The city of Cincinnati has been awful giving to the Razorbacks these last few months.
In baseball, a betting monitoring service alerted authorities to a suspicious bet placed at the Cincinnati Reds’ ballpark and ultimately took down an unlikely thorn in Dave Van Horn’s side. In soccer, Anna Podojil, a native of the Queen City, became the Razorbacks’ all-time leading scorer. In football, two talented Cincinnati natives have decided to transfer to Arkansas this offseason in Anthony “Tank” Booker and Jaheim Thomas.
Another Cincinnati native, Jeremiah Davenport, is set to provide Arkansas basketball some much needed punch from the wing position this upcoming season.
It’s little wonder that Ohio’s largest metro area used to be called “Porkopolis” – it’s practically become a pipeline to the Razorbacks.
Bob Huggins and Jesse Edwards
The latest gift could come courtesy of the city’s most intense college basketball rivalry. West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins, who coached the Cincinnati Bearcats 1989-2005, just might have committed career suicide on Monday when he decided that live sports radio was a good time to let loose with stream of homophobic slurs in reference to fans of the Xavier Musketeers.
When asked about the Cincinnati-Xavier rivalry game, Huggins started with: “Any school that can throw rubber penises on the floor and then say they didn’t do it, my God, they can get away with anything.”
It pretty much just went downhill from there, as you can hear:
It’s not like Huggins “mistakenly” let the slur slip once. He said it very intentionally, two different times, which is all the more unbelievable considering his friend, Thom Brennaman, lost his job for the same kind of thing. In aftermath, West Virginia University scrambled to try to put out the flames. Huggins issued the requisite apology but it’s up in the air as to whether the 69-year-old will survive this as the WVU athletic department looks into the situation.
It’s unclear as to whether he’ll be terminated or whether he’ll be saved by his “status as a legend in the sport of college basketball, and an icon in the state of West Virginia, allow him to continue his highly decorated, but also controversial, head-coaching career that dates to 1980 and features more wins at the Division I level than any other coach in history not named Mike Krzyzewski or Jim Boeheim has accumulated,” as Gary Parrish puts it.
Even if Bob Huggins does return next season, some of his players will still want out of a program that has to deal with the PR nightmare around this.
Razorback fans should be especially interested in one of his most recent players, the 6’11” star big man Jesse Edwards, whom Musselman was recruiting before Edwards chose WVU in mid April. After averaging 14.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks last season at Syracuse, Edwards projects as an immediate high-impact transfer whose addition could turn Arkansas into Final Four favorites.
Some will point out that Arkansas didn’t make Jesse Edwards’ Top 3 list before he committed to Bob Huggins, but that shouldn’t be considered as big of a hurdle after those top contenders made recent transfer adds. Before getting more into Edwards, though, let’s recap the situation with Arkansas basketball overall and touch on another highly-sought prospect: Ron Holland.
Arkansas Basketball Recap
After spending a quarter-century away from the Sweet 16, Arkansas now finds itself practically offended by the thought of only getting that far.
When the Hogs amassed an unprecedented recruiting class a year ago, most believed that Eric Musselman’s Elite 8-level wizardry would only flourish. Instead, the team fought through injuries, chemistry troubles, and a disappointing SEC slate to manage two more wins in the NCAA tourney.
That second one against defending champion and top-seeded Kansas was rather important. Even if Arkansas couldn’t compete with eventual title winner UConn, nobody else could for the last month of the season, either. The Hogs got a needed boost to their offseason profile with their postseason effort.
And Musselman recaptured some of his own spirit in the process. The ensuing weeks after that impressive, if brief, tournament run again revealed the Razorback coach’s ability to plug holes as fast as they emerge.
Two of the three five-star prospects that buoyed last season’s newcomers are headed for the NBA Draft. The one who hasn’t committed to pro ball also likely determines exactly how the projected ’23-24 roster will look.
Ron Holland or Jordan Walsh May Be Hardest Call
Anthony Black and Nick Smith, Jr., both of whom struggled with their shooting, still recognized that NBA riches are right in their grasp.
Jordan Walsh, the third of that ballyhooed group of freshmen, actually had the most consistent year of the three. While his offense (7.1 ppg, 28% three-point shooting) is an undeniable work in progress, the brawny, physical Walsh exhibited great defensive and rebounding instincts.
Walsh, 6-7 but rangy and strong, declared in April that he would test the NBA Draft process. That followed rising senior guard Devo Davis making the same, hedged bet on their talent shining in what figures to be a talent-rich draft.
Thus, we give you the “Ron Holland Problem”, which is really anything but an issue.
Standing 6’8 and weighing in at 200 pounds, the Duncanville, Texas product’s frame resembles that of Walsh, but he’s a more adept offensive player. So skilled, in fact, that he’s now considered the nation’s top-rated recruit by 247Sports.com.
Smith was that guy last year for the Hogs, and even if he had a knee that was hard to manage, he still ended up productive enough that he drew attention. Holland will also represent that go-to guy, but far more dangerous if healthy.
