Devo Davis’ Return Adds Wrinkle To Question Overhanging Arkansas Basketball Season So Far

Eric Musselman, Davonte Davis, Devo Davis, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Nick Wenger

Arkansas basketball is in the midst of its worst season under Eric Musselman by far. Sitting at 11-11 (2-7 SEC), the Razorbacks’ struggles go far beyond the win-loss record. Simply looking at the final scoreboard tells a deeper story of how badly Arkansas is getting beat by nearly every SEC team it plays.

In conference play, which includes two wins, they’re averaging 13.6 points less than their opponents. When looking at only losses, Arkansas is averaging an 18.6-point margin of defeat with four by 20-plus points – including a 32-point beatdown.

Even beyond the court, senior guard Devo Davis stepped away from the program under unknown circumstances for the span of three games before returning after the LSU loss. The release stating Davis’ absence came out mere minutes before Arkansas tipped off against Kentucky – one game after Davis saw only seven minutes of playing time in the first half against Ole Miss.

To add to it, rumors have even started circulating on social media about the possibility of Musselman not being the head coach at Arkansas next season. While these are still just rumors, they’ve only added to what has been a wildly confusing and disappointing season for Razorback basketball.

After three consecutive seasons of second-weekend NCAA Tournament appearances, there’s really one overarching question to be asked: What the **** happened?

The short answer is: a lot. Let’s delve into some of the bigger – and perhaps some overlooked – aspects of what exactly has gone wrong with this Arkansas basketball team.

Coaching Staff Turnover

Over the offseason, Arkansas lost assistant coach Gus Argenal to a head coaching position at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). This is perhaps one of the most overlooked changes from the offseason that could be having a very real impact on this Razorback squad.

Argenal currently has his new squad off to a 16-5 start and very well could be in the market for a Division I head coaching job if he continues to have success. He has a great basketball mind and was certainly a positive factor on previous Razorback teams.

That’s not to say that the newly constructed Arkansas basketball staff isn’t knowledgeable, experienced and capable of doing a good job. However, an adjustment of any kind to the coaching staff can change how things operate behind the scenes.

Eric Musselman noted after going 1-2 in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament earlier in the season that he had “never watched more film over a 24-hour period” than he did after leaving the Bahamas. This is usually a task that gets delegated out to different coaches for different areas of the game, but Musselman took more of the responsibility upon himself early in the season.

Of course, just like with new players joining a new roster, a gel period should be expected. This change likely isn’t the main cause of the Razorback problems, but it could certainly have some sort of impact on a squad already having other problems.

Roster Turnover

Eric Musselman has become known as one of the best coaches in the country when it comes to working the transfer portal. He’s turned over basically his entire roster every season, leading to postseason runs into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament the last three years. 

However, evaluating talent, recruiting the top players and managing roster construction at the same time is no easy task. It’s reasonable to think that, at some point – simply by the laws of probability – that Musselman would have an off portal haul every now and then.

On paper, that didn’t seem to be the case with this roster. He brought in multiple 15-plus point per game scorers, a leader from a winning program in Tramon Mark and talent at virtually every position. Arguably the biggest downfall with the new roster – even before the season started – was the lack of proven defenders to compliment the improved offensive firepower set to join the team.

However, offense is often far more affected by momentum and confidence than defense. A hard-nosed defender is more likely to give you consistent effort than a knock-down shooter is to give you elite shooting every game.

The lack of defensive prowess has led to constant miscommunications on that side of the ball. Virtually everyone on the team struggles to communicate through pick-and-rolls, help on off-ball screens or even stay close enough to their assignment to deter a 3-point shot attempt.

Still, the defense was widely expected to take a step back this year compared to previous Musselman teams. The bigger issue is that the offense hasn’t come close to propping up the team like it was expected to. It’s clear that something went wrong in what should have been a gelling period for this team and they simply haven’t bonded on the court to the degree that so many expected.

Perhaps this overall lack of chemistry plays into the lack of offensive assertiveness we’ve seen, but virtually every perimeter player is having a down shooting year for the Hogs aside from Tramon Mark.

It’s likely the sheer number of talented players brought on board in the offseason created uncertainty for coaches and players about who would actually be receiving minutes. With March swiftly approaching, those questions still don’t seem to have been fully answered.

Aside from the necessity caused by injury and absent players, Musselman has tried virtually every combination he can think of and gone deeper into his bench on a game-by-game basis than we’ve ever seen him do at Arkansas.

