The Razorbacks’ Loaded 2022-23 Backcourt Packs Once-in-a-Generation Potential

Devo Davis

The Arkansas Razorbacks’ lone championship in 1994 came at the expense of MikeKrzyzewski and his bad-vibes-only Duke Blue Devils. Coincidentally, it was Coach K and the Blue Devils who ended the 2022 season for Arkansas in the Hogs’ second consecutive Elite Eight appearance, but Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman wasted no time in shouldering his way back into the headlines. Merely two days after the Razorbacks’ 78-69 loss to Duke, the Razorbacks program regained some massive momentum with the commitment of 6-7 star recruit, Anthony Black, a pass-first guard out of Duncanville, TX.

Arkansas Basketball Star Decisions to be Made

Now that Black has committed, the spotlight shifts to the pending decisions of the Razorbacks’ current stars like JD Notae, Jaylin Williams, and Au’Diese Toney.

The first and arguably biggest decision that Razorback fans are waiting on is that of star guard, JD Notae. The third-team All-American may never have a better opportunity than the one currently in front of him to pursue a professional career, especially considering the reduced role he would likely have to take next season with so much incoming talent.

NIL possibilities, however, could change the decision-making process for current and future college basketball players. Notae could stand to make enough money through the foundation founded by the J.B. Hunt family to make it worth his while to stay for another season. Combine that with the possibility of a Final Four run in 2023 and the case for staying is compelling. Still, to start this projection of next year’s Razorback backcourt, we will assume Notae will test the professional waters and leave Arkansas on a high note.

As for Au’Diese Toney and Jaylin Williams, it’s feasible that both could wear the cardinal and white again next season. But anything is possible in the rapidly-changing landscape of college sports.

Finally, Arkansas has already begun dealing with the revolving door that is the transfer market. Freshman guard Chance Moore and sophomore guard KK Robinson have already announced their presence in the transfer portal.

“Razorback Nation, thank you!” Robinson wrote on Twitter. “Having the opportunity to represent my home state these past two years has been an honor. Thank you to my teammates, coaching staff, grad assistants and trainers. Arkansas will forever be home for me, but now I’m ready to take on my next opportunity.”

The primary transfer candidate remaining on the roster is Connor Vanover.

The 7’4 big man possesses enough talent and potential to compete at the Division I level, but he was able to carve out a steady role for the Razorbacks this season. That task will only get tougher as Musselman brings in the best recruiting class in Razorback history (on paper at least).

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Big-Time Razorback Recruits

Anthony Black – ranked No. 20 on ESPN’s recruiting rankings – joins a host of ESPN Top 100 recruits on their way to The Hill next season, led by two Top 10 recruits in 6-4 guard Nick Smith Jr. (No. 6) and 6-7 forward Jordan Walsh (No. 10). All three are coming off of appearances in the McDonald’s All-American game, marking the first time Arkansas has had three commits play in the event in the same season.

Rounding out the No. 2 recruiting class in the country is a trio of four-star recruits: 6-4 guard Derrian Ford (No. 70), 6-6 forward Barry Dunning (No. 75), and 6-6 guard Joseph Pinion (No. 89). This incoming class, along with the recent announcement of Chance Moore’s intent to transfer, leaves the Razorbacks with 14 scholarship players, one over the 13-scholarship limit. 

2022-23 Arkansas Basketball Guards

This season, Musselman essentially ran a consistent 7-man rotation with an occasional appearance of Kamani Johnson when the matchup demanded it. Of those eight players, only three were considered true guards along with Au’Diese Toney and Stanley Umude, a pair of 6’6″ wings who played more of a tweener role between guard and forward. JD Notae handled almost all of the ball-handling responsibilities with Devo Davis and Chris Lykes relieving him of his duties for only short stints – usually when foul trouble left Musselman with no other options.

Next season should be different. Assuming Notae is out of the picture, Arkansas will have the following guards on their roster (barring future transfers): Nick Smith Jr, Anthony Black, Devo Davis, Derrian Ford, Jaxson Robinson, Joseph Pinion, and Au’Diese Toney (Pinion and Toney could play more of a forward role).

