New Hogs Have One Potential “Glaring Hole” after Trevon Brazile’s Return

Trevon Brazile, Jonas Aidoo, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / Tennessee Athletics

The dust has now cleared on Trevon Brazile’s announced return to Arkansas for a third season – this time under head coach John Calipari.

But high hopes still linger in the air. After tearing his ACL nine games into his sophomore season (and first with the Hogs), Brazile returned to the court last year with lofty expectations on his shoulders to be one of the leaders on a team otherwise full of transfers.

Brazile didn’t quite live up to those leadership expectations. Maybe that was due to lingering weariness about the knee injury or deep-rooted team chemistry issues or something else.  

Regardless of the reason for last season’s disappointment, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Brazile rejoining the team next year. One is the presence of other high-level players with high-major and/or extensive NCAA Tournament experience. Another would be the level of facilitators on this upcoming roster projecting to be a better fit for Brazile’s preferred style than some of the players on last year’s team.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the presence of Calipari and his staff. In particular,  assistant coach Kenny Payne developed several quality big men during his time at Kentucky, including Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Bam Adebayo, Julius Randle, PJ Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt, Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel.

This isn’t to say that Brazile will magically turn into the next NBA All-Star overnight, but if he’s able to pick up on a few tendencies that helped make these players the quality NBA players they turned out to be, he has a great chance to become more efficient in his role within this upcoming roster.

John Calipari Limiting his Roster Size, Literally

In his first offseason as the new Arkansas basketball coach, John Calipari went straight to work on an unprecedented challenge for himself: an entirely blank roster with 13 open scholarship spots.

The addition of Brazile brings the total up to nine players Calipari has added in roughly two months on the job. He has been very vocal about taking only eight or nine high-level scholarship players into next season.

“If there is a 10th man, he knows he’s the 10th man,” Calipari said in a recent interview regarding not bringing on too many scholarship players with high expectations about their individual roles on the team.

In other words, the four remaining roster spots are likely to be used on strictly depth pieces that understand their role on the team is to play hard, provide positive attitudes and give excellent scout team work. It’s unlikely that all 13 scholarships will even be used.

With that being said, it’s safe to assume that Calipari’s core rotation for his first Razorback team is all but set, barring any surprise additions from places like UConn or Auburn pending coaching changes if Huskies coach Danny Hurley leaves for the Lakers.

That Arkansas basketball rotation looks something like this.

  • Guards: Johnell Davis, DJ Wagner, Johnuel “Boogie” Fland
  • Wings: Adou Thiero, Karter Knox, Billy Richmond
  • Bigs: Trevon Brazile, Jonas Aidoo, Zvonimir Ivisic

This lineup provides a lot of experience, multiple quality ball handlers, some very versatile scoring options, high-level defenders and now a pair of stretch bigs that should give Calipari plenty of options when playing with different lineups.

Potential Biggest Weakness for Arkansas Basketball

One thing this Arkansas basketball lineup does not have a lot of is raw strength. There is good size in terms of height and wingspan at every position, but no one to really point to as a bruiser should the Hogs face other high-quality big men in the post – which they eventually will if they want to make it far in the NCAA Tournament.

Jonas Aidoo is likely to be the starting center for the Razorbacks given his overall size and three years of SEC experience in which he’s started 45 of 90 games played – including all 36 a year ago. He’s listed at 6-foot-11, 240 pounds and showed out plenty against smaller competition as you can see below:

Still, he seemed to struggle against some of the bigger bodies Tennessee faced last season.

Most notably, in the Volunteers’ final game of the season, Aidoo played only 10 minutes in the Elite Eight matchup against Zach Edey and Purdue, tallying three fouls and one turnover while going 0 of 4 from the field.

While it’s not entirely fair to compare all big men to the back-to-back National Player of the Year and one of the more dominant forces college basketball has seen in recent memory, the current Razorback roster would be left in a very bad position with only Ivisic and Brazile to back up Aidoo against a paint beast like Edey.

Brazile did sort of face off against Edey in the preseason last year, though he usually had one of Chandler Lawson or Makhi Mitchell by his side, so he rarely went toe-to-toe with Edey. While Lawson did an unexpectedly good job against Edey in the post, Brazile’s presence as a weak-side shot blocker should not be overlooked as an aid in slowing down the AP Player of the Year.

Over the course of last season, Aidoo faced 21 “big” opponents. These opponents were chosen by a combination of height, weight, and actual playing time in their matchup against Aidoo – anyone over 6-foot-10 and/or 240 pounds who played a significant number of minutes against Tennessee (roughly 15 or so minutes at least).

Closer Look at Jonas Aidoo’s Performance

In general, it’s made up of players that would generally expect to cause issues in the paint for their matchup based on size alone, including names like Hunter Dickenson, Armando Bacot, DJ Burns, Johni Broome and Tolu Smith (x2), among others.

Some players made this hand-picked list due to their sheer size and ability to wreak havoc as a defender or rebounder, such as Ole Miss’ Jamarion Sharp (7-foot-5), Syracuse’s Naheem McLeod (7-foot-4) and Florida’s Micah Handlogten (7-foot-1).

