Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman and his new-look Razorbacks hit the ground running in Spain this week.
They blew out the first team they faced, overwhelming them with their size and athleticism, before getting more of a test in their second matchup, climbing out of an early deficit behind a pair of excellent performances from their returning leaders.
Here are Best of Arkansas Sports’ key takeaways from the two games in Spain before Arkansas heads to Italy for the final two games of its foreign tour…
The Razorbacks’ first game was in Valencia against the Valencia Select Team (Valencia Seleccion). They dominated from the start, jumping out to a 10-0 lead and finishing with a 48-point victory in their first game together as a team.
(NOTE: The score was reported as 108-59, but upon further review, Arkansas was credit with an extra point late in the second quarter.)
Defensive Upside When Disciplined
Though they took a few too many gambles, the Razorbacks played incredibly hard for 40 straight minutes on the defensive side of the ball. Arkansas applied stifling full-court pressure all game long that led to several turnovers and fast-break opportunities.
“I thought defensively we gambled way too much,” Musselman said of his team’s defensive effort. “We have to become more solid…but I think our players played really, really hard.”
Nick Smith Jr. also chimed in on how high the Razorbacks’ ceiling can be as a disciplined defensive unit, saying, “I feel like we can be the best defensive team in the nation. With our length and size and athleticism, I feel like why not be the best team in the nation? … It’s going to be key for us later on because (Musselman’s schemes) have worked for him for a couple of years.”
Nick Smith Jr. as Advertised
Arkansas fans were itching to see incoming five-star freshman and likely 2023 NBA lottery pick Nick Smith Jr. take the court and he did not disappoint. Highlighted by an ankle-breaking crossover leading to an uncontested 3-pointer, Smith led the Razorbacks in scoring according to the official unofficial stat sheet compiled by a group of Arkansas media members, including our own Andrew Hutchinson.
In his first two games as a Hog, Smith has scored exactly 17 points on 7-of-14 shooting, including going 3-of-7 from long range against Valencia and adding five rebounds and five assists to his Game 1 tally. He did finish with a team-high three turnovers, but that’s not unexpected from any freshmen guard in their first game at the next level.
That issue — which flared up again with four turnovers in Game 2 — was not lost on Smith, who mentioned his tendency to be too loose with the ball following Tuesday’s win.
“First off, I’ve got to do a better job at handling the ball, not throwing it away and being poised,” Smith said. “I’ve got to slow down, but that’s just the first game, so I’ll be alright.”
Under-the-Radar Razorback Standouts
One of the biggest surprises of the first game was the play of Barry Dunning Jr.
“Not many people are going to talk about Barry Dunning,” Musselman said after the game. “I thought Barry played really well.”
As Musselman mentioned, the two-time Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year isn’t often discussed as one of the predicted cornerstones of this year’s go-to rotation. That isn’t a slight against Dunning’s talent, but the 6-foot-6 freshman plays both forward positions – positions likely to be heavily occupied by Jordan Walsh, Ricky Council IV and Trevon Brazile during most games, along with other options like Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham.
However, Dunning displayed his never-ending motor and scored most of his 10 points on fast breaks or after two offensive rebounds. Musselman has made it known in the past that he loves having “glue guys” who don’t require plays to be run for them to be effective.
In previous years, that role was filled by players like Jimmy Whitt, Justin Smith and Au’Diese Toney. Council, a high-flying guard, was a strong candidate to take over this role given his other-worldly leaping ability and willingness to be a spot-up shooter, but these first two games suggest he could be a more vital part of the offensive game plan at times, especially in games in which he comes off the bench. This leaves the door open for Dunning to play the “glue guy” role.
The path to consistent minutes isn’t as clear for Dunning as it was for the three former Hogs mentioned, but the young swingman with an elite motor shouldn’t be buried beneath the depth chart just yet.
Kamani Johnson is another name that doesn’t often appear at the top of predicted rotations or depth charts, but he’s returning for his second season playing with the Hogs and third being on the team.
He stood out in the Razorbacks’ first game primarily on the offensive glass, where he finished with five offensive rebounds — out of eight total — to go along with 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Over the first two games, he’s averaging 11 points and 10 rebounds (7 offensive).
Perhaps the strongest player on the roster, Johnson’s effort, energy and tenacious rebounding can all be vital tools for the Hogs this season – especially when they’re in need of a spark or a big run.
“Kamani was a great energy guy today,” Brazile said after the first game. “He was rebounding, brought energy on the bench when he wasn’t in the game. When he was in the game, I think offensive rebounding was the best thing for Kamani today because nobody was going to the glass, but Kamani made it happen.”
Check out what Eric Musselman had to say after the first game:
Game 2: Arkansas 99, Catalan Elite 86
In their second game of the tour, the Hogs traveled to Barcelona, where they met a much more physically challenging foe in Catalan Elite. This was an older, more experienced professional team with several players in their late-20s. As a whole, they were bigger and stronger than the Valencia team in Game 1.
Experience Responding to Adversity
Catalon jumped out to a 12-2 lead over the Razorbacks before Ricky Council IV settled the team down with a pull-up jump shot. Catalan fought all the way until the final minute, cutting the lead to single digits multiple times in the 4th quarter.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Hogs’ defensive struggles is their youth and inexperience. Most of the freshmen are ready to contribute offensively, but they are not yet adjusted to the speed of the game above a high school level or the strength of some of the professionals they played against Thursday.
As a team, Musselman noted that even “simple cuts” caused his Razorbacks to lose their defensive assignment. As this team gains confidence and understanding in each other, and as the young players continue to gain experience, many of these defensive woes should iron themselves out. However, defense will be an important storyline to watch as the Hogs creep towards the regular season.
