class headlined by Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, and Oliver Miller; or the 1992 class headlined by Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman; or the 1996 class headlined by Kareem Reid (redshirt freshman), Derek Hood, and Pat Bradley; or the 2003 class headlined by Ronnie Brewer, Jr., and Olu Famutimi; or the 2013 class headlined by Bobby Portis, Jr., and Moses Kingsley.
You get the picture, and the point is Musselman and his coaching staff brilliantly put the pieces together when it mattered most — during the first half of SEC play.
It began in the final 20 minutes of a home game on Jan. 20 against second-tier league foe Auburn — a contest that found the Hogs down by as many as 19 points while strapped with a 1-4 record in their previous 5 SEC games. Williams started the second half, and combined with Davis the two combined for 13 points to fuel a 24-10 run that gave the Hogs a 55-53 lead midway through the second half en route to never trailing again in a down-to-the-wire, 75-73 win that kick-started the march to an unforgettable March.
After that game, Davis remained a top rotational player while Williams waited through three consecutive blowout wins before finally becoming a consistent fixture in the Top 5-6 rotation in a road game against Kentucky on Feb. 9, which just so happened to be the beginning of Arkansas’ toughest extended stretch in league play — five consecutive wins against Quad-1 opponents in the Wildcats, at No. 10 Missouri, and home against Florida, No. 6 Alabama, and LSU. During that 5-game run, Davis averaged 28.4 minutes, 10.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game while Williams averaged 22.2 minutes, 7.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.0 block, and 1.0 assist per outing.
During that same five-game stretch that elevated the Hogs into the national rankings and premium NCAAT seeding projections, only Moody and seniors Justin Smith and Jalen Tate were on the court more than Davis and Williams.
Moody has since moved on and is preparing for the upcoming 2021 NBA Draft as the school’s first one-and-done, but Davis and Williams return to lead what looks to be on paper a Hogs squad that should enter the ’21-22 campaign with national Top 10-15 rankings in Musselman’s third season at the helm.
Due to the NCAA’s decision to grant a do-over / extra-season of eligibility for all returning Division 1 players because of the covid-19 pandemic, technically Arkansas has a 5-player freshman class in ’21-22. It might seem silly to frame it that way given that 4 of those 5 are “covid freshman,” but nonetheless let’s take a look at the Razorbacks’ large freshman class as we ponder the chances this youthful portion of the roster can come close to replicating last season’s major rookie impact.
* Davonte “Devo” Davis (6-3 guard, Jacksonville, covid-freshman): A lot of credit went to the Hogs’ big 3 of Moody, Smith, and Tate — and deservedly so — but Davis was as big a factor as anyone when it came to the Razorbacks’ fortunes turning to gold in the second half of the season. In non-conference play, Davis had been more of a 9th or 10th option, but he made several huge, crunch-time, 50/50-ball winning plays in Arkansas’ SEC opener at Auburn on Dec. 30, a come-from-behind 97-85 victory. Two losses later, Davis logged 36 minutes and had a career-high 20 points to go with 7 rebounds and 6 assists in a 99-69 win over Georgia. Including that game, Davis would average 29.2 minutes, 10.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.2 steals while shooting 47.5% from the field and 76.9% from the free throw line the rest of the way (final 21 games).
The statistical production is impressive, but what the numbers don’t explain is that Davis was the most unique piece to the Hogs’ success in ’20-21 in that Arkansas led D1 teams in overcoming 10-points-or-more deficits en route to winning — that happened 10 times last season — with Davis seemingly at the heart of each in-game turnaround as the initial spark. A pest at both ends of the floor, Davis willed comebacks by making cluster hustle plays to jump start the team (i.e. weaving live-ball turnovers into easy transition points, or chasing down offensive rebounds to extend possessions, or blasting coast-to-coast for a one-man transition finish). Davis punctuated his role as the chief of the comeback Hogs when he drained a go-ahead, pull-up jumper with 3.1 seconds remaining to cap a 12-point-deficit-erasing, 72-70 win over Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16 to send Arkansas to the Elite Eight. Additionally, Davis proved to be Arkansas’ most reliable mid-range shooter (reminiscent of Jimmy Whitt, Jr. in ’19-20) and a plus-rebounder from the backcourt, and by the final third of the season he was Arkansas’ best on-ball defender.
