By Kevin McPherson
FAYETTEVILLE — As the Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball team began ramping up preparations for the 2021-22 season with their first day of full-scale practices on Tuesday inside the performance center, it seemed a perfect time to look ahead to the season opener in six weeks and make our first projections for a starting lineup.
It’s year three under head coach Eric Musselman, and from this early vantage point it appears he could be sculpting his best Hog squad to date. That’s a heady notion given last year’s NCAA tournament Elite Eight run, SEC second-place finish, and final Top 10 national ranking.
But Arkansas will enter the season ranked Top 10-15 nationally in most preseason polls, suggesting that college basketball analysts are not concerned with another significant roster makeover that a year ago offered more questions with grounded expectations than beaming confidence entering ’20-21.
A mix of high-end transfer portal recruiting and returning veterans with a dash of untested newcomers combined with Musselman’s professorial expertise in scouting, game-planning, and juggling personnel foreshadows intriguing possibilities for another big season, but make no mistake there are plenty of unknowns to sort out.
For starters, who will be … well, the starters? This part is not too hard to project, at least not initially. The complexity that comes into play is that Arkansas likely has 10 players who offer starter value while Musselman has established a preference for a 6-7 player rotation that will gobble up the majority of the minutes and lion’s share of impact roles. Will he expand his rotation or stick to what has worked for him?
To his credit, Musselman may stay true to a tight 6-7 man crew when it comes to the minutes he doles out game-to-game, but in both ’19-20 and ’20-21 he shuttled in players to reshape his rotation when circumstances dictated a change was needed.
Another consideration is that Musselman’s 2021 recruiting class telegraphed a lean into, if not a preference toward, playing more small-ball lineups for strategic advantages. That could result in starter value off the bench having more punch in the lineup than actual starter(s).
Injuries? Covid-19 protocols? Team chemistry and desirable personnel combinations? Unforeseen matchup challenges and collective roster waekness? You get the picture.
“We (don’t have) unknowns as far as individual players with a lot of the new guys, they’re known players in college basketball,” Musselman explained during his Tuesday post-practice press conference in Bud Walton Arena. “But we have a lot of unknowns as far as combinations go.”
A minor injury bug has hit the Razorbacks as they begin Musselman’s “training camp.”
Sophomore big man Jaylin Williams (aggravated a previous ankle injury) will be out for at least the next 10 days; sophomore guard KK Robinson (foot soreness but no bone or structural damage) has missed the last several weeks and is out indefinitely; and senior-grad transfer forward Trey Wade (right knee tendon) will miss the next 4-6 weeks but will not need surgery.
“We had a great summer,” Musselman said. “I think the last 10 days we just had a lot of unfortunate, small injuries. This next couple of weeks are going to set us back a little bit as far as the way we normally prepare in the last seven years in college.
“So I’m going to have to scale back some of the stuff that we do in preparation, probably throughout the first two-and-a-half weeks of October.”
Over time, these things will get sorted out.
For now, let’s look ahead to Nov. 9 at Bud Walton Arena when Musselman will send his first five onto the floor to tip up against the Mercer Bears in the season opener (this is a pre-practice projection and is subject to change once the season actually gets here).
* Davonte “Devo” Davis (6-4 combo guard, sophomore) … Davis comes in as the centerpiece of the program after having a dazzling, spark-inspiring, clutch second half of the ’19-20 campaign as time and again he willed the Hogs to the winner’s circle … Davis started 17 of the 30 games he played in last season, and he will be a plug-and-play starter out of the gates with the versatility to man the 1, 2, or 3 spots on the floor, but look for him to emerge as the team’s primary facilitating ball-handler … tough on-ball defender, 50/50-ball warrior, efficient inside-the-arc shooter, plus-rebounder for a guard, emerging leadership skills, and a playmaker at both ends of the floor due to his ability to turn a chaotic scramble into a bucket for himself or a teammate … expect preseason All SEC picks for Davis.
* Jaylin Williams (6-10 forward / center, sophomore) … Williams also had a strong second half to the season a year ago and like Davis he was instrumental in elevating the Hogs from being a bubble team two-thirds into the campaign to being a Top 10 team … a leader, big-bodied volume rebounder, plus-passer for a big because of his plus-court awareness, better-than-advertised rim protector, and true inside-out scoring ability … his size, high-floor IQ, and competitiveness make him the most valuable frontcourt piece in Musselman’s arsenal … has all-league potential at some point, possibly as soon as the upcoming season.
* Au’Diese Toney (6-6 wing, senior) … Toney comes in as a double-digit scorer from Pitt of the ACC … his combo of athleticism / ability to play above the rim, slashing and rim-running prowess, serviceable three-point shooting, plus-rebounding from the wing, and attributes that should lend to him being a fit in what Musselman wants on the defensive side of the ball — all of it makes Toney a logical choice to earn a starting spot … while there does not appear to be a Moses-Moody-surefire-pro on the roster, Toney just might be a worthy wing when it comes to replacing a chunk of Moody’s production.