In these 21 matchups, Aidoo averaged 11.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and shot 50% from the field. On the other hand, these 21 opponents combined to average 9.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and shot 48% from the field.

This, of course, is a generalization dragged down by a few players mainly playing for their size and not their ability to wrack up stats. For example, Dickenson and Bacot combined to average 15.0 points and 12.0 rebounds against Aidoo.

Similar to Edey, it’s not often you go up against one of the top five players in college basketball. However, Arkansas is not necessarily primed to stop a player of this caliber should it run into one down the line, especially should Aidoo get into early foul trouble.

The biggest difference between the current Razorback roster and last year’s Tennessee team is the presence of a bruiser off the bench at the backup center position. 

“Aidoo really struggled with those [physical bigs] at Tennessee,” Sports Illustrated’s Kevin Sweeney wrote in a recent article. “But he had cover in backup Tobe Awaka, a bruising force down low. Brazile and Ivisic won’t provide that same relief. If there’s one glaring hole on this Arkansas team, it’s a sturdy backup center.”

Arguably the most important X-factor heading into next season that could mitigate this potential issue is the growth of Zvonimir “Big Z” Ivisic. Although he’s about to begin his second year of college, it’s important to remember that this summer is Ivisic’s first in a college weight room. He joined the Wildcats midway through last season.

While his game is more suited to the European style of finesse and long-range shooting, he’s more than capable of adding 15-20 pounds of muscle this offseason, making him a much more formidable interior presence. Not to mention he still averaged 1.3 blocks per game in only 11.7 minutes of action, posting an 11.9% block rate.

For reference, Zach Edey has not posted above a 7.4% block rate in the last three years, and Arkansas’ best interior defender last season, Makhi Mitchell, only posted a 7.4% block rate, as well.

The other major factor to consider in this equation is actually the newest Razorback on the roster, albeit in a different way from the first two big men discussed. Brazile is not a bruiser and he’s certainly not the answer to an opposing post force like Edey or Dickenson, but he is efficient as a help-side shot blocker.

When he doesn’t have to be the one bodying up post players, he’s free to come across the lane to contest shots over the top or crash the defensive glass – both areas where he’s shown tremendous capability in his last two seasons at Arkansas.

Allowing Brazile to play almost exclusively at the four-spot beside either one of Aidoo or Ivisic should – in theory – make their lives slightly easier given the constant threat of Brazile’s wingspan lurking across the paint waiting to provide additional rim protection.

Potential Other Weaknesses

While physicality and size on the interior is the easy thing to point to as a potential issue for this upcoming Arkansas basketball roster, there’s always the possibility that other weak points could present themselves as season-altering issues.

Firstly, the Hogs don’t project to be an elite 3-point shooting team. This is nothing new for Razorback fans familiar with the Musselman era, but it could be a drastic change for John Calipari, whose Wildcats shot better than 40% from long range last season.

The five incoming transfers plus Trevon Brazile combined to shoot 35.3% from long range last season, though a vast majority of those attempts came from Johnell Davis and Brazile, hitting a combined 82-of-208 (39%) last season. The other four players combined to shoot 44-of-149 (30%).

Having players who hit 3s at an average rate is one thing, but having players that have gravity without the ball in their hands due to being a true threat from long range is a different beast entirely. Brazile and Ivisic should contribute some of that gravity as stretch bigs, but players like Thiero and Wagner will need to take a step forward for Arkansas to truly be a threatening team from beyond the arc.

This also all goes without mentioning the potential for Boogie Fland and Karter Knox to step in as above average shooters. Both would honestly be better described as scorers than pure shooters (think of the difference between a player like JD Notae who was a good scorer vs Isaiah Joe who is a knock-down shooter).

However, both have very smooth shots and hold the potential to get hot in a hurry. If either or both can pull defenders away from the paint to the perimeter, outside shooting could quickly fall off the list of potential concerns for the Hogs.

The other most likely area of concern would be defense. Just like it’s hard to predict how good of shooters players like Fland and Knox will be as true freshmen, it’s also hard to exactly pin down the sort of impact they will have defensively.

The Hogs have good size and a few established defenders like Wagner, Thiero and Aidoo to an extent, but filling in gaps defensively could quickly become a hot topic.

The idea of always having two of Brazile, Ivisic and Aidoo on the court together sounds nice in theory, but a team with a mobile power forward could quickly create matchup problems for Brazile or Ivisic on the perimeter, rendering the twin-tower look relatively useless in certain situations.

It’s also important to remember that Brazile is now another full year removed from his ACL injury, which almost certainly impacted his lateral quickness at a physical and confidence level. It’s absolutely possible that the returning Razorback could look closer to his pre-injury self during his eight-game stretch in 2022-23 than how he appeared on the court last season.

All in all, though, Arkansas is set to field a lot of experience as well as good size and length at virtually every position. Depth is of course a worry with only nine players currently on the roster, but there are very few glaring issues that paint the Hogs as anything other than an elite team for the upcoming college basketball season.

***

***

More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS… 

Facebook Comments