So Far, Arkansas’ Next Team Looks More Susceptible to Getting Punked Physically

Makhi Mitchell, Arkansas basketball, transfer portal
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

Over on Facebook – land of debris, home of the knaves – reactions were mixed after Arkansas center Makhel Mitchell announced he would enter the transfer portal. Mostly positive, mind you, but the aforementioned description of that place we should call anti-social media fits especially among the people who find it incumbent to make comments. For every 50 “likes,” some yoo-hoo has something negatively ill-informed to say.

Negative is OK. It’s the ill-informed part that’ll get ya.

See, Mitchell, who played only one season with the Razorbacks after transferring in from Rhode Island, is a 6-foot-10, 240-pound traditional post player who averaged 3.6 points and 3.2 rebounds in just over 12 minutes per game. With one season of eligibility remaining, circumstances appear unlikely he would have an opportunity to drastically improve those numbers at Arkansas, so off he goes.

For what it’s worth, his twin brother Makhi Mitchell – who averaged 7.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 20 minutes a night – hasn’t announced intentions to stay or go yet, leaving things unclear about the low blocks next year in Fayetteville.

Evolution of College Basketball

The game is evolving. Not just the transfer portal and NILs, but the actual on-court product, as well. Most teams in college basketball have adopted a mostly position-less style much like the NBA. And make no mistake, college basketball is a training ground for professional basketball for the most part at the Division I level. The personnel change is reflected with the roster make-ups of most teams.

Yes, just about everyone has that old-school, back-to-basket, rim-protector type. But they usually have just one in the rotation. That’s Makhi (for now). Even guys 6-foot-9 are expected to be able to make an occasional long jumper and serve as the screener-and-roller in the pick game. Arkansas has one of those, too, in forward Trevon Brazile, whose announcement a couple weeks back was a boon for the Razorbacks, despite his missing three-quarters of the season because of a torn ACL. Throw in 6-foot-10 Baye Fall, a McDonald’s All-American from Colorado, and the return of offensive microwave Jalen Graham, and Arkansas appears to have its four pure frontcourt players for 2023-24.

There’s a rub, though, as always. And the rub is that not *every* team has just one of those body-you-up-and-make-you-feel-hurt bodies in the paint. Connecticut, for example, beat Arkansas almost exactly because of that. Adama Sonogo’s 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame led him to score 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting to go with eight rebounds. Alex Karaban may have been only listed at 210 pounds, but his 5-of-5 game with seven boards showed he isn’t exactly a beanpole. Even Andre Jackson Jr., at 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, had the muscle to get inside to the tune of eight more boards.

In all, Arkansas was outrebounded by 12 and outscored in the paint by 18 en route to the 23-point loss in a game that never seemed like it was going to go the Hogs’ way.

This isn’t to suggest the season was poor on Arkansas’ account. Eric Musselman has taken the Razorbacks to three straight Sweet 16s and had a shot at three straight Elite Eights. Many programs would kill for that resume. But consider the types of teams that have eliminated the Hogs in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments and what they have in common: they were not afraid of Arkansas in the paint.

What Arkansas Basketball Needs

UNLV forward Larry Johnson famously told Nolan Richardson he needed to go recruit some “men” after the Runnin’ Rebels beat Arkansas in February 1991. The Hogs would lose in the Elite Eight that year after allowing Kansas power forward Alonzo Jamison to score 26 points with nine rebounds. UNLV ran the table, falling only in the Final Four to eventual national champion Duke. Richardson then brought in Corliss Williamson and Darnell Robinson the next two seasons and Arkansas won the national title in 1994.

Next year’s Arkansas team isn’t built like that one – though, in fairness, few are. Devo Davis, who declared for the NBA Draft but could return, is a speed merchant. The same with rising freshman Layden Blocker, another top-25 recruit, and Washington transfer Keyon Menifield Jr., a 6-foot-1, 170-pounder. On the wing, Jordan Walsh – who also has yet to announce his decision for next season – is as physical as they come, but a banger on the block he is not.

The aforementioned Baye Fall, for all this talent, is only 200 pounds. Fall’s not exactly looking like a young Kevin Garnett, either, when it comes to the all-star game circuit at the end of his high school career. “He isn’t strong enough or aggressive enough,” Hogville user tophawg19 wrote after seeing Fall in Nike’s Hoop Summit. “He doesn’t fit the role he is trying to play and [is] not attacking rebounds. He needs more weight and strength . They are moving him out of the way too easy.”

If Fall is having trouble holding his ground against other teenagers, how will he do against the older, rugged frontcourt players bodying him up in the SEC?

On the perimeter, some of Arkansas’ guards may need to deal with the same issue, but the addition of 6-foot-5, 195-pound wing Tramon Mark from Houston, who committed Sunday, will help inject some much-needed strength into the lineup. The 212-pound Brazile likely can’t afford to be a defensive banger, though, despite his size, as his offense will be a focal point for a Hogs team expected to lose at least its top three scorers.

Arkansas and the Transfer Portal Moving Forward

Eric Musselman has proven himself a maven when it comes to recruiting the transfer portal, though. He recognized last year his team needed more heft so he went out and brought the Mitchells to Fayetteville to go with a roster that already included a banger in Kamani Johnson and a strong, 6-foot-7 point guard in Anthony Black and would later add a physical force in Ricky Council IV. Johnson’s eligibility is over, Council has declared for the NBA Draft and Black is essentially a lock to do the same.

Musselman’s girth gambit wasn’t a failed experiment, but Arkansas didn’t make it as far as it did the two previous years, either. Aside from Tramon Mark, the Arkansas basketball additions so far are heavy on the speed and skill and light on the strength and force.

That dynamic definitely extends to Temple Khalif Battle, whom On3 has given a nearly 96% chance of committing to Arkansas. Battle, who averaged 18 points last season and shot 35% from three on 8 attempts per game, would step in as Arkansas’ best shooter since Isaiah Joe. But, at 6-foot-5 and 175 pounds, he’s not exactly a defensive menace.

Maybe Musselman is abandoning the brute-force recruiting in hopes of building a roster more like those Elite Eights. For sure, he needs more dependable threats from distance and more defensive stoppers like Devo Davis.

Getting Mark from the portal is a good start, but Musselman will also need to find another banger or two to put the bow on a roster with a real shot at a deep run next spring.


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