Derrian Ford earned the well-wishes and concerns of University of Arkansas basketball fans for a day, and then those fans realized a day later why the Magnolia product’s scholarship with the Razorbacks, which he’d pledged to keep for next season, suddenly became available.
Soon after, McDonald’s All-American and 6-foot-8 Texas high school superstar Ron Holland announced his intentions to decommit from the Texas Longhorns and reopen his recruiting. That decision could also mean he wants to reunite with the previous coach at Texas, new Ole Miss coach Chris Beard. He also might be considering bypassing college altogether to jump straight onto the NBA G-League Ignite team and its annual salary of $500,000 for future likely lottery picks coming straight out of high school.
In fact, the latter increasingly looks to be Arkansas’ primary competition in the early going for Holland according to a Monday report by college basketball insider Jeff Goodman:
This is little surprise to recruiting followers who are quick to recall that Ron Holland’s choice of school in November seemed to come down to Texas and Arkansas. And Holland played his 2021-22 high school season with recent Hog star Anthony Black, who’s now going to cast his lot with NBA odds by entering the draft after one season in college.
So, it’s now on to our next collective apple of the eye quicker than you can say “Thanks for coming, Derrian.” The never-ending grab of talent continues for Eric Musselman and his Arkansas basketball program. Nobody’s complaining about this in this era of “win now,” especially with a crazy transfer portal and NIL ever present in kids’ minds.
Still, it seems all of this repeated mass roster restructuring is coming at the expense of good people and their support groups, all of whom threw their lot in with Muss and the Hogs only to see it taken away.
A New Era of College Basketball
The college way is somewhat the pro way now, only with less stability given the one-year “contracts” on top of the constant free agency. It’s not just Arkansas, mind you, but it’s very much strongly at Arkansas compared to other places, as the system is fully embraced by Musselman.
For those of us whose years of following Arkansas basketball were mostly made up of rooting especially for a lot of homegrown talent through their four years as Hogs, this is just one more unnerving change that reminds us that nothing in this world stays the same, and we’re also old.
For the younger generation of Arkansas basketball fans and media, it probably means little. The Hogs’ heralded freshman class coming into the 2022-23 season started at six individuals and is down to one. Three players who each were McDonald’s All-Americans already have entered the NBA Draft, as was expected when they signed with Arkansas; two more who were their respective state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, now gone with Ford and Alabama’s Barry Dunning Jr; and one has to wonder whether Joseph Pinion is long for a Hog career if somebody better makes themselves available in the portal.
Musselman, like every other college coach, has 13 scholarships to work with; he turned over last year’s roster with 11 newcomers, including the six freshmen. He’s on the way to slightly less overhaul for next season.
It’s unsettling for the fan or the longtime observer. It’s as if we’re now expected not to mourn the guy who’s urged after one year to find a place for more playing time, that these guys all know what they’re getting into, so just roll with the new way of college basketball.
It looks, however, not so much like NBA roster building as much as the way teenage travel teams, summer ball and AAU programs operate. Based on the 2022-23 Razorback season alone, it’s hard to be convinced that this is the best way to build a team to go the distance, even if the parts on paper look like the makings of a top-10 team.
Last Year’s Arkansas Basketball Team
Granted, key injuries to freshman Nick Smith Jr. and sophomore transfer Trevon Brazile dimmed Arkansas’ hopes at a big run last year. The remainder of the roster went through its ups and downs, a sub-.500 run through Southeastern Conference play, a great-one-minute, disappointing-the-next outster before reaching the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, and then the same super high followed by demoralizing low in the NCAA Tournament.
This past year’s team will always have wins over NCAA finalist San Diego State (at the Maui Invitational in November) and 1 seed and defending champion Kansas with which to boast. Muss’ program can point to losses to the eventual national champion in 2021 and 2023 as indicative of how close his program has gotten to the pinnacle, though the UConn game this year was an embarrassing wipeout over the last 30 minutes.
We barely saw a glimpse of Nick Smith’s potential – maybe the way he led Arkansas over Oklahoma in his first run of five games in December showed just what he’s capable of on the next level – in his brief court time because of a nagging knee injury. In fact, Smith and Brazile logged just one game together, an impressive Hog destruction of San Jose State on the home court in December. Everyone involved with the Hogs hopes Brazile can return to the same level he’d reached when he tore up his knee the very next game against UNC Greensboro.