* Stanley Umude (6-6 combo forward, senior-grad transfer) … Umude put up big numbers — 21.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists — at respectable mid-major South Dakota while earning All Summit League honors a season ago, and though it’s unlikely he’ll duplicate that kind of production at Arkansas he will bring versatility because of his skill set that includes post scoring (mid- and high-post), a propensity to get putbacks, and good three-point shooting in moderate volume … Umude benefited from high-level coaching before arriving at Arkansas, he’s a mature veteran, and he gives coaches reasons to trust him when he’s on the floor.
* Chris Lykes (5-7 guard, senior-grad transfer) … Lykes is more shooting guard than facilitator, and there are questions about his ability to defend at a level that Musselman expects … BUT, he very well may be the most capable (and dangerous) offensive player in Muss’ arsenal … stop-and-go burst, shiftiness, speed and quickness, plus-percentage three-point shooter, and overall feel as a scorer — Lykes employed all of that to average 16-plus, 15-plus, and 15-plus in his last three seasons at Miami of the ACC … he’s coming off an injury that limited him to 2 games early last season, so it remains to be seen how or if the layoff affects him.
Second Unit Options (first five bring immediate starter value)
* JD Notae (6-2 combo guard, senior) is the reigning SEC 6th Man of the Year, so one logical train of thought would be that Notae is finally due a shot as a starter … not so fast: Notae started only once in 32 games last season, but he had a starter’s role as a finisher / closer much of the season … a volume shooter-scorer who might take issue with the notion that Lykes is the most capable offensive threat on the floor, Notae consistently was one of the five players on the floor for the Hogs at the end of tight games, mainly due to his ability to create offense in the role of primary handler initiating the action in close-out situations … Notae also evolved into a more consistent defensive presence in the final third of the season, and his ability to force live-ball turnovers and convert them into points (a la Devo Davis) was noteworthy … whether or not he actually starts games or continues to master his role as a star reserve, Notae will be in that top 6-7 rotation.
* Khalen “KK” Robinson (6-0 guard, sophomore) by most accounts was making a strong bid for a starting role during summer workouts, but his nagging foot injury (it required surgery last season and kept him out the final two-thirds of the season) has once again sidelined Robinson spanning the last 3-4 weeks of practice time as he remains out indefinitely … there may be a scenario where Robinson works his way into a starting role by the season opener, but that seems unlikely at this point due to time missed … when healthy, Robinson arguably offers the best two-way (offense and defense) value on the team … Robinson’s burst puts him in company with Notae and Lykes, but he also plays with a pace and willingness as a facilitator that separates him from those two as a primary handler … a top 6-7 rotation guy with all league potential if not sidetracked by injuries.
* Connor Vanover (7-3 stretch-5, junior) started 27 of the 29 games he played in a season ago, so there is no doubt he offers starter value and starting potential entering his third season in the program after transferring from Cal of the Pac-10 following the ’18-19 season … Vanover was most effective during non-conference play, but he also stepped up to help secure SEC wins at Auburn, against Mississippi State at home, at Kentucky, at Missouri, and against Florida at home when he combined to average 12.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.0 block in those five league victories … Vanover’s lack of mobility has been problematic mostly on the defensive end of the floor, but he still poses unique matchup advantages and can help the Hogs in the upcoming season.
* Kamani Johnson (6-7 forward, redshirt junior) is a high-energy, interior scrapper with a penchant for doing blue-collar work around the basket … in the case that Musselman wants to put a more traditional lineup on the court, Johnson is the most natural 4 on the roster, and thus he brings some level of starter potential to the team … or if Musselman wants to tinker with starting a true small-ball lineup, Johnson fits the bill as an undersized 5 … Johnson was third team All Sun Belt Conference after averaging 11 points and 6.7 rebounds as a sophomore at Little Rock in ’19-20 before transferring to Arkansas and sitting out the second semester of the ’20-21 campaign.
* Trey Wade (6-6 combo forward, senior-grad transfer) is the team’s intense enforcer who’s gritty and physical demeanor has been described as a one of a kind on the roster … the Wichita State transfer is another veteran with starter qualities because if Musselman wants to employ an in-your-face defensive lineup, Wade’s among the top 2-3 candidates who best fits the bill … there certainly are scenarios where Wade could be on the floor to close out games as a fierce stopper … once healthy and ready to contribute, Wade’s value won’t be viewed as much through the lens of production but rather as a disruptor to the opposition when he’s on the court.
* Jaxson Robinson (6-6 wing, sophomore transfer) does not currently bring starter value to the table, but that could change if for no other reason than he projects as the Hogs’ next efficient volume shooter from distance, a commodity that served both Moses Moody (’20-21) and Isaiah Joe (’19-20) well in terms of being needed on the court as 3-&-D weapons with the added benefit of spacing the floor for others … Robinson will be an important part of the Hogs’ plans in the future, but it’s not completely unthinkable that he could break through in his first season in Fayetteville after transferring in from Texas A&M.
* Chance Moore (6-5 wing, true freshman) is not expected to challenge for a significant role in the rotation, but the same was said of Devo Davis at this same time a year ago and look how that played out … Moore is an active rebounder and slasher from the wing, and he’s been a dangerous spot-up shooter from distance at the high school level … a year in the strength-and-conditioning program while working on his motor and skill as he learns Musselman’s expectations should give Moore opportunities to carve out meaningful playing time as a sophomore.
Linked below are notes and videos from Tuesday’s practice and post-practice press conference with Musselman, Davis, and Umude …