UA practice notebook: In-state flavor, freshman fodder, go-to players, schedule talk and more

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Photo Courtesy: University of Arkansas Athletics

LITTLE ROCK — As 12 week of preseason training camp turned the page Wednesday to the first day of official practice with just six weeks to go before opening day of the 2020-21 season, which marks the start of year two of the Eric Mussleman era at Arkansas, we’ll just drill down this week’s Hoop Hogs practice report into a look-back to yesterday as media members got to interview Musselman as well as seniors Justin Smith and Jalen Tate before getting a 30-minute online peak at practice.

Home is where the Hog is! Arkansas’s roster that includes 10 scholarship newcomers out of the 12 total players who are eligible to compete is dominated by 7 Arkansans (juniors Desi Sills and Ethan Henderson, sophomore Connor Vanover, and freshmen Moses Moody, Jaylin Williams, Khalen “KK” Robinson, and Davonte “Devo” Davis) as well as 6 college transfers (you can read all about the infusion of transfers in my article published earlier Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, that is linked here:

The homestate presence is unprecendented in terms of sheer roster representation as 58.3% of the scholarship players eligible to play hail from the Natural State.

Oh so fresh(men). The Hogs much-heralded freshmen class that ESPN ranked as the 5th-best in the nation — the aforementioned Moody (6-6 guard), Williams (6-10 forward), Robinson (6-0 point guard), and Davis (6-4 combo guard) — had drawn praise at various time throughout traning camp, and all picked up more words of encouragement from Musselman, Smith, and Tate on Wednesday.

“Jaylin Williams has done a really good job of being easy to play with,” Musselman said. “He’s not a ball-stopper, he’s a ball-mover. He can make open threes. He’s rebounded at his position well. Moses Moody is a guy who can really knock down open shots. He’s got good size. He’s been good around the rim. He’s done a really, really good job of finishing off offensive rebounds. Devo Davis, I mentioned the loose balls and getting loose change for his position. He has the ability to play a couple different positions, so I think getting a better grasp of our schemes is going to be important for Devo. And then K.K. has done a really, really solid job with his … he comes in and gives us some speed. But I think with all four freshmen, what we want to continue to work with them on being consistent from day to day.”

Smith said he’s been impressed by Moody and that Robinson has been the toughest Hog to guard in practice.

“Moses has been shooting the ball really well,” Smith said. “I’d probably say KK (is the toughest teammate to defend) because he’s quick. Very, very quick. He’s fast and he has really quick change of direction, so that’s probably the most difficult for me so far.”

Tate also weighed in on the rookies.

“Moses is shooting the ball really well actually,” said Tate, who added this about Robinson and Davis: “Honestly, they work man. They’ve gotten better since we’ve been here. My assessment so far, KK for example, he’s a natural born scorer. He’s really quick man and really knows how to get into his spots at a very early age. He knows how to get his shot off which is pretty impressive for a freshman at this point. Devo can honestly play multiple positions. He does so many good things to the game. He’s one of the best loose ball getters I’ve ever seen. He’s always on the offensive glass, even as a point guard. He’s learning how to play multiple positions just like some other guys we have. There’s not a lot of things he can’t do on a basketball court. He can dribble, pass, shoot and he’s definitely a dog when it comes to loose ball getting and on the offensive and defensive boards.”

Musselman explained the challenges freshman face, especially in his system that has multiple complex plays.

“I think that, because obviously, I love to read… I think with NBA rookies, NFL rookies, Major League Baseball younger players who go through the minor leagues, college players who are freshmen, there’s always going to be ups and downs,” Musselman said. “Certainly our system, the way that we implement things, is – I would say – drastically different than a lot of colleges because we add things so quickly and we have so many sets. Our defensive schemes are a little bit more complicated maybe at times than a normal college. Certainly our baseline out of bounds package, we have six free throw attacks in already. I think there’s going to be a learning curve for younger players, but I do think that each of them brings something different to the table.”

