The 2023 offseason was eventful as always for Eric Musselman and his Arkansas basketball team despite the Razorbacks returning five players from last year, the most during his tenure.
Joining that core group of returners are seven transfers – including Keyon Menifield, who will redshirt the upcoming 2023-24 season – and two ESPN Top-50 recruits. Having so many new faces makes it hard to rank a team before seeing it in action, regardless of Musselman’s track record of accomplishments with entirely reconstructed rosters.
However, the quality of returning players and experience of incoming transfers (more on this later) have a few analysts chomping at the bit to push Arkansas higher in their rankings. None is more gung ho than CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish, who on his “Eye on College Basketball” podcast in late July, has the Hogs ranked No. 11 and predicts they will rack up 24 wins in the regular season alone.
Podcast co-host Matt Norlander disagreed, claiming he couldn’t find a logical argument to include the Hogs inside the Top 15 and projects them to win 20 regular games this season. He even dropped the Hogs as low as No. 8 in the SEC in a recent poll. Parrish, as is his way, had some fun playfully jabbing Norlander for this.
“You can take your objective thinking and shove it straight up your ass,” Parrish said. “You either trust Muss or you don’t!”
When it comes to preseason Arkansas basketball projections, however, some major media outlets and ranking sites such as The Athletic – which has Arkansas unranked entirely – tend to agree more with Norlander. Bart Torvik was notably low on the Hogs at the time Parrish’s podcast was recorded, having the Hogs as low as No. 28. Parrish, a Memphis native, even noted that he couldn’t recall ever having such a disparity from a computer-driven ranking system before.
Since then, Torvik’s rankings have been adjusted so that the Hogs land at No. 23 overall, which is a bit more in line with a few of the other ranking services mentioned below.
Often times it’s hard to know exactly how good a Musselman-coached team is before conference play picks up in January – much less two full months before the season starts – which can be seen illustrated by Torvik’s notable recent ranking change, but we can start to piece together some of the potential outcomes that favor both sides of the argument.
Why Parrish Could Be Right About Arkansas
“It’s going to look a lot like a ‘Muss team,’” Parrish said on his podcast. “(Musselman brought in) some guys who have put up numbers in other places and now it’s his job to bring them all to one place and turn them into a winning basketball team. I mean this sincerely: I don’t know if there’s anybody proven to be better at doing that (than Musselman).”
Shaping a new roster from scratch is arguably one of Eric Musselman’s biggest strengths, as Parrish pointed out, but this year’s roster boasts a key difference that could make the team gelling period run even smoother and quicker than years past.
The six active transfers set to don the Cardinal and White next season have an average of 4.0 years of collegiate experience – including injured seasons, JUCO seasons and redshirt seasons. Only three of the 13 active scholarship players are true freshmen or sophomores.
Tramon Mark in particular projects to be a vital piece for Arkansas next season. Not only is he roughly 6-foot-6 with good length, but he’s known to be as good of a perimeter defender as Davonte Davis.
In fact, his sporadic scoring outbursts and smooth left-handed jump shot have already led to many comparisons to Davis. His on-court skill set and experience at a winning program in Houston could be huge in ensuring Arkansas has a season more in line with Parrish’s predictions.
Whether or not the other transfers were active or playing a high level of competition, the experience level has never been higher for a Musselman-led team – especially coming off of a very inconsistent season plagued by injuries and lack of experience considering the roster had seven combined true freshmen and sophomores.
Next season, the Hogs will only have three such players, including two true freshmen in Baye Fall (ranked No. 29 on ESPN) and Layden Blocker (No. 31 on ESPN). Each has a real shot at playing time this season, even if they don’t earn it right away. Players like Devo Davis and Jordan Walsh took a bit of time in their freshman seasons to carve out the right role, but both ended up being invaluable to their respective teams.
Looking beyond the incoming players, Musselman has five returning players for the first time in his five years as Arkansas basketball coach. Devo Davis quickly became a fan favorite late in his freshman season and has essentially been the heart and soul of Razorback basketball in the two years since.
Sure, he is still a homerun-hitter type of player who can have turnovers just as ugly as his highlights are amazing, but he took a major step forward last season as a shooter and continues to display flashes of elite playmaking.
He’s an established collegiate player who joins a revamped backcourt loaded with experience and scoring – both of which could allow him to thrive in a more defined role this season.
Trevon Brazile was slated to play a major role last season before he went down with a season-ending ACL tear. The team took on an entirely new look without him available to space the floor both from the 3-point line and vertically at the rim. Makhi Mitchell helped fill that void last season as a solid presence in the paint, and he has a great chance at earning the starting center role again next season.
Joseph Pinion and Jalen Graham weren’t every-night contributors last season, but both contributed immensely on the offensive end when their number was called. Graham in particular was limited by his defensive and rebounding abilities, but his offensive game within 10 feet of the basket was undeniably great. Having the additional scoring punch of players like Tramon Mark, Khalif Battle, El Ellis and Jeremiah Davenport could open things up even more for Graham in the post. He has a clear path for a breakout season with the Hogs if he can capitalize.
