Arkansas Not Far from Surpassing UCLA, Kansas and UNC in Major Recruiting Achievement

Arkansas basketball

In return for inking its 2022 recruiting class, the Arkansas basketball program got a V.I.P. pass to quite an exclusive club.

By landing the trio of Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh in his latest class, Eric Musselman helped the Razorbacks become just the 12th different team in the two-decade history of the 247Sports Composite ratings to sign at least three five-star prospects in the same class.

In fact, Arkansas is the first team outside of Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas — four of college basketball’s traditional blue bloods — in 10 years to secure signatures from three such recruits.

If the dominoes fall just right involving the likes of 2023 recruits Layden Blocker, Baye Fall and Ron Holland, the Razorbacks could stack back-to-back classes with a trio of five-stars. That means Arkansas would join those four schools in the ultra-exclusive club of programs to accomplish the feat twice, with only the Wildcats and Blue Devils doing it in consecutive years.

However, that is still several months away from potentially happening. In the meantime, excitement surrounding Arkansas basketball is at a level not seen since Nolan Richardson had the team competing for national titles in the early-1990s.

Throw in the group of four-star prospects that completes the 2020 recruiting class, which is ranked second nationally, plus the crop of transfers Musselman is bringing to Fayetteville, and the thought of the Razorbacks taking that next step after back-to-back Elite Eight appearances is more than usual fan optimism — it’s a legitimate possibility.

Just how far Arkansas makes it next March will hinge on how quickly the 11 newcomers and two returners (Davonte Davis and Kamani Johnson) mesh as a unit, with the three blue-chip freshmen carrying the most weight on their shoulders.

Using History to Predict the Future for Arkansas Basketball

Over two decades, there have been 33 instances of teams landing three or more five-star recruits in the same class, including Arkansas in the most recent cycle. Kentucky and Duke account for nearly two-thirds of that, having landed 13 and 8 such classes, respectively.

The Wildcats have done it in 12 of the previous 14 cycles, while the Blue Devils have done it in eight of the the last nine. For the sake of this piece, we’re going to exclude the last 11 Kentucky classes and last seven Duke classes because after the first group, both John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski had experience managing such a large influx of young talent and the classes built on top of each other, making it less of an apples-to-apples comparison to what Arkansas and Musselman are doing this year.

North Carolina and Kansas have each done it twice, but their two classes were pretty spread out, plus Kentucky did it once during the Tubby Smith-era. Including each of those groups and the first by Calipari and Krzyzewski that started their schools’ current runs, Best of Arkansas Sports examined 14 instances of teams signing a trio of five-star recruits in the same class in an attempt to project the most likely range of success for the Razorbacks this upcoming season with Smith, Black and Walsh.

We have grouped those classes into five categories that illustrate the scope of possibilities for Arkansas basketball in 2022-23:

The Perfect Storm

2014-15 Duke

  • Head coach: Mike Krzyzewski
  • Record: 35-4 (15-3 ACC)
  • Postseason: 1 seed, National Champion
  1. Jahlil Okafor — No. 1 overall recruit
  2. Tyus Jones — No. 8
  3. Justise Winslow — No. 13

It’d be hard to top what the Blue Devils did when Coach K finally dove head-first into the one-and-done world. Led by the No. 1 overall player in the 2014 class, Jahlil Okafor (who was actually born in Fort Smith), Duke was in the top five all year and, despite finishing second in the ACC behind Virginia, earned a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Mostly cruising through March, the Blue Devils beat Wisconsin to win the national title. Okafor, who won ACC Player of the Year and National Freshman of the Year honors, was selected third overall in that summer’s NBA Draft and the other two five-stars — Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones — were first-round one-and-dones, too, going 10th and 24th overall, respectively.

