Unknowns & expectations collide as Hoop Hogs take on ’20-21 with brand new roster

Local Sports

By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — With the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 2020-21 season-opener planned in concert with the start of college basketball on Wednesday, second-year head coach Eric Musselman was not ready on Monday to discuss specifics related to starting lineups and player rotations.

But that will likely change Tuesday when he conveys those decisions to his team, and then a day later Hog fans will know as well when the season tips up against Mississippi Valley State at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

“I’d like to tell them who’s starting by tomorrow by the end of practice,” Musselman told the media on Monday. “So when they come into shoot-around on game day that they have it already in their head. They don’t find out when they come in the locker room on game night.”

In an unprecedented lead-up to a season due to the coronavirus pandemic — a virus that is raging through the United States in record numbers in November and already affecting further delays for some college basketball programs — it is compounded for Arkansas that in addition to staying healthy enough to play games the team is welcoming in 9 newcomers among the 11 total on scholarship.

It’s a mix of two returning players, two transfers who practiced with the team last year while sitting out a redshirt season (a third is currently unavailable while recovering from injury), three more transfers who joined the program in recent months as senior-graduates with immediate playing eligibility, and a highly regard four-player freshmen class.

No wonder Musselman is holding his water when it comes to starter and rotation talk. 

Since organized practice slowly began in late July, some of the challenges (among others) with these Razorbacks that have been identified by the coaching staff are: 1) poor defensive execution, specifically poor collective lateral mobility; 2) identifying go-to players on offense (i.e who will be able to create for themselves and others, especially with games on the line?); and 3) timing, understanding, and execution of schemes, especially with the freshmen transitioning from high school to high-major college basketball.

So much uncertainty on season-opener eve. Nonetheless, the Hogs enter the ’20-21 campaign with some relative high expectations. Several “Bracketologies” project this Arkansas squad will be among the 68 teams in the NCAA tournament come March/April (among them is renowned ESPN NCAAT-field predictor Joe Lunardi, who recently projected the Hogs as a 10-seed as one of 7 SEC teams he currently projects will make the Big Dance). The SEC media week before last predicted the Hogs will finish 6th in the 14-team SEC, which if that plays out likely means the Hogs would be in the hunt for an NCAAT bid. And KenPom.com’s preseason rankings slot Arkansas at No. 54 nationally, also good for 7th among SEC teams in that rankings system.

The scary unknowns and slightly favorable projections are about to collide as the merits from what is scheduled as a 27-game regular season (including the traditional 18-game SEC slate) will decide whether or not there is a postseason for these Hogs beyond the SEC tournament. One thing is certain: Whatever this team achieves, the influence and impact of the 7 Arkansans on the roster will weigh heavily. 

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

The only Hog with significant experience playing in the SEC is junior 6-1 guard Desi Sills of Jonesboro, the team’s returning leader in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals who last week was picked by the league’s coaches as a preseason All SEC second team selection.

Sills — he was the second-leading scorer with 24 points in the annual Red-White game (won by the Red, 103-67) played at BWA on Nov. 12 — finished both of his first two college 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.

Sills is the lone returnee from 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. Gone to the NBA are ’19-20 Co-SEC Player of the Year Mason Jones and the league’s best three-point shooter Isaiah Joe,, while Jimmy Whitt, Jr., exhausted his college eligibility and Jalen Harris transferred to Georgetown. Sills emerges as a proven 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.

Whether or not he starts or plays off the bench in a sixth man role, Sills will have a starter’s role on this team. He will be counted on to provide more of the same offensively while adding some scoring in the mid-range, which could be a good start in offsetting the exceptional inside-the-arc production from the departed Jones and Whitt. Maybe more importantly, Sills will be looked to for leadership on and off the court.

“I know we have a lot of new faces in this league,” Sills said in a Friday, Nov. 20, press conference. “I’m one of the oldest guys in the league, so it’s my responsibility to lead by example, use my voice and use the schemes that I know because I’m really the only one, besides Ethan (Henderson), returning so I have to be more vocal and be there for the other guys, the older guys and the younger guys.

“I know what I need to work on, developing a right hand in the pullup game, stuff like that, but working on my ball handling mostly because I’m trying to get ready for big defenders.”

