Recruiting has never been more important than it is today during college basketball’s current one-and-done landscape.
Gone are the days of Blue Blood programs having a near-monopoly on Blue Chip prospects. Instead, young basketball players from around the country — and beyond — realize they can fulfill their goals of reaching the NBA in a variety of ways, and that has opened doors to a whole new world of recruiting.
Over the past decade, the University of Arkansas has made significant investments to prove it wants to return to its glory as an annual national title contender. Opening the new practice facility in 2015 cemented that stance, and the 2019 hiring of Eric Musselman showed an awareness that players would value a head coach with past NBA experience.
However, the Razorbacks’ ongoing rise to prominence, the latest chapter of which is getting three McDonald’s All-Americans in the same class, is about much more than attracting players. Musselman has filled out his coaching staff with assistants who have their own NBA résumés while the program at-large has increased its focus on nutrition and strength and conditioning.
“We’re different because our attention to detail is a lot different than everybody else’s,” explains Ronnie Brewer Jr., the Fayetteville native and former Razorbacks All-American who in July was hired as the men’s basketball program’s recruiting coordinator. “We’re going to outwork opponents. I don’t think anybody else is going to put in the time and effort that Coach Muss and the rest of the staff do. That’s kind what we hang our hat on.”
Anthony Black recruiting and Arkansas basketball
Brewer’s efforts mattered more than ever as Arkansas put the icing on the cake of the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class with the commitment of five-star Anthony Black Monday night on national TV. Black, a 6’7″ point guard/wing ranked No. 20 in the nation according to ESPN, chose the Razorbacks over Gonzaga, Oklahoma State and the G-League on Monday during the McDonald’s All-American Game’s jam fest.
The rangy, athletic Black is the kind of player Arkansas could have used in its Elite Eight loss to a high-powered Duke basketball squad when bigger Blue Devil guards and wings repeatedly took the ball to the hoop against their smaller Razorback counterparts.
“Black’s positional size, length and basketball acumen stand out,” ESPN’s Paul Biancardi and Jeff Borzello wrote. “His greatest strength is in his high-level playmaking ability and his ability to make the game easy for others. He snaps his wrist quickly on passes in tight spaces, understanding to throw the ball away from the defense. An effective assist-maker and ball-mover, Black hits teammates in stride for layups or in their shooting pocket for rhythm jumpers.
“As a defender, Black owns a long frame with lateral quickness and mobile hips that allow him to slide and open up on the ball. He shows excellent anticipation on help-side defense, positioning himself to take a charge, get a steal or rotate to the open man. He is dangerous as a defensive rebounder who can advance the ball himself in transition.”
In other words, buckle up, Arkansas basketball fans. The 2022-23 squad will be the most talented, athletic top-to-bottom Razorback team we have ever seen. Granted, winning takes a lot more than that (we’ll see about heart and smarts), but this is a great place to start for serious contention for the 2023 NCAA Championship (more on that below).
The Arkansas basketball staff was already among the most NBA-steeped among college program before Brewer’s arrival. But his addition has taken it to another level.
See Anthony Black announce his decision:
I believe with the class coming in, we can win a lot of games. I am all about winning,” Anthony Black said. “Playing with Nick Smith here at McDonald’s (All American Game), you can see he is a dog. He is about his business. He takes the game seriously. He likes to score and I like to get others shots. We can help each other out on and off the court.
“With Jordan Walsh being from Dallas, we have a good relationship. He plays really hard too. The other guys are very good too. We can push and support each other.”
Lessons Ronnie Brewer learned in the NBA
Among the NBA players that Brewer admired during his own youth career was Tracy McGrady, who he had met through Billy Donovan when the then-University of Florida coach was recruiting Brewer at an AAU tournament held in Orlando. Donovan and UF alum Mike Miller were in attendance watching Brewer when the crowd erupted and caused Brewer and his teammates to wonder about the highlight they had missed.
“We were like, ‘Ah man, somebody must’ve scored a big bucket’ or something like that and then Tracy McGrady walks into the gym and sits down next to Mike Miller. After the game, we take a picture and I got his autograph. I had his autograph in my room for a long time.”
It just so happened that Brewer’s “Welcome to the NBA” moment occurred against T-Mac once he moved on from the Orlando Magic to the Houston Rockets.
“My first game in 2006, we played the Rockets with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady,” Brewer said. “I was just so surprised that we were playing them and I was a rookie, so I was thinking that I was going to be on the bench. It was a surreal moment. And then coach calls my name, Brewer! Brewer! You’re in, you’re guarding McGrady!”
Brewer quickly realized he had arrived.
“I was like, ‘Oh, man,’” he recalled. “That was kind of my ‘Welcome to the league, you’ve made it.’ He came down hit a shot and tapped me on my butt. I was like, ‘Well, OK, he’s human. I just need to play hard.’ I think I finished with like seven points. The nerves had to get out of my body quickly because if they didn’t, T-Mac is such a good basketball player that he was capable of scoring 40, 50 or 60 points.”