Of those players, Smith, Black, Davis, Ford, and Toney are the most likely to crack the rotation. Though it seems risky to start two freshmen, the combination of Smith and Black in the backcourt already has Hog fans drooling at the versatility and playmaking potential.

Smith is a pure scorer, similar to Notae but with more size and length and perhaps an even better passing IQ when attacking the paint. That’s not a knock on Notae’s playmaking ability, but a tribute to how smart of a player Smith could grow into. The 6-4 guard makes good decisions in pick-and-roll situations and has a natural feel for when he has enough room to attack the rim or get his shot off over a defender.

As you can see in the clip below, his floater game is on par with the best to ever suit up for the Razorbacks:

Black, on the other hand, is a pass-first type of player who can run an offense in the half-court and get everyone involved in transition, something the Hogs desperately needed at times this season when they struggled with turnovers. The 6’7″ wing is also an elite defender with a combination of length and quickness, and he has a crafty arsenal of layups around the rim.

These two freshmen project to complement each other as well as raise the game of all of their teammates. On paper, they project to be a dynamic one-two punch with a wide range of weapons offensively and defensively.

Devo Davis, Derrian Ford, and Au’Diese Toney

Devo Davis progressed nicely throughout the season in a 6th man role, something we could continue to see from him next season. The 6-4 junior is at his best when he’s not forced to be a half-court facilitator. He’s excellent in transition and thrives in chaos, something we could see a lot more of from the Hogs next season. With multiple ball handlers and athletic guards, it’s likely the Hogs will play at a much faster pace next season. Late this season, Davis also showed improvement as a spot-up shooter, hitting 33% of his 3-point attempts over his last 14 games of the season.

Ford, the back-to-back Gatorade Player of the Year in Arkansas, is the recruit most likely to play above his four-star ranking. The 6-4, 210-pound guard will arrive at Arkansas with an SEC-ready body whereas other recruits may need to hit the weight room to fully prepare. Ford is elite when going downhill and getting into the paint where he displays full control and composure while finishing over, around, or through contact. His jump shot is serviceable though not his strong suit offensively. While Devo Davis may start the season as the primary ball-handler off the bench, Ford could easily contend for that role before SEC play is over. 

Au’Diese Toney needs little introduction for Razorback fans. His top-tier defense was perhaps the most important factor in several wins this season, including their wins over New Mexico State and Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament when he shut down Teddy Allen and Andrew Nembhard respectively, single-handedly disrupting both teams’ offensive identity.

Should Toney return next season, he will likely start as the third guard in the pseudo small forward position – essentially the same role he played offensively this season while Umude acted as an oversized shooting guard on offense. He would be the defensive anchor for this squad alongside Jaylin Williams and new Razorback transfer Trevon Brazile in the frontcourt, likely guarding the opponent’s best ball handler on a nightly basis.

Other guards that could push their way into the rotation include Jaxson Robinson and Joseph Pinion. Robinson and Pinion are very similar players and could be fighting for a similar role for multiple seasons should both stay with the Razorbacks. They are both 6-6 or taller and possess exceptional shooting touch from beyond the arc.

Robinson shot roughly 33% from distance in 14 games with the Hogs this season, while Pinion shot a notable 40% from long range as a junior in high school. Pinion has also displayed the ability to score from all three levels against high school competition while attending Morrilton High School, but he doesn’t project to be a primary ball-handler at the collegiate level, similar to the skill set of Jaxson Robinson.

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What if JD Notae Returns?

Much of rotation talk so far essentially goes out the window should JD Notae decide to run it back for one more season with the Hogs. Naturally, the first team All-SEC star would have to take a lesser role with next year’s team considering the pair of five-star guards that would be joining him in the backcourt. Remember, however, that in the 2020-21 Notae was named national 6th Man of the Year by Bleacher Report. That opens the door of possibility that Notae could return to his bench role next season. It’s more likely that either Nick Smith Jr. or Anthony Black would take on the “instant offense” role off the bench if Notae were to return (given that Au’Diese Toney is on the roster).

Should Notae return and Toney leave for any reason, Musselman would likely start Notae alongside the two incoming freshmen with Anthony Black playing Toney’s role of the lengthy guard drawing tough defensive assignments (assuming Black puts on at least 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason). 

