Let’s Be Honest about What’s In Store for Arkansas Going Forward Without Devo Davis

Devo Davis
Credit: Craven Whitlow

Devo Davis will leave the Razorbacks as one of the most enigmatic Arkansas basketball players in a generation. The Natural State native who played his high-school basketball at Jacksonville High has at different times been both the GOAT and goat of the program in his four seasons on the team.

His legacy is not in question. His return to the team is.

On Saturday, Arkansas’ sports information department sent a press release 10 minutes before the tip-off of Arkansas vs Kentucky that was all of one sentence:

“Arkansas senior guard Davonte Davis has stepped away from the program.”

The situation is reminiscent of last season when coach Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman himself told the media that Davis was going to be away. No timetable was given for his return then, nor was a reason for his absence provided. The same thing happened Saturday. 

At that time, the 6’3″ guard missed what amounted to two days and while that could be the case again this year, the smart money is on the over. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who called the game Saturday, referred to Davis as “AWOL.” For those unfamiliar with that military term, it means “absent without leave,” suggesting something more than a personal matter. After the game, Musselman was predictably short with his answers when asked about Devo Davis’ status, simply referring to the sports information department’s one-sentence release.

Devo Davis’ Seesaw Career with Arkansas Basketball

Davis earned plaudits from Musselman and the home-state fans in 2020-21, his freshman season, for his hustle and defending. When he made the game-winning jumper with four seconds left against Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16, he cemented himself in the Arkansas history books. His sophomore year was a step backward as his points and rebounds averages and his shooting percentage all dipped. Then, last year, he discovered a 3-point shot as his scoring average rose to 11-a-game while many of his other stats grew, too.

In the midst of Arkansas’ struggles this year (the Hogs entered Saturday’s game against the rival Blue at 1-5 in SEC, the team’s worst record six games in since 2008-09 when they won two league games total), Davis has often been called to task by an angry fan base. Not as much by Musselman, though, who has learned the type of coaching Davis needs, though something has certainly been up in the last couple months. Davis’ 6.3 points per game this season are a career low, as is his 36% mark from the field. 

Musselman has been searching for a roster combination that would provide Arkansas with the spark it has had for most of the last three years, though it’s hard to imagine anyone wanted it to come like this. For as much a liability as Davis had been on the offensive side, the Razorbacks’ head coach had still regularly praised his defensive effort and ability. And for a team that struggles badly on that end, the signs going forward aren’t great.

The flip side is the other side of the court. Davis’ absence allowed Musselman the opportunity to insert a more offensive-minded player into the rotation or, at least, give a more offensive-minded player more minutes. Against Kentucky, the Razorbacks started Khalif Battle and El Ellis in the backcourt, both of whom are offensive specialists. The Hogs haven’t been especially good on that end, either, twice scoring just 51 points in SEC games, the lowest point totals in Musselman’s four-plus seasons at the helm.

Where Minutes Went in Arkansas vs Kentucky

Most of Davis’ minutes on Saturday weren’t taken by guards. Forward Jalen Graham played 18 minutes and Makhi Mitchell played 32, the most time on the floor he had seen since arriving at Arkansas last year. Part of that was circumstance. Musselman has gone with taller lineups against Kentucky every time the two teams have met. Guard Keyon Menifield, for example, who isn’t quite 6-feet tall, did not log a second.. 

Anyone who thinks Arkansas is automatically better without Davis, though, because the Hogs put up a stiffer fight against Kentucky than in most of their SEC games so far is wrong. Musselman said after the game that point guard play, especially turnovers, was the biggest reason Arkansas lost. Davis was the Razorbacks’ leading assist man and the best ball-handler on the roster. If Menifield isn’t getting minutes, then as Musselman admitted, the Razorbacks are in trouble. 

Just like everything else with Arkansas basketball this season, it’s impossible to predict how the Razorbacks will do without Davis. They weren’t supposed to be as bad as they’ve been, so they could always get better, given the talent on the team. They could also crash and burn as emotionally fragile teams have a tendency to do more than the stable ones. Or, frankly, they could be just as they were on Saturday. Not terrible and not good. 

Sure, that’s the most boring answer. But, be honest. Not a soul on planet Earth can predict the temperature of this basketball team. 

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