Junior 6-8 forward Ethan Henderson of Little Rock 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 his 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 has missed significant practice time during the offseason. Still, he could end up having a key 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 an important component on this squad.

Keeping with the in-state Razorbacks theme, the four freshmen ranked as ESPN’s 5th-best recruiting class 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, Moodyarrived in Fayetteville with that day-one-starter smell. The most heralded of the freshmen, Moody appears headed for a starting role out of the gates. A highly regarded shooter-scorer, Moody has a 7-foot-plus wingspan and broad shoulders on his 6-6, 200-pound frame. Moody’s perimeter shooting and offensive rebounds / putbacks have stood out so far. Defensively, Moody is very much a work in progress at Arkansas.

Moody seems to be an obvious candidate for that coveted go-to guy role the team needs. He averaged 19.5 points in Arkansas’ two controlled scrimmages with SEC referees, including the Red-White game when he registered 21 points (50% overall field-goal shooting), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals. Whatever his role, Moody has a veteran understanding of the importance of doing his part.

“I’ve always been about playing my role and finding my role with every team I’m on,” Moody said during an Oct. 23 press conference. “I’m really still trying to figure out my role on this team, so I’m just showcasing all I can do until I find that role. A lot of people when they hear ‘role,’ they assume that it’s a limitation, or what you can and can’t do, but I feel like it’s what you bring to the table and how you benefit and help the team.”

Williams has been the most pleasant surprise of preseason practice, and he looks to already be in the Hogs’ top 7-8 rotation and potentially a starter when the season opens Wednesday. He 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 2019-20 Gatorade Arkansas High School Player of the Year — is also a proven volume rebounder. His court awareness / high floor IQ and ability to make timely passes that promote good ball movement have stood out in the preseason, as has his rebounding. In the Red-White game, he had 4 points and 7 rebounds.

Robinson packs dual-threat value as a playmaking point guard who can score and facilitate, and he was a plus-defender throughout his high school career. His burst and work ethic have impressed Arkansas coaches, and onlookers during preseason practice have more than once suggested he could work his way into a key role, even a starting role, as a freshman. In the Red-White game, Robinson led the White team with 18 points (making 8-of-11 field goals) and what stood out most was his ability to run behind the defense in transition, slash past defenders to the basket against halfcourt defense, and get separation for good looks from 3. He also scored in the mid-range.

Davis has also been lauded for his preseason work ethic, and in practice his energy, 50/50-ball wins, versatility as a combo guard, and buy-in have drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff. In fact, his name has come up as another candidate to crack the top 7-8 rotation with down-the-line starter value. In the Red-White game, Davis stuffed the stat sheet with 8 points, a game-high 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals. Davis brings an IT factor — dare we say swagger —  to the table, and that bubbled up when he won the dunk contest that preceded the Red-White game. 

Collectively, the learning curve has been challenging for the freshmen with each coming on strong to close out the preseason.

“I feel like all of us have adapted really well,” Williams said of the freshmen during a Nov. 11 interview, a day prior to the Red-White game. “Moses his shooting really good. Devo’s playing really good, playing hard, getting rebounds, taking it to the basket. KK is handling the rock, dishing out dimes. I feel like we’re adjusting pretty good with this team. We’ve got a bunch of great leaders that are helping us develop into the players we all want to be, so I feel like we’re developing pretty good.”

Roster transformation brought to you by the transfer portal

Five transfers (including the aforementioned Vanover) will make their Arkansas debuts this season, with a sixth in play if he can recover from injury in time.

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. And in the ’20-21 preseason he backed it up by: a) leading all scorers with 20 points in the Hogs’ first controlled scrimmage with SEC refs, and b) leading all scorers with 30 points (9-of-18 three-point shooting) in the Red-White game, including a 24-point second half when he made four consecutive triples in a 1:38 span. Obviously, Notae has recovered nicely from an injured left wrist that kept him out of practice for a period of time. Defensively, Notae is another work in progress who must step up to meet expectations. With Arkansas in need of offensive playmakers, though, look for Notae to see heavy minutes with starter value.  

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) — have the potential to all be day-one starters and they’ll certainly bring starter value to the table in their collective final season of college basketball. It’s a group that Musselman had experience coaching against spanning the past two seasons, and it’s a group that college basketball analysts viewed as a national Top 10 transfer class.

