While growing up in Little Rock, everyone seemed to agree Austin was a very cool town. Kind of like the moon: you might get to visit, but you probably wouldn’t ever get to live there. Whether this remains the case is debatable.
Either way, I do now live in Austin, so I got the chance to see the 2022 version of the Arkansas basketball team up close in a rare untelevised game. As you may have heard, it was the first game in Texas’ new basketball arena, the Moody Center (not the theater). Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the most Austin of new-era Austin-y places. (Like all people living in Austin, I consider the Austin of when I moved here as far superior in all ways, from the tacos to the bars to the strip clubs. For me, this was circa 1995 or 2001).
Why should you care about my thoughts on Austin and its self-described “new world-class arena in the Live Music Capital of the World”? There are a few reasons.
First, it seems clear that Arkansas will be in head-to-head recruiting battles with the University of Texas for the foreseeable future. Indeed, we already see it with Ron Holland. The state of Texas seems to have replaced Memphis as the Razorbacks’ source for top-flight talent, as evidenced by the signing of Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh. Also, when UT carpet bags into the SEC, an annual trip to Austin is likely for Arkansas basketball. Finally, I assume you will enjoy hearing how Texas screwed it up.
Texas Basketball “Fans”
In all the Texas basketball games I have attended over the year, there was not a single time I left and didn’t make some kind of snide remark about how sh*tty the experience was compared to attending games at Bud Walton. Now, it has been 25 years since I actually attended a game at Bud Walton, and those games were during the peak years of Arkansas basketball, but this exhibition was less attended than an early Nolan Richardson-era Red-White game at Barton Coliseum.
In past years, the excuse from whatever Texas fan I was with was always some version of “yeah, but our arena sucks” – which, in fairness, it did. That also obscures the fact that Texas basketball fans suck (ed: with the exception of BoAS contributor Jonny Beasher). The exhibition game solidified my opinion that this will not change.
Consider that on a perfect fall Saturday, when the football team was on a bye week, maybe 100 or 150 students showed up to what their team that is ranked in the Top 12 of the AP’s preseason poll. The student end zone sections were half full at best. My guess is there were roughly the same number of fans in Arkansas gear in the arena as there were students.
Sure, Bud Walton doesn’t have a swanky lounge at one end above the lower level or as many boxes for tech/oil dudes to discuss whatever tech/oil dudes talk about while wearing their hipster jeans and glasses and what not. But the only logo I saw painted on a face last Saturday was a Razorback. And there were recruits like Holland at this game. An entire high school team was one section over from me. So this should all benefit Arkansas basketball as far as I am concerned.
Were all of these thoughts meant to distract me from the 30-point loss? Yes, but it doesn’t make them not true.
About That 30-Point Loss…
As for my thoughts on the game, let me start by disagreeing with some analysis I have heard. Mike Irwin of Pig Trail Nation put forth the theory – in Monday’s weekly Ask Mike segment for YouTube – that head coach Eric Musselman scheduled the game as a wake-up call for the team.
“Let me just say this is my theory – I can’t prove it – but my theory is he did this on purpose,” Irwin said. “I think he called up Chris Beard and said, ‘Hey, I got a bunch of guys that think they’re studs. They were all high school All-Americans, McDonald’s All-Americans and four-stars and five-stars and we got high high-end transfers and all this stuff and I can’t get these guys to do (what I want) in practice’ and it was almost like he wanted them not just to get beat, but to get beat badly.”
The idea Musselman was playing 4D chess and wanted a blowout loss in the exhibition game seems like a bit of a stretch. I was concerned Musselman might strangle one or more players in the first half. After every turnover, of which there were many, he would spin around and look down his bench for someone to put in. Many times he did. But on occasion, he would realize he was just as upset with the guys on the bench and just stomp back the other way. Then, I can only assume, he contemplated running onto the floor, grabbing the ball and kicking it into the stands. So, as everyone who has ever watched Musselman during a game or at a press conference knows, he was not happy with a 30-point loss.
Breaking Down the Arkansas Basketball Players
As for the players, it wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. It should be noted Texas fielded a team that has a number of returning starters and older transfers, as well as their own two McDonald’s All-Americans.
Nick Smith Jr. looked like the best player on the floor for the first part of the game and will clearly be a potent scorer as advertised. His ability to get in the lane and finish short floaters is going to be fun to watch this year. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much help scoring in the first half.