2006-07 Ohio State

  • Head coach: Thad Matta
  • Record: 35-4 (15-1 Big Ten)
  • Postseason: 1 seed, National Runner-Up
  1. Greg Oden — No. 1
  2. Daequan Cook — No. 14
  3. Mike Conley — No. 22

The Buckeyes’ 2006 signing class mostly closely resembles what Arkansas put together from a rankings perspective, as they landed a top-tier five-star (Greg Oden, No. 1/Nick Smith, No. 1 on 247Sports), mid-tier five-star (Daequan Cook, No. 14/Anthony Black, No. 15) and a lower-tier five-star (Mike Conley, No. 22/Jordan Walsh, No. 20). A top-10 team from start to finish, Ohio State was No. 1 entering the NCAA Tournament and ultimately lost to Florida in the championship game. All three five-stars were one-and-done players: Oden was the NABC Defensive Player of the Year and was taken No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft, Conley — whose dad and uncle were Razorbacks — went fourth overall, and Cook was the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year and went 21st overall.

2009-10 Kentucky

  • Head coach: John Calipari
  • Record: 35-3 (14-2 SEC)
  • Postseason: 1 seed, Elite Eight
  1. John Wall — No. 2
  2. DeMarcus Cousins — No. 3
  3. Daniel Orton — No. 18

Strictly from an NCAA Tournament perspective, replicating 2009-10 Kentucky’s success would probably be a disappointment because Arkansas has already been to back-to-back Elite Eights and fans are hungry for more. However, the Wildcats rose to No. 1 in the AP Poll, won the SEC’s regular-season and tournament titles, and earned a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a 32-2 record. On top of that, John Wall (No. 1) and DeMarcus Cousins (No. 5) went on to the top-five picks, while Daniel Orton (No. 29) was a first-round pick despite not playing a ton, proving that Calipari could have success with loaded rosters. That set the stage for a run of four Final Four appearances in five years, including a national title in 2012. If it meant winning a championship in two years, Arkansas fans probably wouldn’t mind sacrificing a Final Four appearance this year.

2006-07 North Carolina

  • Head coach: Roy Williams
  • Record: 31-7 (11-5 ACC)
  • Postseason: 1 seed, Elite Eight
  1. Brandon Wright — No. 3
  2. Ty Lawson — No. 7
  3. Wayne Ellington — No. 9

Another group of freshmen that came up short of the Final Four in their first year together, North Carolina’s trio of top-10 players did guide their team to a 1 seed and an Elite Eight. Brandon Wright was still a one-and-done who went eighth overall in that summer’s draft, but Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington stuck around for three years. Combined with Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green, heralded recruits who came in the year before them, they helped the Tar Heels to a Final Four the next year and then a national championship the year after that before becoming first-round picks. Of course, getting players of their caliber to stay in college that long is virtually unheard of in today’s game.

Solid, but Better After Seasoning

2004-05 Texas

  • Head coach: Rick Barnes
  • Record: 20-11 (9-7 Big 12)
  • Postseason: 8 seed, first round
  1. LaMarcus Aldridge — No. 13
  2. Mike Williams — No. 19
  3. Daniel Gibson — No. 20

Midway through the 2004-05 season, Texas a was borderline top-10/top-15 team with a 13-3 record and a clear path to a solid seed for the NCAA Tournament. Instead, LaMarcus Aldridge went down with a season-ending hip injury and the Longhorns sputtered to a 7-8 finish that included a first-round exit. Luckily for the Longhorns, he came back healthy as a sophomore and, coupled with Daniel Gibson, led them to a 30-7 record, 2 seed and Elite Eight appearance. Aldridge went No. 2 overall in that summer’s NBA Draft and Gibson was a second-round pick. Mike Williams, the third five-star in that class, also spent two years at Texas, but didn’t play much and ultimately finished his career at Cincinnati.

2012-13 UCLA

  • Head coach: Ben Howland
  • Record: 25-10 (13-5 Pac-12)
  • Postseason: 6 seed, first round
  1. Shabazz Muhammad — No. 2
  2. Kyle Anderson — No. 3
  3. Tony Parker — No. 24

Landing two of the top-three players in the 2012 class, expectations were high for UCLA and the pressure was on Ben Howland, who was now four years removed from three straight trips to the Final Four. The Bruins managed to win the Pac-12 regular-season title, but lost their last two games — including a first-round exit as a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Shabazz Muhammad was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and was a one-and-done, but slipped to No. 14 overall in the NBA Draft after being the No. 2 overall recruit. The other two — Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker — returned and led UCLA to the Sweet 16 as sophomores. Anderson was a first-round pick after that season, while Parker went undrafted after his four-year career with the Bruins.