The ever-changing rotations might have backfired to a degree if they damaged the rhythm and confidence of some players, causing them to be more inconsistent on a game-by-game basis even when their number is called.

The recent absences of Devo Davis and Trevon Brazile did create a bit more consistency by narrowing Musselman’s options slightly in both the frontcourt and the backcourt. We’ll see how this effect holds up with the return of Davis, who likely won’t be coming back to sit on the bench. The same would go for Brazile, assuming he can properly rehab his knee soreness and eventually return.

Lack of Versatile Forwards

The biggest issue from a roster construction standpoint is the lack of versatile 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 forwards capable of defending and making plays without the ball in their hands. Think guys like Jalen Tate, Justin Smith, Au’Diese Toney, Stanley Umude, Anthony Black, Jordan Walsh and many more players like these who have been the catalysts of success during Eric Musselman’s time at Arkansas.

It seemed apparent that the staff went all-in on top high school recruit Ron Holland (6-foot-8) before he chose the G-League ignite at the last minute. Insiders and beat writers alike seemed confident behind the scenes that Arkansas was in the lead for the talented prospect up until the final moments of his recruitment. Holland theoretically would have been perfectly suited to fill this role.

Sure, Tramon Mark fits this versatile forward description to a degree. He’s roughly 6-foot-6 and can impact the game on both ends of the court. However, the lack of offensive cohesion from this team has forced Mark to become more of an isolation threat on offense.

This has worked well more often than not, but it doesn’t allow Mark the opportunity to make as many smaller, effort plays on the offensive end. Plus, being the only player consistently capable of creating offense surely drains a lot of his energy that he could be expending on the defensive end.

The roster simply has too many guards with a similar skillset. Keyon Menifield, El Ellis and Khalif Battle are all talented scorers, but they tend to struggle with fundamental off-ball movement.

“We have a lot of guys right now that don’t know how to set their man up off the ball,” Musselman said after the loss to South Carolina. “I mean, if you watch guys trying to get open, we don’t get open enough. We don’t cut hard enough.”

All of the guards are also relatively small. Battle has the tallest listed height at 6-foot-5, but he’s much more of a finesse player that rarely dribbles through contact. In his four years on the Hill, Devo Davis (6-foot-4) has largely remained the offensive finesse type player he was as a freshman.

True freshman Layden Blocker (6-foot-2) has shown the willingness to do the dirty work in chasing loose balls, attacking the offensive glass and defending opposing ball handlers, but he’s not quite as polished on the offensive side of the ball as the other guards.

The biggest issue here isn’t whether the guards are talented enough. They are, as each has shown at various times through the season. Rather, it’s not having the supplemental forwards to play on the wing and provide an imposing presence on both ends of the court.

Lack of Overall Strength

Going hand-in-hand with the lack of size at the wing and forward positions is what appears to be a lack of overall strength up and down the lineup. Sure, some players like Makhi Mitchell and Devo Davis have the raw strength necessary to compete with other SEC athletes, but they don’t all stack up physically next to a lot of other teams in the conference.

This is a huge reason why the Hogs so often struggle in the battle of the boards. It plays a factor in the team’s ability to dribble the ball against pressure. It affects a defender’s ability to deter a ball handler without fouling them.

Menifield might be the most gifted playmaker with the ball in his hands on the entire roster, but he’s thin while also being relatively short, often leading to a disadvantage when trying to defend bigger guards or even when trying to attack stronger defenders.

We saw this particular problem vanish against Missouri – a team fielding a 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-3 backcourt. In this matchup, Blocker and Menifield were not only able to control the game from the guard position, they were even able to share the court more easily without a bigger, more physically imposing guard creating matchup problems.

Brazile might be the biggest victim of his lankiness becoming a disadvantage. Despite being 6-foot-10 with an out-of-the-gym vertical jump, Brazile often gets bullied in the post by stronger post players with any sort of post moves in their arsenal. Even shorter players like South Carolina’s BJ Mack (6-foot-8) can often get whatever they want in the paint against Brazile.

Again, this issue can be seen mitigated some when Chandler Lawson or Mitchell are holding down the paint, but neither have consistently shown to be the offensive threat Brazile projects to be when he’s at his best – something we haven’t seen enough of this year.

The team’s inability to stay in front of ball handlers is not solely caused by a lack of strength – a lot of it has to do with footwork, defensive scheme, player IQ, reaction time, etc. However, a strong opponent capable of bullying his way past a Razorback opponent will often draw help defenders, resulting in a “scramble defense” situation where the entire team is responsible for helping each other.

