Back in the 1990s, we Southerners who were too rural for cable discovered something. Satellite television. Some folks, even back in the 1980s, had those massive dishes that you literally could press a button on your remote to turn on. But as the decade changed, PrimeStar entered the fold. Then DirecTV. Dish Network. For those of us who were sports fans, getting to watch our favorite teams no matter where they played was a boon of epic proportions.
This was also the era of the magazine when, again, we were spoiled. Street and Smith’s, Athlon, The Sporting News, Lindy’s. My personal favorite was “Dick Vitale’s College Basketball.” I turned 10 in 1993 and was entering my ‘big kid’ stage where I was far more into sports than most kids I knew and I devoured those magazines like a fiend.
I was that kid who would study every last team in the thing. For whatever reason, I can still tell you immediately who Demetrius Dudley is. Tony Maroney had the coolest name in the world and he played at Hawaii, so I was a fan of the Rainbows. Like most people I knew who actually were into the game, recruiting wasn’t the primary concern. After all, most players played a full four years and rare was the freshman who could significantly alter a team’s trajectory in their first season.
But the JuCo guys? They were an immediate injection. They wouldn’t always pan out – because, obviously – but when they did, teams could make significant jumps. From Corey Beck and Alex Dillard to Dwight Stewart, the Hogs’ only national championship squad was full of them.
But as the internet became more widely available and it became easier to discover and analyze high school players, the shift toward recruiting grew and grew. We obsessed, and sometimes still do, about where our favorite college team landed in the recruiting rankings. If they brought in a great class of youngsters, so to speak, maybe we could set ourselves up for a stretch of greatness!
That’s pretty much gone now, too. For sure, many still get more of a kick out of who will be on the team than who’s currently on it (ask your favorite reporter what stories pick up the most traffic – articles about the game or articles about some 16-year-old who took a weekend visit; it’s still, undoubtedly, the most off-putting part of this industry).
Transfer Portal Changes Things
Now, though, the limelight shifts to which 20- or 21-year-olds are swinging into town. And we’re no longer as concerned about those rising high schoolers. Because if they’re truly program-changers, they’re only going to be there one year, anyway. The same can be said for the incoming players from the transfer portal, but because of their age and experience, they’re known quantities and more likely to be hits, so to speak, than misses.
The key is, to pervert a Gen Z phrase, find you a coach who can do both.
Like, for example, Eric Musselman. After hauling in the No. 2 recruiting class in the country last year, he has so far this offseason bolstered things by picking up five players via the portal.
Of course slate wiping is simply becoming Musselman’s M.O. after every significant player from the 2022-23 Arkansas basketball team was playing in his first season with the Hogs except Devo Davis and, to a lesser extent, Kamani Johnson. Don’t be surprised if 2023-24 is much the same.
Only two freshmen are set to join the Hogs next year. Baye Fall is a McDonald’s All-American forward/center and Layden Blocker is a fast-as-lightning, ball-handling point guard. Arkansas will also bring in five players who are, ostensibly, wings to help alleviate the loss of Anthony Black, Nick Smith Jr., Ricky Council and maybe Jordan Walsh and Davis. For what it’s worth, the gut-instinct on their futures feels more and more angling toward ‘gone’ than ‘return.’
The churn stings for us old-timers. In fact, some – you’ve seen them – proclaim the transfer portal and NIL are the death of the sport. They’re never watching a game again! (They still do, of course, and either don’t tell anyone or pretend they never said such things; a bit like Bud Light drinkers lately).
Our sense of nostalgia pervades. It was always better back in our day, wasn’t it? I mean, of course it wasn’t, but because the way things were when we came of age is how we, societally, tend to think things should be. There’s a whole psychological and physiological theory behind it that I haven’t the time to get into.
Anyway, it’s been hard for people to grasp. Even Mike Irwin, the dean of Arkansas television sports personalities, has come to realize that maybe Malik Monk not going to Arkansas was, in fact, not just OK in the grand scheme of things, but the best possible thing for him.
Irwin, like many, was having a hard time adjusting to the changes the game of college basketball had wrought. Things have only become more convoluted since. Not a single player Musselman has landed – from the portal or out of high school – in the last three years has changed the program for the long-term.
The Hogs have made three straight Sweet 16s and had two consecutive Elite Eights before running into the buzzsaw that was this year’s eventual national champion UConn. But every player who has been an integral part of it, save for Davis, Jaylin Williams and JD Notae, spent just a lone season in Fayetteville.
Khalif Battle is the highest-rated player of the five Musselman has landed from the portal so far. He’s played four seasons of college basketball, but was just a sophomore last year. His 17.9 points per game last year for Temple suggest a player who will have immediate success at Arkansas. But they’re a total, too, that suggests college basketball may not be long for him. Will he stay for more than a season? Will Keyon Menifield? The point guard from Washington played just one season with the Huskies before hitting the road. He has plenty of eligibility left and it would, in theory, finish in Fayetteville. But it might not.
Biggest Remaining Target for Arkansas Basketball
Of the players remaining in the transfer portal, the biggest prize is Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson. He averaged more than 18 points per game each of the last two seasons with the Wolverines and shot 42% from three last year.
Sure, the crystal balling has Dickinson going to Kentucky (where he’s currently visiting) or Kansas, where according to the Michigan basketball insider Chris Balas he has been offered $4 million in NIL benefits. And, yes, even if a place like Maryland may have an advantage because one of its players is Dickinson’s former high school teammate and their high school coach, Mike Jones, is now on the Terrapins’ staff.
Let’s place all that aside for a minute and imagine what it would mean if the 7-foot-1 22-year-old committed to Arkansas. For starters, it would almost certainly lift the portal class, currently ranked No. 2 in the country, to the top and be hailed as one of the best transfer classes the game has ever seen. The addition of Dickinson would also immediately make the Hogs a national title co-favorite alongside a good 10 others.
Quasi-free agency getting less “quasi” by the day is just the way things go now. Musselman was aware of it before anyone else, which has helped make him the king of recruiting, whether it be teenagers or the veterans who have already proven they can produce at a big-time level in college.
The latter matters far more now. You can hate it all you want – though, admittedly, with Muss at the helm, if you’re an Arkansas fan, you probably don’t hate it as much as many others do. It ain’t going anywhere – for now.
But do enjoy what you have while you have it, because there’s a strong chance that one day the transfer portal meets the same fate as sports mags and satellite dishes.
More coverage of Arkansas basketball and the transfer portal from BoAS…