5 Burning Questions These Two Arkansas Basketball Exhibition Games Will Partially Answer

Jalen Graham, Eric Musselman, El Ellis, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Nick Wenger / Arkansas Athletics

Finally, after seven long months, the Arkansas basketball team is set to take the court again for its fifth season under head coach Eric Musselman.

The Razorbacks will welcome Division II foe UT Tyler to Bud Walton Arena for an exhibition game at 6:30 p.m. CT Friday before hosting No. 3 Purdue in a charity exhibition on Oct. 28.

It will be their first outside competition since last season, when they had an overall underwhelming regular season followed by a third straight Sweet 16 appearance, and get the 2023-24 team geared up for its Nov. 6 opener against Alcorn State.

That impressive tournament run quickly turned into another eventful summer of recruiting the transfer portal, a skill that Musselman has become known for nationally. He brought in eight experienced transfers out of the portal – including sophomore guard Keyon Menifield from Washington, who will be a non-scholarship redshirt this season. Those transfers join another well-respected high school recruiting class consisting of two blue-chip prospects in Layden Blocker and Baye Fall.

Musselman is also set to have the most returning players he’s ever had during his time at Arkansas, with five players coming back from last season’s squad. All five played a significant role at some point last year, and three were part of the main postseason rotation (or would have been if not for injury).

Clearly, addressing the lack of experience that seemingly limited the 2022-23 team was a point of emphasis for Musselman, as he brought back those core pieces that know his system while adding numerous experienced transfers with three-plus years of experience. In fact, the seven transfers set to take a scholarship spot next season have an average of 4.0 years of college experience when combining JUCO, redshirt and injury-riddled seasons.

1. Quicker Gel Period for Arkansas Basketball

This extremely high level of overall team experience leads right into the first question that could begin to be answered in the upcoming exhibition games against UT Tyler and Purdue.

Arkansas has found itself in a bad habit of falling into early-season struggles prior to conference play.

In 2020-21, the Razorbacks lost four of five games to start January before rattling off wins in 12 of their next 13 contests. The following season saw a similar drought when the team dropped five out of six in late December before winning 14 of its next 15 games. The 2022-23 squad never put together a sustained winning streak, but even they experienced a skid, dropping five out of six games to open SEC play before leveling out to make the tournament.

Coming into this season with easily the most experience in the SEC – and the first ever fourth-year Musselman disciple at Arkansas in Devo Davis – can the Hogs avoid an early season losing spell that hinders their overall resume come tournament time?

All signs point to “yes,” but that question likely won’t be definitively answered until mid-January. We can, however, get a good idea of how intelligently this team plays and how much they’ve already gelled in these preseason exhibitions. Limiting turnovers, sharing the ball well and providing spacing for each other would all be great indicators that this team is more prepared to hit the ground running than previous squads were.

2. Frontcourt Questions

Last year under Eric Musselman, the questions surrounding the frontcourt were geared more toward who will get the most playing time. This year, it seems relatively clear that Trevon Brazile is at the top of the pecking order and the biggest question regarding the rotation is how much time he will spend at center versus Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham. It’s also worth paying attention to how much playing time Baye Fall gets, but even if he does carve out a significant role this season, it’s unlikely to be on Day 1 as a true freshman.

Rather than throw out hypotheticals and spend too much time wondering who will play and what the minutes split will look like, the more interesting storyline will be the production put forth by whoever is on the court.

Mitchell is the closest thing to a true center Arkansas has due to his combination of size and strength, but he played only 20.1 minutes per game last season. Given the sheer amount of talent among the guards and wings on this roster, it seems likely that Musselman could lean into more small-ball lineups featuring either Brazile or Graham at the 5 with four other playmakers/shooters on the court alongside them.

This sounds great from an offensive perspective, but how will this impact the team’s ability to defend interior-oriented big men or secure defensive rebounds? Both were areas of weakness for Arkansas in its final game of the season against Adama Sanogo and UConn. The big man scored 18 points on 82% shooting from the field while the Huskies as a whole were plus-12 on the boards and grabbed 11 offensive rebounds.

True, players like Sanogo and teams like UConn are few and far between, but Arkansas is set to face one of those schools in its second exhibition game when it goes toe-to-toe with the reigning AP Player of the Year Zach Edey of Purdue.

The Hogs’ ability to defend the 7-foot-4, 300-pound Edey and keep him off the glass will serve as a good barometer of how prepared the Razorback bigs are to handle elite big men at this point in the season. Of course, not being fully ready to handle a player like Edey doesn’t mean the team won’t grow and become more prepared, but the star big man will provide a great test for where Arkansas currently stands.

