7 Big Takeaways: What We’ve Learned about Arkansas Basketball’s Stacked Squad So Far [UPDATED]

Ricky Council

Just about a week from a 4-game trip through Europe, the 2022-23 Arkansas basketball season is shaping up to be one of the most highly-anticipated seasons in program history. With back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, a No. 2 signing class, a bevy of potentially impactful transfers and one of the most likable coaches in the country, it’s not just Razorback fans who are itching to see the team take the court next season.

Considering the Razorbacks return only two players from last season, it’s hard to know what to expect in the upcoming season in terms of individual players’ abilities, team chemistry and rotation construction. However, head coach Eric Musselman has graciously provided Hoop Hog junkies with highlight clips of summer scrimmages and a recent practice was opened to the media.

It remains tough to know what the on-court product will look like for Arkansas basketball next season, but these snippets allow us to start analyzing what little we do know to this point.

Continuity and Chemistry Will Test Hogs Once Again

Heading into the 2022-23 season, Arkansas looks to return only two scholarship players in Devo Davis and Kamani Johnson from the previous season. This is the third season in a row in which the Hogs have returned less than five scholarship players and the second time under Musselman that they’ve returned only two players.

The result: Arkansas is losing 87% of their total points and 84% of their total minutes from last season – both high marks for Musselman as head Hog.

Devo Davis is already stepping up into a clear leadership role entering his junior season. “We were doing a defensive drill one day, and Devo was kind of coaching everybody from the side,” Musselman said last week. “I kind of stopped everything and said, ‘Do you guys understand why Devo is on the sideline barking out instructions?’ Everybody had their own thoughts and reasons. I said, ‘No, it’s because he knows what it’s like to get to an Elite Eight. That’s why he’s doing that. And he knows that this is a necessary piece to be a successful team. Some of you other guys don’t know that, that haven’t won at a high level.’”

Musselman added: “This is also the youngest team that I’ve ever coached, by far because we’ve been really fortunate to coach a lot of veteran-laden teams. But having said that, we had a pretty good year with four freshmen a few years ago and three of them started. And we only start five, so we started three freshmen in an Elite Eight run. But we have our work cut out. Our league has gotten better every year that I’ve been in it.”

The Hogs won at a high level, going to back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, despite major roster shuffling in consecutive seasons. That’s unusual for college teams. But Musselman has proven a willingness and ability to bring in experienced transfers and then adapt to his roster on the fly.

This season projects to be no different. Eleven new scholarship players (including the sky-walking Ricky Council IV below) will likely lead to growing pains, as we’ve seen at some point in each of the last three seasons – though 2020 and 2021 can be partially attributed to injuries to Isaiah Joe and Justin Smith respectively. Don’t be surprised if the 2023-24 team drops a game or two that they shouldn’t, talented as they might be.

The biggest difference between the upcoming roster and previous teams – aside from the trio of five-star freshmen – will be the upcoming trip to Europe. Getting a chance to travel and play together before the season starts will go a long way in building chemistry on and off the court. Perhaps this will allow this squad to bypass the inevitable “early season slump” Hog fans have grown accustomed to.

Kamani Johnson Prematurely Buried on Forward-Heavy Roster

Johnson is the only other returning player from last season besides Devo Davis, though his name does not appear in depth charts predictions as often as the junior guard. This can be largely attributed to the four new forwards joining the roster via the transfer portal. All of these new weapons stand at least 6’9 and boast an impressive amount of athleticism and versatility, causing Johnson (6’7) to fall in most rotation predictions including that of Razorback insider Curtis Wilkerson. Though in his Center Position Battle article, Wilkerson reminds fans to not “count Johnson out when it comes to carving out a role, particularly early in the season.” 

Knowing what a player provides can be huge for a coach, especially on a team with so many new faces. Johnson provides just that, a level of experience that few others on this roster have. Don’t forget, Johnson joined the Razorbacks during the 2020-21 season but had to remain on the bench due to transfer rules at the time. This makes the 2022-23 season Johnson’s third under coach Musselman, tying him with Devo Davis for most experience on the roster.

The gritty forward, who is friends with Drake, sets a tone that often elevates the mentality and intensity of his entire team when he’s on the court. He played a vital role in the Razorbacks near-comeback against Texas A&M early in the season. Despite ultimately losing that game, the second-half turnaround sparked a streak of 14 wins in 15 games for the Hogs. Johnson toughness simply provides an X-factor that can’t be quantified, even if his rebounding can.