2012-13 Arizona

  • Head coach: Sean Miller
  • Record: 27-8 (12-6 Pac-12)
  • Postseason: 6 seed, Sweet 16
  1. Kaleb Tarczewski — No. 8
  2. Grant Jerrett — No. 9
  3. Brandon Ashley — No. 18

That same year, Arizona finished in a three-way tie for second in the Pac-12, one game behind UCLA. However, the Wildcats had more success in the postseason, reaching the Sweet 16. Despite starting only two games in a sixth-man role, Grant Jerrett was still a one-and-done player who got picked in the second round. Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley stayed at Arizona for four and three years, respectively, and even though they were ultimately undrafted, they helped the Wildcats win a Pac-12 regular-season title, earn a 1 seed and reach the Elite Eight in their second year together.

Legend in the Making

2005-06 Kansas

  • Head coach: Bill Self
  • Record: 25-8 (13-3 Big 12)
  • Postseason: 4 seed, first round
  1. Julian Wright — No. 8
  2. Mario Chalmers — No. 15
  3. Micah Downs — No. 24

Entering his third season replacing the legendary Roy Williams, Bill Self landed three five-star recruits that would hopefully help him avoid a first-round embarrassment like he suffered the year before. However, the Jayhawks still lost to Bradley in a 4-13 upset. Micah Downs transferred to Gonzaga after that season, but Julian Wright and Mario Chalmers returned. They helped Kansas earn a 1 seed and reach the Elite Eight, after which Wright was a late lottery pick. Chalmers came back for a third season and cemented his place in college basketball history by knocking down the last-second 3-pointer to force overtime in an eventual win over Memphis in the national championship game. He was an early second-round pick after that season.

2020-21 North Carolina

  • Head coach: Roy Williams
  • Record: 18-11 (10-6 ACC)
  • Postseason: 8 seed, first round
  1. Caleb Love — No. 14
  2. Day’Ron Sharpe — No. 15
  3. Walker Kessler — No. 22

A preseason top-20 team, North Carolina was very inconsistent in Roy Williams’ final season, earning an 8 seed and getting knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round. Day’Ron Sharpe played the sixth-man role for the Tar Heels and was a one-and-done who snuck into the first round by going No. 29 overall in that summer’s NBA Draft. Walker Kessler hit the transfer portal and landed at Auburn, which he helped lead to a No. 1 ranking and regular-season SEC title before becoming a first-round pick. Caleb Love, however, was the only one of the three to start as a freshman. He returned as a sophomore and helped North Carolina to a runner-up finish by averaging 15.9 points. His decision to come back for a junior season has the Tar Heels one of the early favorites to win it all in 2023.

Team and/or Individual Disappointment

2004-05 Kentucky

  • Head coach: Tubby Smith
  • Record: 28-6 (14-2 SEC)
  • Postseason: 2 seed, Elite Eight
  1. Randolph Morris — No. 8
  2. Joe Crawford — No. 12
  3. Rajon Rondo — No. 17

Winning the SEC, earning a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and reaching the Elite Eight with a trio of five-star freshmen would typically be considered a pretty good year, but what makes this Kentucky group disappointing is what followed. All of them came back for a second year and the Wildcats were worse, going 9-7 in SEC play and losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Rajon Rondo was a first-round pick after that season, but Joe Crawford stayed all four years and Randolph Morris was there for three. That pair also went 9-7 and got knocked out in the second round as juniors, ultimately resulting in Tubby Smith resigning. Crawford was eventually a late second-round pick and Morris went undrafted.

2009-10 Villanova

  • Head coach: Jay Wright
  • Record: 25-8 (13-5 Big East)
  • Postseason: 2 seed, second round
  1. Mouphtaou Yarou — No. 11
  2. Dominic Cheek — No. 21
  3. Maalik Wayns — No. 23

Coming off his first Final Four appearance, Jay Wright had three five-star freshmen to work with in 2009-10. The Wildcats were ranked in the top 10 all year, but none of the freshmen were starters and they ultimately lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament despite being a 2 seed. All three stayed at Villanova for at least three years, but they were knocked out in the first round as sophomores and finished under .500 as juniors, when they were the three best players on the team. While Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns left after that year, Mouphtaou Yarou stayed for a fourth season, when Villanova again lost in the first round. None of them got drafted and only Wayns reached the NBA.