There were many more eye-opening moments for Brewer during his first three and a half seasons in the NBA, which came with the Utah Jazz, who drafted him 14th overall in the 2006 Draft. The 6-foot-7 Brewer credits former Jazz teammate Derek Fisher for being one of the veterans who taught him one of the most valuable lessons he learned during his professional career: the work ethic that was needed to stick around the NBA long after the dream of reaching the league had been fulfilled.
“There are superstars and there are players that have a longer leash, but the guys that stick are the guys that buy in for the betterment of the team,” Brewer said. “They put the team first and hold themselves and the team accountable to be the best pro and teammate that they can be. For me, that was eye-opening because there were a lot of guys that I thought were way more talented than me that didn’t have the same opportunities or stay in the NBA as long as I did.”
Leaving one alma mater for the other
Brewer didn’t slow down much after his 10-year professional career ended. He knew that he wanted to stay involved with the community that shaped him, so he launched the Ronnie Brewer Foundation and started various businesses, including a trucking company and Hair Couture, a Fayetteville-based beauty supply store he created with his mom and sister. Brewer didn’t stay away from sports — he began working with the Fayetteville High School boys’ basketball team and coached the Woodz Elite AAU squad. He also put his broadcast journalism degree to use as a sports talk radio host in addition to teaching communications at Fayetteville High.
“Once I retired from basketball, I basically looked in the mirror and was like, ‘Ronnie, what made you get to the level you were as a basketball player?’” Brewer said of retirement. “It wasn’t just being a defensive stopper. It wasn’t just being a good shooter. It was being a Swiss army knife — a jack of all trades.”
There also was a level of comfort at Fayetteville that Brewer enjoyed. He loved having the opportunity to coach alongside Bulldogs’ head coach Brad Stamps and assistant Nick Bradford, two guys he considers among his best friends.
“I told Coach Stamps the only way I would leave Fayetteville High School was if I got in a situation that I would go to the University of Arkansas,” Brewer said. “There wasn’t any other high school that I wanted to be at — I didn’t want to be at any other school other than Fayetteville because Coach Stamps is one of my best friends and Nick Bradford [Paul Pierce’s backup at Kansas], the assistant coach, is one of my best friends. That’s somewhere I wanted to be and I wanted to help kids on and off the court and be a positive influence in the community. But Coach Muss reached out to me and gave me the opportunity to come here.”
Embracing Arkansas recruiting coordinator role
Not every kid wants to be recruited the same way. Some kids might want college programs to bow down and tell them how great they are, while other recruits respect coaches who will straight them straight and let them know they are going to have to earn their spot at the next level.
Brewer understands there’s more than one way to stuff a turkey, and that’s why he feels the most important aspect of his job is getting to know and understand that every recruit communicates differently.
“That’s part of getting to know a person, getting to know their temperature and getting to know what they want,” Brewer said. “One thing every kid wants is to be coached hard and coached well. That’s one thing we can say we’re going to do. We’re going to love you but we’re also going to hold you to a higher standard.”
An important component of Brewer’s gig is reaching out to eligible recruits to begin establishing a connection between them and the program. That means locating top prospects and coordinating recruiting visits, whether for football games in the fall or hoops games in the winter, and providing information about Fayetteville and the daily life of an Arkansas basketball player. Building a bond with the recruits’ parents is a big piece of the puzzle, too, and Brewer said he feels as though his firsthand experience makes Arkansas an easy sell.
“It’s easy for me to sell the program because I played here and to sell the city because I lived here,” Brewer said. “My roommates used to always make fun of me. They’d call me the Mayor or Governor because I knew so many people on campus.”
And then there’s the whole NBA dynamic. The NBA tentacles are connected to Arkansas beyond Brewer’s playing experience and Musselman’s NBA coaching experience. Assistant coach Keith Smart has elaborate NBA experience that includes head coaching experience for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.
Another assistant coach, Clay Moser, spent seven-and-a-half years with the Los Angeles Lakers before joining the Razorbacks. First-year director of player development, Mike Ekanem, spent time working for the San Antonio Spurs front office, while director of operations Anthony Ruta previously coached in the NBA Development League.
“Our staff is well-documented for having a lot of NBA ties, so our approach is just like running an NBA team,” Brewer said. “My sell is if you want to be coached harder than anybody and you want to be pushed harder than anybody and develop better than anyone in the country, we can show you how to get to the NBA.”
An Arkansas Basketball Class for the Ages
The results are in the recruiting rankings. The Razorbacks’ 2022 class was ranked second in the nation by both ESPN.com and 247sports.com and first in the Southeastern Conference. The group includes a trio of premier in-state talent — 5-star combo guard Nick Smith from Little Rock, 4-star combo guard Derrian Ford from Magnolia and Joseph Pinion, a 4-star small forward from Morrilton—and also includes Jordan Walsh, a 5-star small forward from Missouri, and Barry Dunning, a 4-star small forward from Alabama.
“We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” Brewer said. “We kept in-state talent here in Smith, Ford and Pinion—they all signed and are all top 100. Two 5-stars and three 4-stars … That’s not a bad recruiting class. We’re going to keep working hard and trying to find guys that fit our mold and fit our culture.”