Last season, Johnson ranked second in the SEC in total rebound percentage among players appearing in at least 10 games. This is an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the court. Johnson’s 18.6% rebound percentage was a full 1.2% ahead of the player in third place, Andersson Garcia (17.4%) of Mississippi St, and trailed only Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe with an other-worldly 27.2% rate. For reference, Jaylin Williams checked in at fifth on this list with a 17.2% rate.

It’s not reasonable to predict that Johnson breaks into the starting lineup for the whole season given the boatload of talented forwards on this roster, but don’t be surprised if he bullies his way into the rotation on a regular basis.

Elite Length Should Lead to Elite Defense

After starting a 6-foot-6 center in Adrio Bailey during his first season with at Arkansas, Musselman now has 10 of his 13 scholarship players standing between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-10 at his disposal. This includes freshmen Anthony Black (6-7) and Jordan Walsh (6-7), as well as incoming transfer Ricky Council IV (6-6) – all of whom are capable of playing at a guard spot next season.

“This doesn’t mean that this is how it will unfold come November,” Musselman said of his team’s defense, “but right now it’s really, really hard to score on this team. (Our coaches) much prefer to be the defensive coordinator (in practice) right now, because we’re really long. We’re able to block shots at a high, high level right now.”

Anthony Black added: “I think just having a team with this type of length and athleticism is special because we can run a lot of different lineups. Like we can go big, we can go smaller, which is still kind of a big lineup for us, but we can just – we have a lot of mismatches. Our length and size create a lot of mismatches so, just having a team with a lot of dudes like that is usually a recipe for success, so we’ll see what we can do with it.”

Arkansas has finished in the top 11 nationally in defensive efficiency each of the last two seasons, according to KenPom.com, and Musselman now has his tallest, longest arsenal to date. “We should be a team that looks different at the rim than we have in the past because we are able to alter and block shots,” Musselman said.

This montage of blocked shots shows a number of different players getting in on the block party, including 6-foot-10 forwards Trevon Brazile and Makhel Mitchell.

Ricky Council IV says the Razorbacks’ defense is “going to be scary this season.” 

Anthony Black Playmaking

Black’s stock quickly rose during his last couple of years playing high school and AAU ball, largely due to his elite combination of size and playmaking at the guard position. Musselman further confirmed this when Black made his first appearance at team practice several days late due to his participation on the Team USA U18 team.

“First of all, in college guys usually don’t miss seven or eight practices,” Musselman said of Black. “But he comes in and literally knew almost our entire playbook that we’ve put in so far. He literally was asking about third and fourth options on plays… I was like, ‘Wow.’ I thought I was with an NFL veteran QB who was asking questions and had just missed a couple of OTAs or something.”

This high praise from Musselman can be combined with a pair of highlight videos shared via Twitter to fully illustrate how vital Black’s playmaking could be next season:

This clip shows Black finding an open shooter out of a mid-range post-up situation. He slings the pass with his off-hand, perfectly leading Joseph Pinion to the deep corner for an open 3-point shot.

This second clip doesn’t display the same flair as the off-hand, cross-court skip pass, but it does show Black’s ability to come out of a pick-and-roll and perfectly lead his big man (Kamani Johnson) into position with both feet in the paint. From there, Johnson finishes the play with a simple power dribble spin move into a right-handed finish.

Abundance of Athleticism for Arkansas Basketball

Along with Arkansas’ vastly improved team height and length comes a level of athleticism Razorback fans are only used to seeing out of one, maybe two, players on the roster at a time. Former players like Brandon Dean, Sonny Weems, Michael Qualls and Justin Smith come to mind when thinking of high-flying Razorback highlights.

The 2022-23 squad, however, holds the potential to put together an extensive highlight reel of their own. Between the leaping ability of Jordan Walsh, Trevon Brazile and Ricky Council IV, the crafty playmaking ability of Nick Smith Jr., and the tendency of Anthony Black to push the pace, Razorback fans should be prepared for highlight-reel athletic plays all season long.

At roughly 6-foot-10, Brazile demonstrates a deadly combination of leaping ability and body control on this putback slam. Here, Brazile has time to pause and think about what he’s doing in midair after he catches the ball and before he slams it home.    