Davis projection for ’21-22: Like Moody was in ’20-21, Davis should enter the season as a starter and centerpiece of the roster. He’s got the makings for All SEC in his second season at Arkansas, and after learning to play off the ball last season following a stellar high school career when he was the primary ballhandler and playmaker, look for Davis to be given opportunities to run the team as a combo guard possessing the ability to facilitate or score with the versatility to man the wing in small-ball lineups. Davis could get 30 or so minutes per game as he brings good swagger — an IT factor — along with being a vocal leader. His strengths offensively will remain as a slasher and mid-range shooter who attacks the offensive glass, but any improvement from beyond the arc will make the long lefty even more difficult to handle. Musselman did not run plays for Davis a year ago — everything he got came organically through hustle and determination — but look for that to change this season. On the other side of the ball, which is where playing time and roles are solidified in Musselman’s system, Davis has the goods to be elite if he embraces the same dig-in-and-win-each-play mentality that he brought to the table as a true freshman. There may be no better 50/50-ball battler in college basketball.
* Jaylin Williams (6-10 forward / center, Fort Smith, covid-freshman): Described by Musselman in the preseason a year ago as ready to be a top-rotation player and a potential starter, it actually took a bit longer for Williams to receive the playing time to prove worthy of a starter-type role that he carved out in the final third of the season, and he lived up to the notion that his high floor IQ, volume rebounding, and passing with ability to chip in some scoring (both inside and out) would help elevate the Razorbacks to the top tier of the SEC.
Williams’ role in wins over Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, LSU, and Texas Tech were irreplaceable and the difference between a great season and a mediocre one. His 13 points and 8 rebounds in an 81-66 home win over the No. 6 Tide on Feb. 24 stand as his most productive game, but a week earlier he was equally impressive in a 4-point, 10-rebound outing during which he was a force defending Florida star big man Colin Castleton in the paint while limiting the 6-11 junior to 4-of-10 field goal shooting and only 6 rebounds in a 75-64 come-from-behind Arkansas win. Williams’ two-man interior game with Justin Smith against Texas Tech in the NCAAT Round of 32 matchup was a clinic on high-to-low-post passing as Williams hit Smith perfectly with well-timed dimes en route to a 10-rebound, 4-assist performance that lifted the Hogs to a 68-66 come-from-behind win that punched their ticket to the Sweet 16. By the end of the season, Williams had 5 starts and his per-40-minute numbers were 9.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.8 blocks. He shot 47.8% from the field, including 7-of-23 from 3 for 30.4%, and 74.2% from the free throw line, and he led the Hogs in drawn charges.
Williams projection for ’21-22: Another All SEC talent that could be realized as soon as the upcoming season, Williams’ range for playing time appears to be 27-32 minutes per game with that number potentially, if not likely, increasing as the season progresses into league play. Recently honored with an invite to the USA Basketball Men’s U19 training camp in June to compete for a spot on the 2021 U19 FIBA World Cup team, Williams is a reliable volume-rebounder (he could challenge for the league lead in this category); he’s an underrated rim-protector given that his combination of shot-blocking, space-eating frame, and penchant for drawing charges is collectively good; his worthy screen-game that helps free up opportunities for others should not be taken for granted; and he has plus-passing skill (both promoting good ball movement in the flow of the offense and finding teammates for optimal scoring opportunities). Fine-tuning those strengths with improved footwork, timing, and playing physically without fouling will be helpful, but the biggest question is will Williams produce more offensively with those soft hands and shooting touch in terms of taking more open looks (he often passed on three-point and mid-range opportunities) and bringing more production in the paint (post scoring and putbacks)? His skill & floor IQ combo are ideal for pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, and high-low action. As the headliner in a depth-challenged frontline, Williams’ development will go a long way toward determining Arkansas’ legitimacy as a Top 10-projected team.
* Khalen “KK” Robinson (6-0 guard, Bryant, covid-freshman): One of the four Top 100 national prospects from Arkansas — joining Moody, Davis, and Williams — that ESPN ranked as the 5th-best freshman class in 2020, KK Robinson was in the same boat with Davis and Williams in terms of ’20-21 non-conference / early-SEC playing time and rotational role before a foot injury requiring surgery sidelined him for the remainder of the season after playing in each of Arkansas’ first 11 games (including three league matchups). He actually suffered the injury in the Hogs annual Red/White intra-squad scrimmage in the fall, tried to play through it, but ultimately was shut down during a road game at Tennessee on Jan. 6.