Stellar play from the Razorbacks’ two returning players – Davonte Davis and Kamani Johnson – ultimately allowed the Hogs to win this game.
“First of all, without Devo and Kamani, we don’t win that game, I promise you,” a visibly frustrated Musselman said afterward. “Probably not even close if those two don’t play. I mean, the game tilts the other way.”
Johnson dominated the offensive glass once again, finishing with nine offensive rebounds — out of his 12 total — to go along with his 10 points and three assists. He noted that it was good for the young Hogs to face a tough challenge like this early in their season.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys and transfers, so I think it was a good challenge for us,” Johnson said. “I’d rather have this challenge right now than in Maui (and beyond). I think we responded well.”
Davis also had his best game of the tour so far, finishing with 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, plus 3 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 block in his 26 minutes. His flurry of points in the second half helped the Hogs extend their lead over the gritty Catalan squad.
It was their leadership that guided the Razorbacks to a win, avoiding what could have been an embarrassing loss.
“Me and Devo are the OGs,” Johnson said. “I know they are freshmen and five-stars. I mean, they are super talented, but they kind of need guidance and stuff like that. It’s college, you know what I mean? Me and Devo are just helping them out as much as we can.”
Dunning Continues to Step Up
For the second game in a row, Dunning played a big role in the Razorbacks’ win. He finished with 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block in 21 minutes of action. Much like the first game, he scored many of his points on fast breaks and offensive rebounds by simply outworking his opposition.
His 21 minutes — in a tight game, nonetheless — trailed only Anthony Black’s 29 and were equal to Nick Smith Jr. and Jordan Walsh among the freshmen, indicating Dunning has built up trust with Musselman through summer practices.
“When you walk in the building in the morning and everybody’s told you that (Dunning) has already shot before some guys are waking up, you gain trust,” Musselman said. “When somebody knows three or four positions, you gain trust. When they’re meeting with an assistant coach the night before a game, talking about plays instead of where they’re going to eat, you gain trust.”
The forward rotation is already tight with the amount of talent trying to be squeezed into a limited amount of spots, but Dunning seems to be checking all the right boxes on and off the court. Don’t be surprised if he becomes a vital role player who can be plugged into many different lineups as the season progresses.
More Telling Rotation
After playing all 13 of his scholarship players in Game 1, Musselman played eight more than 20 minutes against Catalan, while Jalen Graham, Makhel Mitchell, Makhi Mitchell and Derrian Ford combined for roughly 18 minutes total.
The limited role for Graham and the Mitchell twins could be attributed to the lack of height and size on Catalan’s roster, but it also shows Musselman’s willingness to adjust his core rotation on a matchup-by-matchup basis.
Kamani Johnson and Trevon Brazile soaked up most of the center minutes, but we also got a glimpse of a “no bigs” lineup featuring Black, Smith, Davis, Walsh and Dunning. While the teams on the regular-season schedule likely won’t have the same height deficiency, it was still worth noting Musselman’s willingness to roll out unusual and unexpected lineups when necessary.
Turnovers Plague Razorbacks
One reason Catalan Elite jumped out to an early lead was because Arkansas turned the ball over quite a bit. In fact, three of the Razorbacks’ first four possessions ended with turnovers
They finished the first quarter with seven or eight turnovers, but ended up with 23, so things got a little better as the game progressed — but not much. It certainly wasn’t enough improvement to please Musselman.
“I certainly think there’s a lot of things to take away,” Musselman said. “We can’t turn the ball over at half court. That team did not press. That team played zone for 35 (minutes) and we still turned the ball over 23 times. So that’s not good. That’s a nightmare, to have 23 turnovers in a basketball game. So we’ve got to get a lot, lot better.”
As mentioned earlier, Smith contributed four turnovers to the total, as he got the start and was careless with the ball early on. Trevon Brazile also had four turnovers in his 22 minutes and Makhi Mitchell had three in three minutes.
Most surprising was the fact that both of the Razorbacks’ primary ball-handlers — Smith and Anthony Black — had their pockets picked near midcourt. However, that was one of only two turnovers for Black. Through two games, he has a solid assist-to-turnover ratio, unofficially dishing out nine dimes to go with only three turnovers.
Although his numbers haven’t exactly jumped off the page in either game, Black is showing glimpses of what assistant coach Gus Argenal has said about him in the past.
“He’s a huge but prototypical point guard,” Argenal told The Athletic. “He can defend one through five, he can offensive rebound, and he plays like he’s ticked off — he’ll get into the lane and tip-dunk it on someone with two hands. He’s a different monster.”
Remaining Schedule for Arkansas Basketball in Europe
The Hogs have two games remaining in their European tour, both in Como, Italy. The first will be Saturday against Orange1 Basket Bassano – a youth program dedicated to developing professional basketball players in Italy and other European countries.
The final game of the tour projects to pose the biggest challenge to Arkansas thus far. It’s an exhibition against the Bakken Bears, a historical powerhouse in the Basketliagean – the top domestic basketball league in Denmark. They have won the league title a record 20 times and have also added 11 Danish Cups to their resume.
The Bears will pose a bigger threat to the Hogs in a physical sense as well. The Catalan squad had a few players that looked to be roughly 6-foot-7 playing the center position. Though they were strong, they don’t compare to the Bears’ average roster height of 6-foot-5 or their three players standing over 6-foot-8. Diouf Michel is their biggest forward, standing 6-foot-10 and 225 lbs – roughly the same physical measurements listed on Makhi Mitchell’s basketball reference page for last season.
This team also features Skyler Bowlin, a Paragould native who went to Greene County Tech. After wrapping up his collegiate career at Missouri Southern State in 2011, he’s bounced around with multiple teams overseas before most recently landing with the Bears.
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Check out what Eric Musselman had to say after the second game:
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