Jalen Graham, another 6-foot-9 transfer, shows off his ability to finish over defenders after an effective pump-fake creates a driving lane.

In this season ticket renewal reminder, Ricky Council IV gives us a small taste of what he’s capable of in the open court, easily adding a little extra flair to a routine slam.

More recently, Musselman shared this clip of Nick Smith Jr. finding a gap in the defense out of a pick-and-roll action and exploding to the rim, taking off from the SEC logo.

Devo Davis Taking a Step Forward

On a team loaded with new faces, one of the biggest question marks lies in Devo Davis’ ability to step up into a leadership role on the court. With all three five-star freshmen capable of playing the guard positions, it’s realistic to think that Davis could return to his role as sixth man next season, though if Musselman’s offseason highlight clips are any indication, the junior guard is fighting for his starting spot.

Perhaps Davis’ biggest weakness in his game thus far has been his ability to stay in control of his body and make plays without turning the ball over. His ball handling, passing vision and finishing ability are all evident, but none of them matter if he plays so fast that he loses control of himself or the ball.

In this first clip, Davis displays an impressive level of patience while holding his primary defender on his back over the ball screen, hesitating to force the help defender to make a decision, and then effectively exploding to the rim for an easy finish. This is exactly the type of play that could move Davis into a starting role – and perhaps onto NBA Draft boards.

This second clip once again shows Davis maintaining control of himself and the ball while penetrating the defense, getting to the elbow where his jump shot is lethal and finding an open shooter at the last second with a perfectly placed pass leading to a wide-open 3-pointer.

Potentially the most important improvement that we have caught a glimpse of this summer is a small tweak to Davis’ long-range jump shot. At the 0:20 mark of this video, Davis can be seen firing what looks to be a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. In the past, Davis tended to jump too high on his jump shots, allowing more room for variation and error which can lead to a low 3-point percentage.

Jumping high on a jump shot can be effective in contested situations or closer to the rim, but the better 3-point shooters like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard don’t rise more than a few inches off the ground on open 3-point attempts. In this clip, Davis can be seen barely leaving the ground when knocking down his 3-pointer. If this becomes a habit for Davis, we could see a career high in 3-point percentage for the junior guard next season.

Trevon Brazile Showing Out Amongst Forward-Heavy Roster

After making a point to add size to the roster this offseason, one of the bigger questions heading into next season will be about the forward rotation. The Razorbacks essentially have four true guards in Nick Smith Jr., Devo Davis, Derrian Ford and Anthony Black – though Black is 6-foot-7 and can guard multiple positions defensively. After that, there are several players who project to play on the wing in the third-guard/small forward role like Jordan Walsh, Ricky Council IV, Joseph Pinion and Barry Dunning.

That leaves five players – Jalen Graham, Makhi Mitchell, Makhel Mitchell, Trevon Brazile and Kamani Johnson – fighting for minutes at the 4 and 5 position, along with the potential of small-ball lineups featuring Walsh or Dunning at the 4 spot. Musselman also tends to play only 7-8 players in his regular rotation historically, making the battle for spots in the rotation that much more competitive.

So far, we have little idea as to which forwards will consistently see the court more than others, but Brazile stands out as a strong candidate thus far. “He’s so long, he can shoot, he can run, he can block shots,” Musselman said of Brazile earlier this summer.

This clip posted by the Men’s Basketball Twitter account shows Trevon Brazile knocking down two corner 3-pointers, one coming off of a one-dribble pump-fake. If the big man can consistently knock down these types of shots, it will be hard to keep him off the court.

Clips included earlier in the article also demonstrate Brazile’s ability to finish around the rim thanks to his athletic ability as well as good timing when blocking shots. The 6-foot-10 sophomore also possesses a serviceable amount of lateral quickness on the perimeter. Even when guards are quick enough to dribble past him, his length allows him to recover and still block or contest shots at the rim.

Brazile could be a vital part of the team on both sides of the ball and will be a serious candidate to start at the power forward or center position with his length, athleticism and versatility.

BoAS got an up-close look at the Arkansas basketball team at an open practice. Here are our observations from that:


Author: Brandon Baker

Contributing Writer at OvertimeHeroics.net

Twitter: @Panamaniac03 and @OTHArkansas

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