Why Norlander Could Be Right
Let’s start by clarifying that Norlander didn’t claim Arkansas would be bad this season, he’s simply not convinced they’re a fringe top-10 team and has them projected to win roughly 20 regular season games – a number Arkansas failed to reach prior to the SEC Tournament last season. With eight brand new players – most of which are transferring from smaller schools or high school – having questions and concerns is entirely reasonable.
Let’s start with arguably the biggest question mark for next year’s team: the center position. It seems reasonable that Makhi Mitchell will pick up right where he left off as the starting center upon first glance, but he’s also dealt with a foot injury over the summer and could be hampered by the lack of conditioning compared to other players fighting for minutes at his position.
Let’s say hypothetically that he is fully ready to go to begin the season as Musselman’s starting big man. The team still has to distribute center minutes when Mitchell is off the court – which he was for roughly 50% of the time last season, averaging 20.1 minutes per game.
Jalen Graham and Trevon Brazile seem like the next most likely options, which is perfectly fine from a small-ball offensive standpoint, but do either possess the combination of height, weight and defensive prowess to slow down other SEC big men in the paint when Mitchell is on the bench? This is another fair concern to have heading into next season.
That leaves us with essentially one more option at center, true freshman Baye Fall. The highly-touted recruit carries a fair amount of expectations into next season considering his five-star ranking on some sites, but let’s pump the brakes and take a closer look.
Fall is extremely long and athletic with great energy and toughness inside the arc, but he’s incredibly skinny for someone fighting for center minutes in an SEC rotation. In a few of the all-star games he played in as a senior – including the McDonald’s All-American game – he was seen losing his position in the paint too easily to other 18-year-old big men. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence when considering he could be battling 22-year-old men in the paint within a few months.
Parrish actually brought up a point supporting the argument against Fall being productive this season despite being largely pro-Hogs during the discussion. “There was exactly one freshman center in the last two seasons ranked outside the top 20 in their class who was impactful for a good team,” Parrish said, referencing UCONN’s Donovan Clingan. Everyone else was largely unimpactful – unless you count Alabama’s Charles Bediako, who averaged 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in 17.8 minutes per game in 2021-22.
Fall ranks No. 29 in ESPN’s class rankings and could easily fall into the category of players who need multiple years outside of high school to develop into impactful pieces. He clearly possesses the talent and he could certainly take the necessary step forward to be useful for the Hogs this season, but it’s easy to see how he might not be the best option to soak up center minutes this year.
Aside from the questions in the paint, Norlander also mentioned the concern that players like Khalif Battle and El Ellis looked really good last season on relatively bad teams. “Every team has to have a best player,” Norlander said. He went on to mention that both Battle and Ellis could absolutely be the real deal and become impactful players for Arkansas this season, but the possibility remains that playing against higher level competition in a smaller role on their new team could lead to different results than we’ve seen in the past.
This discussion also took place just before Keyon Menifield announced that he will redshirt the upcoming season. Given the guard depth on the roster, this isn’t necessarily a back-breaker for the Hogs, though it definitely changes things. The point guard position just got a bit thinner with the most likely options being Ellis, Davis and true freshman Layden Blocker.
Both Davis and Ellis seem to thrive in more of a score-first, off-ball type of role, though both have shown to be capable of handling the ball and initiating an offense when necessary. It’s feasible that they could spend a lot of time side by side in the backcourt splitting ball-handling duties. It’s also possible that Blocker could come in early and prove himself ready for a ball-handling role. However, having a true freshman as a lead ball-handler inevitably leads to more question marks.
Anthony Black did a fantastic job most of the time last season, but he was also a top-6 pick in the NBA Draft. While Blocker has one-and-done potential, he’s not quite projected as a lottery pick just yet. Again, he could absolutely come in ready to lead an offense, but it’s far from a guarantee and questions are warranted.
Arkansas Likely to Start Somewhere in the Middle
Most preseason rankings are somewhere between where Parrish and Norlander sat during their Razorback discussion, with sites like ESPN ranking Arkansas at No. 14. Sports Illustrated has the Hogs at No. 20 in its poll, which lines up closely with the data-driven rankings found on Bart Torvik’s website. This also seems like a fair starting point for a Razorback team essentially starting from scratch again after a third straight second-weekend appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Questions are warranted when it comes to eight brand new faces on a team that admittedly had its fair share of struggles last season, but the level of experience – both from returning players and transfers – should quell enough of those concerns for most analysts to have the Hogs somewhere in their top 20 teams to start the season.
Parrish is so sure that Arkansas will overcome these concerns that he mock-dared Norlander to put some skin in the game: “If Muss wins the SEC (outright or co-champs) and takes his shirt off, you have to take your shirt off as well. That’s the deal,” he said toward the end of the podcast.
“Alright, that’s the deal,” Norlander responded.
While this is one of the deepest teams Musselman has ever fielded, the core rotation will likely remain murky at best until at least December after the staff has had a chance to try out multiple lineups in different situations. Which incoming transfers do or don’t pan out and whether the two freshmen can step up to the challenge will be huge deciding factors in where the Hogs end the season.
For now, ranking the new-look Hogs as an “average” top-25 team feels more than fair.
Listen to the Arkansas basketball conversation below:
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