3. Ball Handling Duties

Now let’s look at the other end of the rotation. The question of point guard duties doesn’t stem from concern as much as it does curiosity. There are several players capable of handling the rock and facilitating an offense on this roster. The biggest question is who will soak up most of the facilitating duties?

Devo Davis has spent his fair share of time as a ball-handler for the Razorbacks over the last few seasons, but he’s often thrived in more of an off-ball slasher role where he can focus on making plays in transition and finding openings to get his shot off. He has great passing vision, but sometimes attempts to force the ball into windows that are too small, leading to turnovers along with the occasional SportsCenter Top 10 play.

Transfer guard El Ellis impressed with his on-ball playmaking during the Red/White game and is another prime candidate to get plenty of opportunity to facilitate. He could also thrive in an off-ball role, but his experience, size and playmaking ability put him toward the top of the list of capable ball handlers.

Layden Blocker is another big question mark for the upcoming season, but his role likely won’t be defined in the first matchup of the season, so that’s an issue for later. Regardless, the path is there for Blocker to become a primary ball-handler on this roster – especially if Musselman opts for more small-ball lineups.

Other transfers like Tramon Mark and Khalif Battle could also spend time on the ball making plays for themselves and others, but neither are considered to be lead ball handlers. Mark is more of a defensive-minded wing capable of creating space for himself offensively, while Battle is known more as a scoring machine capable of finishing from all three levels of the court.

4. Shooting at Red-White Game: Sustainable or Hot Streak?

Shooting has been a hot-button topic virtually every season under Eric Musselman. Last year in particular the Hogs ranked 315th out of 352 teams in 3-point percentage at an abysmal 31.3%. Only Ole Miss and Mississippi State ranked worse among SEC teams. In 2021-22, Arkansas shot 30.4%, ranking outside the top 320 teams.

Along with bringing in loads of experience to combat the youth that plagued last year’s team, Musselman found transfer after transfer capable of establishing this year’s squad as the best shooting team he’s ever had at Arkansas.

The seven active transfers have combined to make 514 threes on 1508 attempts, good for 34.1% as a group. Throw in the combined 71-of-199 shooting of Davis, Brazile and Joseph Pinion last season, and this Razorback roster is looking at 34.2% from beyond the arc – which would have ranked right around 166th last season.

The annual Red-White game suggested that this team could become even deadlier from beyond the arc than their career averages suggest given the spacing that drivers like Ellis and Davis help create for others and the double teams that Brazile and Graham could demand when feeling it. The 14 players who took the court during this exhibition shot a combined 14 of 28 (50%) from long range.

Five of those makes came on eight attempts from Jeremiah Davenport – all five coming in the first half – and one make came from Menifield, who won’t take the court this season. Even removing those two potential anomalies, the Hogs shot over 42% from distance, including a 3-of-4 performance from Pinion.

Even Mitchell and Graham showed off the range, each making their lone attempt from long range, while Baye Fall also hit a long-range jumper with his foot on the line.

Obviously, 50% as a team is not sustainable for the duration of a season, but it’s a more than encouraging sign for Arkansas basketball fans who have dealt with some of the nation’s worst shooting teams over the last few seasons. If the Hogs can outperform even the 34% mark history suggests, climbing closer to 35%, they could quickly become a lethal offense, especially by the time tournament season rolls around.

5. Arkansas Basketball Injury Updates

Trevon Brazile tore his ACL less than 10 minutes into his ninth game of last season, which was on Dec. 6. Torn ACLs can often take 9-10 months to heal – sometimes longer for explosive athletes like Brazile.

Given that timeline, it wouldn’t be overly surprising to see him sit at least the first preseason exhibition, which Musselman seemed to hint at during SEC Media Day on Wednesday. He did, however, say he’d play in the second one — the highly anticipated Oct. 28 showdown with preseason No. 3 Purdue.

While it’s clear Brazile won’t be in midseason form, it will be worth paying attention to how many minutes he plays and how explosive/mobile he looks in those minutes.

Khalif Battle has been dealing with a foot injury that seemingly flared up while he was warming up for the Red-White scrimmage, causing him to be a late scratch from the contest. He was seen exiting the locker room in street clothes, a walking boot and crutches prior to the game starting.

Afterward, Musselman indicated it was precautionary, which makes sense given his projected importance to the team. He certainly seemed to suggest that he’s on track for a quick recovery in a recent Twitter post:

His availability and production will be worth paying attention to as well.

Makhi Mitchell also dealt with a lower leg injury during the conditioning portion of the offseason. He played 23 minutes in the Red/White scrimmage, tallying 13 points on 6 of 7 shooting and grabbing 5 rebounds. All of this indicates that he’s ready to go, but his availability and total minutes in the two exhibitions could be worth monitoring.


Watch Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman’s interview at 2023 SEC Media Day:

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