Smith was the last of the trio to join Arkansas after coming aboard in early June, and overall he’s been the most consistent Razorbacks at both ends of the floor in practices. In the Red-White game, he rang up 22 points on only 11 field-goal attempts (includes 3-of-3 shooting from 3) to go with 6 assists and 3 rebounds. Smith looks poised and comfortable with his new team — expect him to be a day-one starter — as he lets the game come to him and capitalizes on opportunities when presented. His three-point shooting has improved and could help him take the next step as a consistent scorer who must be accounted for defensively beyond the arc. At 6-7 and 230 pounds, Smith is a 3/4-combo forward who 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 play above the rim in transition.  

Tate has been steady at both ends of the floor during preseason camp and practices, and combined with three seasons of D1 experience under his belt the 6-6 senior combo guard could be the starter as the team’s primary ball-handler and facilitator when the season begins on Wednesday. Tate tallied 11 points, a game-high 8 assists, and 5 rebounds in the Red-White game. He was a three-time Horizon League All Defensive Team selection at NKU whose length and versatility caught Musselman’s eye. 

Jackson brings perimeter offensive skill to the Hogs as a 3/4-combo forward who at 6-9 and 238 pounds will also be counted on to rebound. The Pasadena, Calif., native finished with 15 points on only 8 shot attempts while chipping in 6 rebounds in the Red-White game. In practice, he’s been up-and-down as a shooter, but his size, experience, and offensive ability point to a key role for Arkansas.  

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 is recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee and potentially could return at some point this season. 

Takeaways and analysis

* This is the biggest (combination of height, length, and weight) Arkansas team in recent memory. The Hogs were forced to play small ball last season, but will be able to go big or small in ’20-21.

* Don’t let the nine newcomers thing fool you, this is a veteran team. Sure, there are only two players with SEC experience, but combined with the five transfers they have a collective 16 seasons of D1 playing experience. The X-factor, though, is Musselman’s decades of experience in managing professional rosters that see annual turnover in bulk. 

* By our analysis, all 11 scholarship players have reasonable potential to crack the top 8-9 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 tighter rotation of 7 to 8 players. Something’s gotta give, and complications due to the pandemic could solve any  perceived dilemmas in this regard as every scholarship player could end up having meaningful roles as the Hogs attempt to play all 27 games on their schedule. Smith and Moody seem the best bets to be day-one, every-day starters with Sills and Notae offering starter value whether they actually start or play in a sixth-man role, but the rest of it seems fluid for now.

* Both sides of the ball. Arkansas appears to have the pieces to improve interior defense and rebounding, but the issues with lateral mobility suggest a dropoff in the stout perimeter defense that stood out as the biggest strength of the team a season ago. And it could be the most dangerous three-point shooting team collectivelythat Arkansas has ever put on the floor: Notae, Moody, Sills, Vanover, Jackson, Robinson, Williams, and Smith are all capable of providing efficiency and effectiveness from distance. 

* Reasonable ceiling. If the aforementioned preseason projections are to be trusted, Arkansas should be in for a good season given the loss of impact and production from Jones, Joe, Whitt, Harris, and departed forwards Adrio Bailey and Reggie Chaney on a team that finished 20-12 overall (8-11 in SEC games) in Musselman’s debut at Arkansas in ’19-20. With an average-to-soft non-conference slate (7 home games against mid- to low-major teams plus road games against Tulsa and Oklahoma State), the Hogs should emerge 7-2 or 8-1. The 18-game SEC schedule is never easy, but anything better than a .500 finish in league play should put the Hogs no worse than on the NCAAT bubble. The biggest unknown of all is how many games will not be played due to the pandemic, and which of those cancelled games might diminish Arkansas’ potential NCAA NET rankings? This looks like a team that can win 17 to 20 games assuming all are played. In the end, the projection here lines up closely with the other preseason forecasts: A 6th-to-7th-place finish in the SEC with a legit shot at an at-large bid to the NCAAT. The individual parts are there for a better-than-projected season, but with so many unknowns due the pandemic and sorting out 9 new puzzle pieces it means Musselman is tasked with arguably his biggest coaching challenge at the college level.

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