No doubt, a high-IQ, highly skilled guard like Anthony Black would be such a fit. But even without his signing, this Arkansas recruiting class is still a home run.
As much as Brewer is looking forward to the impact the five incoming freshmen will make on the court, he’s also confident they’ll make a mark on the fan base for what they accomplish away from the hardwood.
“I think our fans are going to fall in love with those guys’ personalities off the court more than what they do as basketball players,” Brewer said. “They’re all special young men. They’re great students, they’re great guys in the community and they’re what it means to be Arkansas Razorbacks.”
Now that the Razorbacks are bringing in a wave of potential NBA talent, Brewer said the next step is to teach them what it takes to not only reach the NBA, but sustain a career in the league the way he did.
“We can show you how to sustain the success and be in the NBA for multiple years,” Brewer said. “Getting there is only half of it — finding your niche and being a staple in the NBA for a while, I feel like we’ve done that because we’ve played there and we’ve coached there. I feel like we have the blueprint to tell any student-athlete how to do so.”
Brewer understands what a lot of these top prospects are going through because he was a heralded recruit Arkansas fans were especially aware of because of the name he shared with his father, a standout Razorback in the 70s.
Before he enrolled at Arkansas, though, Brewer told his old man he wanted to make his own legacy.
“One of the things I told him before I even stepped on campus was, ‘I want to make my own imprint. I don’t want to live off your imprint and I want to leave my own legacy,’” recalled Brewer.
Nobody can doubt the mark the younger Brewer left on the program as a player. Now he’s helping Eric Musselman and the Arkansas basketball staff foster a culture he hopes will bring the program to even higher heights.
“We’ve got an opportunity to do something special,” Brewer answered when asked about the future. Two back-to-back Elite Eights is impressive, “but we’re going to try to get past that and vie for a national championship. That’s the goal—that’s what we talked about at the beginning of the year. We want to try to make it to the national championship every single year.”
Anthony Black Helps Make Arkansas a Potential No. 1 Team
The hype is very, very real in the wake of Black’s announcement. Consider the praise that NBA Draft analyst Sam Vecenie lavished on the young Texan below, calling him a future defensive star and potential third one-and-done in the Hogs’ 2022 class.
Black is the sixth ESPN 100 prospect in Arkansas’ 2022 class, joining five-stars Nick Smith (No. 6) and Jordan Walsh (No. 10), as well as four-stars Derrian Ford (No. 70), Barry Dunning (No. 75) and Joseph Pinion (No. 89).
According to ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, the upcoming Arkansas basketball team could open the season at No. 1, which would yet another first since the mid-90s (the 1994-95 defending national champs team opened that season as the AP No. 1). “With at least two starters expected back next season, along with the incoming recruiting class, Musselman’s team will be in contention to open the preseason ranked No. 1 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25,” Borzello wrote.
Background on Anthony Black’s Recruiting Situation
Below was published before he committed:
“I do think it’s down to Gonzaga and Arkansas, and TCU, the hometown school,” Razorback basketball reporter Kevin Mc Great season for TCU, he’s got connections with player, coach there and that’s his hometown. So that might be the dark horse, keep an eye on that.”
“But I do think it’s probably down Arkansas and Gonzaga. I’m on the fence, I’m going to say 50-50. I just don’t know. But there’s been a lot of Gonzaga smoke and a lot of times when there’s smoke, you got to kind of pay attention to it. But I’ll say this when Jordan Walsh made his announcement, a couple of days leading up to that there was a lot of talk coming out of Texas, that Texas was going to get him and Arkansas wasn’t and we saw how that played out and he signed, seal and delivered.”
There are signs of a late push for Arkansas. On Monday, two Rivals recruiting analysts – Rob Cassidy and Travis Graf – switched their prediction for Black’s commitment from Gonzaga to Arkansas.
TCU does have the advantage of having Black’s stepbrother, Micah Peavy, who helped the Horned Frogs get to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 35 years. But playing time isn’t guaranteed for him there, either.
“Mike Miles is the lead guard, while Damion Baugh is the top passer, averaging 4.5 apg this season,” Busting Bracket’s Tristan Freeman wrote. “Chuck O’Bannon has started most games at the wing position as well. So if everyone did come back, Black would likely have to come off the bench, which is Gonzaga’s biggest flaw on paper.”
“And if he isn’t going to get as much playing time as possible, why not go to Gonzaga and Arkansas, who are consistent Final Four contenders? The Horned Frogs could be that but it’s a risk if Baugh and Miles are the clear-cut top ball-handlers.”
Gonzaga, meanwhile, has been able to put its fair share of players into the NBA over the years under Bulldogs head coach Mark Few. But its coaches pale in comparison to Arkansas’ when it comes to NBA ties and experience. Indeed, it appears that only two of them have such direct connections in their backgrounds.
Stephen Gentry, for one, spent a year as a video intern for the NBA’s Miami Heat. Then there’s Roger Powell, Jr., who had spent a training camp with the Seattle SuperSonics and half of the 2006-07 with the Jazz before joining the Arkansas RimRockers of the NBDL (now known as the G-League).
Email Brad Joyal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bradjoyal. Evin Demirel contributed to this piece.