There’s no real negative outcome here. Though it seems entirely unlikely that Holland and Walsh both end up on the Hogs’ roster, it feels like there’s little chance both are out of the picture.
Walsh and Davis both have, at this point, second-round skills with potential to evolve those further in another year on the Hill.
As for Holland, he’s purportedly toying with the lure of the G-League but recent trends look good for Arkansas with a FutureCast prediction in the Hogs’ favor from Rivals’ Jackson Collier.
Transfers make Hogs lethal again
One of the factors that caused some pundits to hedge their bets on the 2022-23 Arkansas team was a near-total purge of its Elite 8 roster. J.D. Notae, Jaylin Williams, Stanley Umude, Au’Diese Toney, and even Chris Lykes contributed to most of the Razorback output.
Consistent scoring accordingly became an issue. But if Davis and Walsh return, that’s 18 points and two of the team’s premier defenders coming back.
Should neither elect to do so, though, Musselman took an aggressive approach to find buckets. First, Keyon Menifield announced his intent to transplant his end-to-end speed and creativity from Washington to Fayetteville.
Following suit: Temple guard Khalif Battle, a prolific scorer (18 ppg over three seasons), and Tramon Mack (10 ppg, 5 rpg for Houston) will fill the backcourt void further. Jeremiah Davenport, 6’7″ and capable of shooting from anywhere, also joined the fold from our favorite city.
The Hogs’ most recent portal commitment came from Louisville guard El Ellis. Despite being saddled with a historically awful Cardinals roster, Ellis scored 17 per game and facilitated things (4.4 assists) reasonably well given the lack of support.
This incoming quintet amassed 65 points per game in 2022-23; Arkansas only averaged 74 per contest as a team. If nothing else, Musselman’s trying to fix offensive shortcomings in short order.
Arkansas Basketball Standbys and Upstarts…
Makhel Mitchell took off, and Makhi Mitchell to date seems unwilling to follow his twin. That’s a good thing, as Makhi was sneakily productive (his averages per 40 minutes included 14 points, 10.5 boards, and nearly three blocks).
Mitchell also brings needed wingspan to the paint. The Hogs did lose Derrian Ford and Barry Dunning, Jr. to the portal, two physically impressive guys who were simply caught in a proverbial numbers game.
Trevon Brazile’s announced his return, too, and Jalen Graham, Joseph Pinion, and potentially Davis or Walsh will be back. As a crop of returning players go, this one rates as Musselman’s best and deepest group yet.
Mitchell’s experience would seem to pair expertly with the varied game Baye Fall brings. Arkansas found itself in foul difficulty often in 2022-23, disrupting the rhythm of games.
Fall, like Mitchell, qualifies as someone who should develop into a good to great rim protector given his range, wingspan, good footwork, and active hands.
Pending the Holland/Walsh decisions, Fall’s still not going to be the only five-star freshman talent. Layden Blocker looks like he’ll shoulder the point guard duties from Black, though Menifield will push for minutes, too.
Blocker’s not only quick, but unusually disciplined with the ball for a teenager, and that goes for shot selection, too. What he lacks in size at 6’2″ and 175 pounds when compared to Black, he offsets with a more polished shooting stroke.
Jesse Edwards Once Again
If Devo returns, and Holland decides to ply his trade here, this team easily outstrips last year’s squad as Musselman’s most gifted from top to bottom.
Even if Walsh, however, opts back in and Holland decides he’ll try G-League ball, it’s inarguably still a top-tier roster. Davis would be the only returning proven double-digit scorer in conference play (Brazile’s 12 ppg obviously didn’t include any SEC games, as he suffered his ACL tear in December).
Brazile, though, is one of those linchpin guys who had to return for Arkansas to press forward with a marketable, balanced rebuild. His array of skills being what they are, Arkansas now boasts an abundance of offensive threats.
Best of all, Musselman’s work stands incomplete. There’s nothing imminent that would suggest he’s going to reach for marginal prospects to bolster the bench. Yes, we are putting the cart in front of the horse here, but if Jesse Edwards decides to jump ship from the flames engulfing West Virginia University thanks to Bob Huggins’ idiotic commentary, then he projects to be a great fit for these Hogs alongside Trevon Brazile. Along with Baye Fall and Makhi Mitchell, they would provide Arkansas a four-headed monster on the interior not seen since the days of Darnell Robinson, Lee Wilson, Corliss Williamson and Dwight Stewart.
Arkansas isn’t the only high-level team that would be seeking Edwards’ services only, but the other two teams in Edwards’ previous top 3 list – Kansas and Gonzaga – have both since his decision picked up great big men via the transfer portal in Hunter Dickinson and Graham Ike. That may take some of the allure away from those programs.
Perhaps it would also matter to him that Arkansas basketball has recently owned the Jayhawks and Zags in the very tournament in which he wants to make a deep run.
*Evin Demirel contributed to the above column