Retaining Notae and Toney would essentially push Ford to the 6th guard in the rotation, putting pressure on him to fight for any minutes at all next season despite his tremendous upside. Musselman is known to only run a seven-to-eight-man rotation once the postseason starts, making it highly improbable that six different guards would be part of the full-time rotation at that point, even with Toney playing a guard/forward combination role.

Musselman has, however, also shown a willingness to experiment with different lineups and rotations early in the season. This upcoming roster holds the potential for more talent than he’s ever had on one collegiate team, so perhaps he could experiment with a deeper rotation if he has the weapons to do so. Should Notae, Toney, and Williams all return and Ford makes it hard to keep him on the bench, we could see Musselman regularly go 9 to 10 players deep in his rotation.

Arkansas Basketball Transfer Season

Arkansas will likely see its fair share of transfers, both arriving and leaving the program. It’s quickly becoming the norm for college basketball, so it shouldn’t alarm Hog fans to see a few players leaving. This is especially true for a team with Eric Musselman as their head coach. Musselman has shown time and time again his willingness and ability to work the transfer portal, evident by the success of transfers like Jimmy Whitt, Justin Smith, Jalen Tate, Au’Diese Toney, Stanley Umude, and Trey Wade.

Should Notae leave, Musselman will also likely search for an experienced guard in the transfer portal – a Jimmy Whitt/Jalen Tate type of player. The incoming transfer doesn’t have to be a former five-star recruit but grabbing someone with experience can help ease the freshmen into the college game and provide guidance and stability as the season progresses.

Usually, this would be an upperclassman transfer. What we are seeing play out, however, is more than more one-and-done transfers who after a single season decide to move on. Darious Hall a few years ago, and Chance Moore now, would be examples here among Razorbacks. Trevon Brazile is an example of how this dynamic can help Arkansas.

But John Miller, the host of “Locked on Mizzou,” thinks players like Brazile need to learn to tough it out for at least two seasons.

“If I’m somebody who owns a big time business in Columbia, and I want to spend some of my money trying to get some name imaging likeness stuff going with a local athlete who can maybe help promote my products, my business, whatever it might be, well, I would like some assurances that this kid isn’t going to just take my money and run,” Miller said. “I don’t think there’s anything outrageous about that at all.”

“If you’re a college athlete, you may think, ‘What the heck? This is my new world. I should just be able to do whatever I want.’ That’s just not reality. Once big money starts coming into play, well, guess what? The people who are giving you that money, they’re going to expect something on the other end.”

It’s going to be difficult to force recruits to stay another year beyond their freshman season. In the end, it’s probably up to the business owner to realize the year-to-year nature of the market and work deals that only work on a year-by-year basis.

Rich History of Razorback Backcourts

Since Arkansas joined the SEC for the 1991-92 season, they’ve had numerous memorable backcourt duos – from the recent success of Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe (2019-2020) to the electrifying Ronnie Brewer Jr. and Jonathan Modica (2004-2006) all the way back to the legendary Lee Mayberry and Todd Day (1992) in the Hogs’ inaugural SEC season.

Finding a trio of guards who strike fear into SEC opponents is even rarer, as the long-awaited reincarnation of the original late ’70s Triplets never truly materialized. But the Razorbacks have managed to field trios such as Dusty Hannahs-Daryl Macon-Jaylen Barford (2017) and Joe Johnson-Jannero Pargo-Brandon Dean (2001).

It’s once in a generation, however, that a team holds four truly imposing threats in their guard rotation. That’s the situation Eric Musselman could potentially find himself in this season with Anthony Black, Nick Smith Jr., Devo Davis, and Derrian Ford, along with potentially JD Notae and/or Au’Diese Toney.

To find a foursome as fierce as this, you’d likely have to journey back to the Razorbacks’ national title days when their roster included Scotty Thurman, Corey Beck, Alex Dillard, and Clint McDaniel. Each of these four players brought a different skill set to the court that meshed into a well-oiled, championship-caliber machine alongside their star big man, Corliss Williamson.

If Jaylin Williams decides to stay at Arkansas for another year, the Hogs have their star big man alongside an impressive array of guard talent. Only time will tell how these newcomers mesh on the court, but it’s not too early to say that Arkansas hasn’t seen a collection of talent like this on the same roster in nearly 28 years.

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