The “What If” Classes

2013-14 Kansas

  • Head coach: Bill Self
  • Record: 25-10 (14-4 Big 12)
  • Postseason: 2 seed, second round
  1. Andrew Wiggins — No. 1
  2. Wayne Selden — No. 13
  3. Joel Embiid — No. 14

Before star big man Joel Embiid injured his back late in the regular season, Kansas was 22-6 and ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll. They still won the Big 12 regular-season title, but including the game in which he got hurt, the Jayhawks went 3-4 and were upset by Stanford in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. This falls in the “what if” category because Embiid was still a one-and-done who went No. 3 overall in the NBA Draft. It would have been interesting to see what kind of damage Kansas could have done if it had him and No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins healthy in the postseason. Wayne Selden was a solid player despite going undrafted, but never advanced further than the Elite Eight in his three seasons with the Jayhawks.

2005-06 Oklahoma State

  • Head coach: Eddie Sutton
  • Record: 17-16 (6-10 Big 12)
  • Postseason: NIT
  1. Gerald Green — No. 1
  2. Keith Brumbaugh — No. 12
  3. Byron Eaton — No. 18

This signing class likely should have given Eddie Sutton, the legendary basketball coach who jumpstarted Arkansas’ program in the 1970s, one last great team that at the very least would have gotten him to 800 wins without needing to take an interim gig at San Francisco a couple years later. Instead, Gerald Green — a future NBA Slam Dunk Contest winner — opted to go straight to the NBA and Keith Brumbaugh failed to qualify academically. That left just Byron Eaton, who went on to make a pair of All-Big 12 teams in four years at Oklahoma State, but went undrafted. Without his fellow 2005 signees, Eaton and the Cowboys played in the NIT.

2010-11 Memphis

  • Head coach: Josh Pastner
  • Record: 25-10 (10-6 C-USA)
  • Postseason: 12 seed, first round
  1. Will Barton — No. 13
  2. Joe Jackson — No. 20
  3. Jelan Kendrick — No. 23

Even after John Calipari left for Kentucky, Josh Pastner kept the recruiting train rolling with a trio of five-stars for his second season at the helm of Memphis. However, Jalen Kendrick was dismissed from the team before the season. The Tigers were ranked for the first half of the season, but struggled to a fourth-place finish in Conference USA. They did earn the league’s automatic bid to the big dance, though, by winning the C-USA Tournament, but were quickly knocked out in a close first-round loss to Arizona. Will Barton eventually won C-USA Player of the Year honors as a sophomore, when Memphis was again eliminated in the first round, and Joe Jackson earned the award the next season, when Memphis reached the second round. Barton was a second-round pick after two years in college, while Jackson went undrafted after a four-year career with the Tigers.

What It Means for Arkansas Basketball in 2022-23

As seen with the examples above, simply bringing in three five-star recruits in one class isn’t enough for fans to go ahead and book their flights and hotels in Houston next April.

There are of course other factors at play, such as what the rest of the roster looks like and who the coach is, but having five-star freshmen — no matter how talented — does not make a team a lock to reach the Final Four.

Based on history, though, there appears to be a clear baseline for the Razorbacks: at least 25 wins and 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Each of the teams listed above that had all three of their stud signees actually suit up for them earned at least an 8 seed in the big dance. Half of the teams were top-two seeds, with four being 1 seeds and three being 2 seeds.

Only three of the teams failed to reach the 25-win mark. One of them was Oklahoma State, which actually ended up with only one five-star player, and another was Texas, which likely would’ve had a shot at winning more than 20 games had Aldridge not gotten hurt. The lone true exception to the rule was Roy Williams’ final squad at North Carolina.

It’s worth emphasizing the fact that 25 wins is just a baseline, as the Razorbacks have hit that mark in each of the last two seasons under Musselman without a single five-star recruit. History shows the optimism for Arkansas pushing 30-plus wins this year is warranted, as four teams in similar situations have done just that.

We got a small taste of what the Arkansas basketball team will look like thanks to an open practice. Check out our observations:

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