Previous Razorback teams thrived in these scenarios. This Razorback team often allows open 3s or offensive rebounds in these scenarios – another potential issue caused by lack of physical size.

Leadership of Arkansas Basketball

Speaking of Trevon Brazile, the once-upon-a-time projected first-round NBA Draft pick was expected to be one of the best players in college basketball before the season started. He was thought to be a leader alongside other upperclassmen like Devo Davis and Tramon Mark.

That hasn’t been the case. Aside from a handful of really good games where his potential shines through, the sophomore forward has regressed in virtually every aspect of his game compared to what we saw through the first nine games of last season prior to his injury.

Without dogging on him too much, it is worth noting that serious injuries – especially knee injuries in the case of uber-athletic players like Brazile – can be just as difficult to come back from mentally as they are physically. It’s possible Brazile can’t mentally get around the possibility of getting re-injured. 

Regardless of the reason for timidity, Brazile has not been the assertive force Arkansas needed him to be. Brazile is averaging only 6.5 shot attempts per game, ranking fourth on the team and only 0.1 attempts away from falling behind Devo Davis for fifth.

During SEC play, his shot attempts have dropped to 5.8 per game and he’s shooting a horrid 37% from the field and 18% from beyond the arc to go along with 1.8 turnovers and an average box plus/minus of minus-12.0 per game.

Hog fans know he can do better. They saw it to begin last season and have seen it multiple times this season, including during his 19-point, 11-rebound, 2-block performance in a win over Duke. 

Still, his lack of consistency and aggression on both sides of the ball is a leading cause in Arkansas’ struggles considering the leadership role he was expected to play on this team.

Tramon Mark has often filled his role to the best of his abilities, but even he sometimes shows frustration and a lack of effort in certain situations on the court. He’s been the only bright spot in many games for the Hogs, but when he pays more attention to the ref than getting back on defense after a no call or doesn’t hustle back after a turnover, it has a bigger impact on the team than if a different player were to do the same thing. Not to mention he’s now missed a couple of games with injury. Though this is out of his control, it still creates inconsistency for the team.

Then there’s the mysterious case of Devo Davis. Before his recent absence from the team, described as the senior guard “stepping away from the program,” he was in the midst of his worst statistical season at Arkansas, averaging fewer points (6.3), rebounds (4.0), assists (2.1) and steals (0.5) than even his freshman season when he played less than 24 minutes per game. He’s also shooting below 24% from long range and by far his career low from the field at just over 35% overall.

In previous seasons, Davis was more of a homerun type of player that had plenty of amazing plays and his fair share of terrible plays. Musselman lived with the mistakes because of the positive impact Davis’ big plays had on the team, both in the stat column and as a confidence booster.

This year, however, while the effort has been there for the most part for Musselman’s only fourth-year player, the production on the court has often been more negative than positive. Even with a career low 1.1 turnovers per game, Davis averages four missed shots per game, several of which are from well beyond the 3-point line. Although Davis did shoot well from beyond the perimeter in SEC play last year, deep 3s have never been an area where he’s been efficient.

The team seemed to play well in two of the three games he missed, and now he will throw another wrinkle into the mix with his return. At this point, fans can only hope he returns to the sharp-shooting form he was showing this time last year. His absence still hurt, regardless of the down season he was having.

Can Arkansas Basketball’s Issues Be Fixed?

In short, not really. No individual thing listed in this article is the lone problem causing issues for this Razorback team. It’s a combination of all these things and likely many more.

Fixing one or two of the issues within their control would certainly help and could lead to a more competitive basketball team, but it’s likely too little too late at this point in the season anyways. Which leads to another issue of motivating players on the tail end of a disappointing season.

Perhaps finding their rhythm offensively would negate a lot of issues with the confidence and chemistry and perhaps allow them to contend with teams even if the defense still isn’t up to par with previous Musselman teams. It’s also a lot easier to motivate a player to play defense or dive after loose balls when he sees a few shots go through the hoop. That’s just human nature.

Ultimately, however, this far into the season, it’s hard to picture a turnaround of any significance happening for this specific roster. Between the lack of leadership, defensive prowess and overall roster construction, this team may simply have too many hurdles in front of them.

Yes, with Davis back on board and a healthier Brazile, they may figure some things out and start playing better basketball. Still, some kind of miracle run will be needed just to make March Madness. Expect an SEC Tournament title to be the only thing that can salvage this season.

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