Shortly after a 23-point loss to UConn on Thursday night – a loss that ended the Razorbacks’ season in the Sweet 16 – an apparent Arkansas basketball fan remarked on Facebook that they wanted Nick Smith Jr. gone. They hoped he, an Arkansas native and the No. 1 recruit in the country last year, would not return.
While they will probably get their wish – and you’ll notice “they” because the person chose to write the remark under one of those fake social media names – it still felt dripping with pessimism. Smith took a chance on his entire future and NBA career by fighting off a knee injury to play for his home state’s biggest school down the stretch. He didn’t have to. He chose to. And while his numbers were not the kinds that suggest an NBA superstar, the Razorbacks were a better team with him than without him.
They, meaning Arkansas this time, will almost surely be without him next year. Smith is a projected NBA lottery pick. It’s hard to imagine him returning to Arkansas for a sophomore season. And he’s not the only one. His fellow freshman guard Anthony Black is unlikely to return to Fayetteville, either. His season was the stuff of NBA lottery picks after he averaged almost 13 points, more than five rebounds, four assists and two steals during his first collegiate season.
In other words, Arkansas’ two most dynamic players will be playing for NBA dollars next year, probably. If you were betting on sports in Ohio, rest assured it will be a practically sure bet that both will land in the top 20 of the upcoming draft.
Arkansas Basketball Roster Turnover
But that much is expected. The real question about Arkansas basketball in 2023-24 is what everyone else does. Kamani Johnson is the only player on this year’s roster who is out of eligibility. Everyone else can return, though it’s doubtful all the rest, even excluding Smith and Black, will.
Baye Fall, the 16th-ranked recruit in the country, and Layden Blocker, No. 23, have signed and will play for coach Eric Musselman next year. Musselman is also known as one of the best in the country when it comes to recruiting out of the transfer portal. Trevon Brazile, Makhi Mitchell, Makhel Mitchell, Jalen Graham and Ricky Council IV all had major roles this year via the portal. Last year it was Stanley Umude, Au’Diese Toney and Chris Lykes. The year before that, Justin Smith, JD Notae and Jalen Tate.
It stands to reason Musselman won’t sit pat and tough conversations will have to be had between him and some of the players on Arkansas’ bench. Freshmen Barry Dunning and Derrian Ford were both top-100 recruits coming out of high school last year, but neither once cracked the rotation. Joseph Pinion, another freshman, did, but only for a few games in the middle of the year.
Complicating things is the NCAA’s transfer rule. No longer can players up and leave just because without penalty. Rather, players can’t leave for a third four-year school without penalty. If the Mitchells, Graham, Council or Brazile were to choose to enter the portal, they would have to sit out a season, barring a waiver. Considering all of them except Brazile and Council have just one year remaining, do they want to leave Arkansas for another pasture?
The rule change gives Musselman’s Hogs a better chance of finally carrying over a core group of players from the previous season, a dynamic that hasn’t yet been part of his time at Arkansas.
Roster Questions Facing the Razorbacks
Still, expect some to leave. Graham seems most likely to depart. The big man showed a dynamite scoring punch, but his defensive limitations and lack of rebounding kept him in Musselman’s doghouse most of the year despite his previous All-Pac 12 experience at Arizona State. The Mitchell brothers saw regular playing time, Council was the team’s leading scorer and Brazile could see an offense built around him after he returns from his ACL injury.
Still, when those conversations take place, either the players or the staff may suggest a change of scenery. If it happens, don’t be the person from the opening paragraph. And don’t do it for the freshmen, either. Ford and Pinion are Arkansas natives and could be more likely to stay than Dunning because of that. But it isn’t wise to think geography plays much of a role in such decisions. College sports are a national thing (and have been for a long time), not a local one. Of those three freshmen, Pinion seems the most likely to stay as his 3-point shooting gives him a role that could grow after a season of some experience. Fall and Blocker will be expected, fairly or not, to immediately step into the rotation. Perhaps as starters. Perhaps as a Jordan Walsh-like part-time starter.
Speaking of Walsh, it looks like he’s returning to Fayetteville after this interview after the UConn loss:
Coming back to develop a tighter handle and more accurate, confident shot as part of an overall better offense to go along with his already stellar defense is smart. Walsh was a potential first-round pick coming out of high school, but his season, while solid, wasn’t the sort that made his draft stock jump. Now, Walsh is either projected to be a late second-rounder or undrafted all together. Musselman loves his energy and defense. Walsh could have been a higher scorer, too, had he not been whistled for so many fouls. If that reels in during a sophomore season, Walsh will have rebuilt his NBA prospect status back to where it was a year ago.
What becomes of Brazile and Council is the biggest question Arkansas will have heading into next year. Both have NBA talent. Council is a projected second-round pick who was top-five in the SEC in scoring. He has a jumper, he can slash and get to the line. His 3-pointer needs a bit of work, as does his defense along with his first step to the basket and passing ability, but he’s right on the border of the NBA, the kind of player who often waits until late into the draft entry process to make a decision. Think of Moses Kingsley after his junior year.
Brazile’s is a different story. He was a first-round probable when he was healthy. His game was that good and it put him high on NBA radars. But that ACL injury changes things dramatically. If he’s done with the college game, he could take his chance, albeit no longer as a first-rounder. If Brazile wants to make that stock jump up again to that range, though, like Walsh, another year in Fayetteville could do wonders.
So where does that leave things? Who knows.
Projecting the 2023-24 Arkansas Basketball Roster
If all who are around 40% or better to return do, the 2023-24 Arkansas basketball team could look like this:
- C – Makhi Mitchell
- F – Trevon Brazile
- G – Jordan Walsh
- G – Ricky Council
- G – Devo Davis
- C – Makhel Mitchell (reserve)
- F – Baye Fall (reserve)
- F – Jalen Graham (reserve)
- G – Layden Blocker
- G – Joseph Pinion
- G – Derrian Ford
- F – Barry Dunning
- G – Cade Arbogast (walk-on)
- F – Lawson Blake (walk-on)
That’s too many bodies, frankly. Will Graham want to be the third big off the bench again? Does Pinion want to be a specialist only? Do Ford and Dunning want to stagnate on the bench? All unlikely. And it still doesn’t take into consideration Musselman’s fondness for the portal.
Plenty of questions remain. Plenty of time remains, too. The next few months will be massive when it comes to building Arkansas’ 23-24 roster. If we’re guessing right now, though, well, here you go.
- Nick Smith – gone
- Anthony Black – gone
- Ricky Council – gone
- Barry Dunning – gone
- Derrian Ford – gone
Based on what they showed at the end of the UConn game, Dunning and Ford would be a loss. Kent Smith at SI.com was especially aglow at the prospects of what Ford could do going forward, writing of the muscular 6’3″ freshman: “It may have only been five minutes, but it was easy to see that there’s a bright future for Ford next season. He had all the hallmarks of the type of players who would have thrived at Arkansas in the 90s.”
“However, the defensive tools he put on display, plus the fearlessness and sturdy nature he showed on the offensive end make him a high potential contributor going into next season under Eric Musselman also.”
In the era of the portal and NIL and with Musselman running the show – especially given the success he has had at Arkansas – there is no telling what’s to become of next year’s Razorbacks. The good news for fans, those unlike that ‘they’ above, Muss will almost certainly figure it out.
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