Through 11 games, KK Robinson averaged 2.6 points and 1.0 assist in 8.4 minutes per game while shooting 42.9% from the field, including 5-of-12 from 3 for 41.7%, and 75.0% from the free throw line. Known for his burst and ability to shift gears (both north-and-south and laterally), KK Robinson appeared to be limited in that regard which later would be attributed to the injury. But he did flash his talent and promise in a couple of non-conference games with a 15-point, 3-assist, 2-rebound, 1-steal performance in a season-opening win over Mississippi Valley State and a 5-point, season-high 4-assist, 2-rebound, and 1-steal outing in a win over Lipscomb. KK Robinson played 10 or more minutes in only four games last season, so the small sample size of meaningful opportunities combined with injury limitation do not leave lasting impressions of his on-court impact as a true freshman.
KK Robinson projection for ’21-22: The closest thing to a true point guard on the Hogs’ roster last season — and that will remain true in ’21-22 — Robinson has had a long journey to get back on the court as only in recent weeks has he begun to do some on-court work. But Robinson didn’t waste the down-time as he added muscle, bulk, and strength in the weight room while also doing as much with a basketball as he could given the limitations. Robinson’s pace as a ballhandler, aforementioned burst, efficient three-point shooting, ability to get all the way to the basket and finish through contact, and willingness to facilitate for others are all high-major good, and defensively with his plus-arm-length and instincts he’s got the tools to be elite at that end of the floor. Yet another All SEC talent, it remains to be seen when that potential will be realized as it also remains an unknown as to when he’ll be able to resume full-contact, extended-minutes competitive play at a high level. A fully healthy KK Robinson would seem to offer the level of impact that Davis and Williams rendered in the final third of the ’20-21 season.
* Jaxson Robinson (6-7 wing, native of Ada, Okla., covid-freshman and Texas A&M transfer): No stranger to Musselman who recruited him as a high school senior when he was ranked as the composite national No. 67 / 4-star prospect in 2021 before re-classifying to 2020 and signing with the Aggies, Jaxson Robinson comes to Arkansas with a similar true-freshman-season resume as KK Robinson in that he was limited to a small sample size of minutes and game played last season.
In the 14 games he competed in at A&M in ’20-21, Jaxson Robinson started 4 times and averaged 2.1 points and 1.1 rebounds in 9.7 minutes per game while shooting 35.5% from the field, including 8-of-28 from 3 for 28.6%. He was a perfect 3-of-3 from inside the arc on the season with the remainder of his attempts coming from distance. Prior to his junior season of high school in ’19-20, Jaxson Robinson played in a grassroots game at Fayetteville High School in the spring of 2019 and knocked down 9 three-pointers as part of scoring 33 points in a lopsided win for his 16U Team Griffin squad over 16U Woodz Elite. Later in July 2019, Jaxson Robinson was instrumental in leading Team Griffin to a prestigious Nike E16 Peach Jam championship.
Jaxson Robinson projection for ’20-21: Jaxson Robinson fits the mold of big, versatile perimeter players that Musselman covets. His ability as an efficient volume 3-point shooter will help floor spacing while challenging defenses to stay attached, and his height and length on the perimeter should give him a chance to defend multiple positions. It’s too soon to know what kind of role he’ll have in ’21-22, but you won’t have any trouble identifying big guards who could shoot and score (Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, and Moses Moody) getting early playing time in Musselman’s system. Another eventual All SEC talent, Jaxson Robinson will compete for a meaningful role in the rotation.
* Chance Moore (6-5 wing, McEachern School in Georgia, true freshman): In a 2021 recruiting class focused mostly on transfer-portal prospects, Moore comes in as the lone freshman although once again Musselman reached into the high school ranks to pull a Top 100 recruit as ESPN ranks Moore as the No. 70 (4-star) prospect in the nation. Moore just graduated from high school last week, so he was the last of the 11 scholarship players to arrive on campus as he made it to Fayetteville on Sunday.
After dealing with injuries at various times over the last couple of years, Moore put together an impressive senior season at McEacherm as he averaged 21 points and 8 rebounds per game. There was a stretch late in the season when Moore rattled off multiple consecutive double-doubles in points and rebounds. Long and quick at 6-5, and bouncy, Moore is an effective slasher, opportunistic scorer around the cup off putbacks or simply navigating his way deep into the paint, and he’s an emerging threat as a spot-up three-point shooter.
Chance Moore projection for ’20-21: Here’s the thing, Moore has the talent to carve out a role in the rotation, even if that takes some time a la Davis and Williams. Again, it’s too soon to project playing time, but Moore looks to be yet another eventual All SEC talent who will come in with his mind set on competing for a meaningful role in the rotation during his rookie campaign.