(Highlights from practice linked here … 

* One more note on freshman big man Jaylin Williams (6-10, 245): Based on observations covering him in high school and grassroots hoops, combined with intel gathered during the first 12 weeks of training camp, it has formed an opinion here that Williams has a solid chance to lock up a tandem role with Vanover manning the 5-spot during the upcoming season. Moody appears to be a day-one starter, but Williams’ high basketball IQ and feel as both a passer and shooter facing the basket combined with being a volume-rebounder has him in position to crack the top 8-9 rotation for significant playing time (highlights from practice linked here

We’re talkin’ practice. Watching the first 30 minutes of practice online Wednesday, several things stood out: 1) the optics of the Hogs’ increased size, length, and atleticism compared to last season really jumped off the screen; 2) Arkansas’ collective perimeter shooting skill was impressive, albeit in drill work with no defenders challenging shots; 3) the Razorbacks have more than their typical amount of above-the-rim finishers and rebounders, and the makings are there for another strong defensive team.

Who to go to? A recurring theme from training camp that Musselman talked about Wednesday was the ongoing shuffling of personnel combinations as the coaching staff looked for team chemistry as well as “go-to” players for the fast-approaching season. Last season, it was Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe — both left school early for the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft — who provided that 1-2 go-to punch.

“I think, look, when I got the job, I knew that Isaiah Joe was going to be a star for us and that he was going to be one of our go-to players,” Musselman said. “I did not know that Mason was going to make the leap from a player-development standpoint. Going in, obviously, you watch us play last year, even the opening game, we knew that Mason and Isaiah had that star quality of getting shots when we needed them. They were our go-to players. Our opponents knew it, all of you in the media knew who we were going to go to and who those guys were for us.

“We’re still trying to figure that out (for the ’20-21 team). I think we have more balance, but who steps up when my plays break down … then it comes down to who can go break people off the bounce. The players that make coaches look good are the guys that can do stuff on their own and certainly Mason did that as well as anyone in the country. So we’re trying to figure out who is that guy when we try to put something down on paper and it doesn’t work, who can go make miraculous plays when we need them? We’re going to miss that certainly from Mason and then Isaiah taking two steps across half court and having the ability to knock down a three ball or having that threat. Those are things that are just kind of evolving for us.”

It’s the opininon here that early candidates for go-to roles are Notae, Vanover, Moody, and Jackson.

* Junior Desi Sills of Jonesboro is not only the Hogs’ leading returner in scoring (10.6 points per game), rebounding (3.0), assists (1.2), and steals (0.9), but he’s also the only Razorback with significant SEC playing experience, which make him a natural fit as Arlansas’ leader-in-chief.

“Desi is a guy who takes on leadership verbally,” Musselman said. “He takes on leadership by trying to point to other teammates and where they need to go in some of our sets as we continue to add stuff. Desi has done a great job of trying to self-coach his teammates.”

Scheduling continues to be a gradual work in progress as director of basketball operations Anthony Ruta has had to re-visit playing opportunities due to the coronavirus pandemic, and there were no real updates available on Wednesday.

“First of all, obviously, we don’t know what to expect in this (pandemic) world, whether we’re coaching basketball or you’re writing an article or doing an interview or doing a podcast,” Musselman said. “Everything’s changing with how we do everything. One thing that I do know, I want to try to play as many games as we possibly can for the student-athletes. These guys work hard. I’m like players, man. I’d much rather compete in a game than go to practice. I think a lot of coaches say they love practice. Well, I love games. So to me, trying to get the maximum number of games in, 27 games, especially with all the new faces we have. I don’t know how you’re going to judge strength of schedule if people have different number of games played.

“So we tried to come up with a geographical plan that will help from a scheduling standpoint. Quite frankly, we want to try to keep our guys in our own space, so to speak, so that we can play as many games as possible. So maybe that limits our travel non-conference. Had great discussions with Hunter about some of our scheduling, and Clayton, and we’ll just keep discussing until we get this thing finalized. If it was finalized we’d love to tell you guys exactly what it is, but it’s not finalized, I can promise you that.”

An opinion here (and nothing more) is that it makes sense for the Hogs to attempt to schedule in-state D1 programs (at least one, possibly two) to limit travel and lodging needs, and if Arkansas can find a way to host a 2- or 3-game multi-team excemption event (MTE) it would help get to a max 27 games that will include a yet-to-be-released 18-game SEC slate.

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