The Wisdom of Putting Future UA “Package Deals” Out in the Open Again

Luke Hasz, Lawson Blake, Todd Day, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / Arkansas Athletics / Arkansas Athletics

Lawson Blake will miss most, if not all, of the upcoming Arkansas basketball season because of an Achilles injury, he announced Tuesday.

The walk-on from Fayetteville was the lone player from last year’s team who did not enter the transfer portal in the wake of Eric Musselman’s departure for USC and is set to be one of only two returnees in 2024-25, as Trevon Brazile withdrew from the portal and is also back.

According to Blake’s post on Twitter, he “ruptured” his Achilles tendon in practice and is expected to miss 6-12 months. He also thanked new head coach John Calipari and his staff for their “unwavering support.”

“While working hard towards recovery, I will continue to be a part of the program and help my teammates in every way possible,” Blake wrote. “I’m as excited today as I’ve ever been for this upcoming season. I can’t wait for y’all to see this team!”

The loss of Blake doesn’t impact the Razorbacks’ on-court product. He wasn’t expected to play meaningful minutes, but it is noteworthy to Arkansas basketball fans because of what he represented on next year’s team.

His only action the last three years has come in the form of mop-up duty in blowouts — 20 total minutes across 18 games — but he has been praised for his loyalty in sticking around through the coaching change.

On top of that, Lawson Blake is an in-state product — the Razorbacks’ lone such player after Davonte Davis and Joseph Pinion transferred out. His presence on the roster ensures next season won’t be the first time on record that the roster lacks even a single player from the Natural State.

According to HogStats, there has been at least one in-state player on every Arkansas basketball team since 1947-48, which is as far back as season stats are known to exist.

Over that span, there have been only two seasons with one in-state player: 1988-89 (Keith Wilson from Fort Smith) and 1989-90 (Ernie Murry from Wabbaseka) That happened in the era that Nolan Richardson was ramping the program up into an eventual national powerhouse primarily with players from neighboring states.

If Blake ends up missing the entire season and redshirting, which is certainly possible given his timeline, it is believed the 2024-25 season would be the first in UA history without a single active in-state player.

What that could also open the door to is a potential fifth season for Blake. Arkansas hasn’t had a five-year player since Michael Sanchez, who redshirted his first year and then played four seasons, the last of which was 2011-12.

(READ NEXT: Assessing John Calipari’s early in-state recruiting efforts with Arkansas basketball)

Big Picture for Arkansas Basketball

In the grand scheme of the upcoming Arkansas basketball season, losing Lawson Blake is not significant. The injury is certainly a bummer and he deserves praise for his loyalty, but his unavailability will not impact the Razorbacks in the win-loss column.

Discussion around Blake does, however, serve as a nice segue to a big-picture issue for Arkansas basketball moving forward: John Calipari’s roster construction.

The Hall of Fame coach drew national headlines this summer when he revealed his plan to sign eight or nine rotation players, and possibly a 10th, and fill out the rest of the squad with walk-ons who would receive a scholarship without the same NIL guarantees as the main players.

He stuck to that plan, securing a nine-man rotation as talented as any in the country. Calipari has since added a pair of those walk-on types: high school recruit Jaden Karuletwa and Division II transfer Melo Sanchez.

Neither of those players are expected to play much next season, but rather serve as scout teamers in practice. In a perfect world, they develop and evolve into contributors down the line, but that’s probably a bonus at this point.

What Blake’s injury illustrates is the precarious situation Arkansas could find itself in if something like that happens to one of the top nine players — or, God forbid, two of them. Suddenly the Razorbacks would be down to a seven-man rotation. Then what happens if a player or two gets in foul trouble?

Needless to say, things could get dicey in a hurry. It seems like that’s a risk Calipari is willing to take, rather than bringing in a full 13-man roster with players who might get upset about playing time and transfer out after a year.

What to Do with the ‘Walk-On’ Spots

In the event of such a disastrous scenario, the “walk-on” players John Calipari brings in become very important because they could be thrust into action.

Someone like Melo Sanchez, who averaged 14.6 points and shot 34.6% from beyond the arc at Hawaii Pacific last season, might help as sort of a bandaid in such a situation because he’s played two years of college basketball.

He’s probably the 10th player in the pecking order because of that reason. But even if Lawson Blake is also put on scholarship, along with Jaden Karuletwa, that’s still only 12 total players. One spot remains open.

Barring a shift back to a larger core rotation, it’s clear Calipari will have a hard time filling all of those spots with high-quality walk-ons, even with scholarships as part of the deal. That’s not a dig at him, either, as it’d probably be tough to convince that many borderline-DI prospects to essentially come be practice players instead of going somewhere they could actually get playing time.

What that could do is open up the possibility of getting creative for that last spot or two.

Ideally, the Razorbacks would be able to bring in the top in-state player who is a borderline-SEC prospect and give them the opportunity to represent his home state. However, finding a player willing to be 11th, 12th or 13th in the rotation who is also at that level of ability may not always be possible.

The other thing they could do is take a page out of the football team’s book. We see it all the time in football where Arkansas offers a scholarship to a borderline-SEC prospect who happens to be the sibling or teammate of a blue-chip recruit.

Safety Dylan Hasz was a two-star recruit on Rivals, but is the twin brother of four-star tight end Luke Hasz. Before them, Kendall Catalon was a decent wide receiver at FCS Southern before transferring to Arkansas, but is the older brother of four-star safety Jalen Catalon.

Of course, you could argue that Calipari recruits at a different level than the Arkansas football program, which is true, but if he really wants a five-star prospect and offering a teammate/brother makes the difference, he can afford to do just that.

That isn’t below legendary coaches, either. Nolan Richardson did it with a pair of step brothers early in his tenure: Darrell Anderson and Memphis native Todd Day. Injuries prevented the former from ever playing for the Razorbacks, but the latter is the UA’s all-time leading scorer. A couple years after they arrived on campus, Richardson admitted they were “a package.”

NIL, NBA development and a chance to compete for championships are things several schools can offer, but the flexibility to burn an additional scholarship to land a big-time recruit could help separate Arkansas basketball from the pack.

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