Anthony Black looked good early, handling the ball and passing, plus he also finishes around the rim well. If you were going to pinpoint when the wheels fell off, it would be when Black picked up his second foul and Musselman sent him to the bench. I’m doing this all from memory, so I am not sure, but I think Musselman may have broken one of his golden rules and inserted Black back into the game after his second foul in the first half – which I can only attribute to it being an exhibition game.
For those familiar with the work of Davonte Davis, you will be happy to know he is still Devo. Sans headband. I thought the headband was a bad sign last year, by the way. A little too much look at me. He had the (Arkansas) play of the game in the first half: a beautiful drive with a few long strides from the top of the key and a twisting finish at the rim. Then he over dribbled and turned it over on the next play. He was clearly frustrated with some of the new guys not knowing where to go. He may be an extension of Musselman in this regard.
The Razorbacks’ Frontcourt
Texas is not a particularly big team. I left the arena in cold sweats thinking about Oscar Tshiebwe. He may have a 60-point, 30-rebound game against us this year. I was under the impression we had addressed our lack of size issue with all the transfers. So, it was interesting that Musselman chose to play only one big man at a time for most of the game. I wasn’t sure if he thought because of the size and athleticism of his guards that he could get by with just playing his best five, size be damned, or if this was an exhibition game experiment. Then I remembered that this really wasn’t any different from his favorite lineups from last season. So maybe this is just the Musselman way. In Muss I Trust, as we all do at this point. But I expected to see two big guys on the floor at the same time this year.
I don’t remember “the better Mitchell,” as I like to call Makhi, being on the floor with Trevon Brazile, for instance. As for Brazile, I think he may be the key to our season. This concerns me. He was on the receiving end of a big time shot block in the first half and was never heard from again. I recalled Brazille being the most talented player on Missouri’s awful team last year and he certainly looked like a monster playing in the Europe this summer. He also looks to have filled out a little. Hopefully he responds well to Musselman’s intense style of player instruction. Because he should be getting a lot of it.
Alternatively, “the better Mitchell” had some nice finishes and wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around on defense. If the memory of Jaylin Williams didn’t linger around so much, he would have seemed more impressive, I think. He just pales a bit in comparison to the uncanny charge taking, emotional leader and best passing center at Arkansas since the Big O, Oliver Miller.
The Arkansas Basketball Bench
Ricky Council IV had a fantastic block on a run out that really showed off his athleticism. Unfortunately, this came after a turnover. If I had to guess, I think Musselman will mold him into the 2022-23 version of Au’Diese Toney – who was the 2021-22 version of Justin Smith.
Kamani Johnson has slimmed down and looks like he will get more time on the floor this year. He hustled and grabbed some boards he shouldn’t have gotten and missed some shots he should have made. Johnson seems ready for his role as a borderline-crazy, energy guy with five fouls off the bench when Arkansas has to play bigger teams.
Jordan Walsh may have improved during the game, meaning he seemed like a better basketball player when the final buzzer sounded than he was at tip off. Hopefully this is a good harbinger for the season. At first, the game seemed a bit fast for him. He settled down in the second half and looked much better. Walsh gets off the floor quickly and had at least one nice two-hand finish around the basket. His stroke from 3 also looked good. Unfortunately, this was after the game was well out of reach and the coaches had started to clear their benches.
Jalen Graham, Joseph Pinion, “the other Mitchell” (Makhel), Barry Dunning Jr. and Derrian Ford played large parts of the second half in the not-quite-ready-for-primetime portion of the game, along with Walsh. Pinion was the surprise here. He looked to shoot after getting his sea legs and was vocal in pulling the group together at the foul line. I expect him to get the fourth-most time of the freshmen and could cycle into the starting lineup during Musselman’s lineup experimentation phase of the season.
Overall, I won’t lie and say it wasn’t a long walk back to the car with my two mildly interested Texas fan friends. It was not a pretty sight for large parts of the game. Is this the year Musselman fails to pull the rabbit out of the hat mid year? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Then again, I am not sure I would bet on us going to the Elite Eight again. There are a lot of ‘ifs’ – if Brazile and Walsh come on strong to complement Smith and Black, if Arkansas can get more good Devo than bad Devo, if Pinion can hit some shots and open up the floor, if the Mitchell twins and Johnson can rebound and finish, if the team can take advantage of its length and athleticism to shut down opponents, particularly on the three point line and last but not least… if everyone can crash the boards.
Then could the Razorbacks go even further in March? Maybe so. But boy does this exhibition indiciate it’s going to be a roller coaster. Regardless, In Muss We Trust.
Watch Mike Irwin give his take on the Arkansas-Texas game at the 15:45 mark below:
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…