Without those two, and with what was already evident from the first day the team came together for a summer trip to Spain and Italy, Musselman and his staff saw they had a poorly constructed team for outside offense. Pinion may have been the most pure outside shooter on the roster but rarely played because of his other deficiencies, especially defensively. Devo Davis and Ricky Council, both with eligibility remaining but now leaving to explore professional opportunities (although Davis has left the door open for a possible return), were agonizingly inconsistent from the outside, and often predictable in their efforts to get to the basket for their offense.
Looking Ahead to Next Year
Musselman’s recent portal targets and commitments provide us some insight into his thinking for rebuilding the roster for 2023-24: shooting guards, strong defensive guards, toughness from the wings. Rather than relying on a big freshman contingent, the program signed just two in November – Little Rock native Layden Blocker at guard and near 7-footer Baye Fall from Denver – and has devoted the rest of the available scholarships to portal transfers with tons of experience from competitive conferences.
This seems to indicate Musselman’s return to wanting more proven, tough, older players like Stanley Umude, Au’Diese Toney, Justin Smith and Jalen Tate, with maybe some instant offense and speed seen in the likes of J.D. Notae, and interspersed with talented youngsters we saw with Moses Moody and Jaylin Williams, both playing in the NBA now.
But, two things here: Muss is loading up on a full roster of guys who come in expecting to play. Yet, in each of his four seasons here, and in what he showed in his time at Nevada, Musselman whittles his playing unit quickly down to seven or eight guys at best. Maybe nine for an extra few fouls to give down low. He’s never shown the propensity to play 10 or 11 guys deep into the season like Arkansas would see from Nolan Richardson or Mike Anderson.
So, guys like Derrian Ford and Barry Dunning Jr. sat for 90-something percent of the season this year. And, we’re certain they came in with that realization, knowing there were some upperclassmen and three McDonald’s All-Americans expected to carry this past year’s version of Hogs, but with the hopes that after learning the system – Ford in particular taking on a point guard role – it would be their turn.
Ron Holland and Arkansas Basketball Fans
That’s the way it used to be. Musselman and staff, instead, decided they weren’t waiting, and certainly they alone see all these players in practice and can evaluate their strengths and the team’s needs. But each of the three remaining freshmen even made “announcements” via social media that they were returning, only for two of them to say in the ensuing weeks that after consulting their families and the coaching staff, that they had decided to enter the portal.
These kinds of changes to the talent in waiting in the wings won’t have any immediate ramifications. The big influx of new talent means the Hogs, with back-to-back Elite Eights and a Sweet 16 in the past three years, are loading up again. They even might land Ron Holland as the big Christmas bow if they can fend out the G-League Ignite and the programs who have joined the Hogs in reaching to Holland since Friday: Kansas, St. John’s, Georgetown, Kansas State and, yes, even Texas (wouldn’t that be something if he decided to rejoin the Longhorns).
But it seems like the constant large overhaul each year, combined with the limited play of freshmen who need to develop, will at some point matter to potential signees in the future. We’re not sure Musselman is even considering it, or even cares.
It’s all business now. For some fans, this has meant the end of the line. Their days of following the sport are mostly over. And, yes, some of the fans who support NIL or buy the tickets and expect to travel deep into the NCAA Tournament may be disappointed for a moment that Derrian Ford is moving on, but soon enough they won’t care either – as long as Muss wins.
John Nabors on Ron Holland
In a recent “Locked on Razorbacks,” the Arkansas sportscaster points out that in the modern college basketball landscape, a big-time college program like Arkansas basketball can offer nearly everything that the G-League. Especially when an NIL deal could potentially match if not exceed the $500,000 annual salary a high-level G-League prospect like Holland would make.
In Nabors’ opinion, the biggest draw of going pro right away would be if the recruit wanted to train and play basketball only train only and not mess with attending any classes.
Otherwise, a lot tilts in favor of going to college. “You’re going to be playing in front of massive crowds with massive energy,” Nabors says. “You’re going to be on TV every game. Every game, tons of people are going to be watching. You’re going to be featured on ESPN. You’re going to be making highlights. You’re going to be on social media a lot more. You’re going to have the pageantry, you’re going to have tradition.”
“You’re going to have everybody having all eyes on you. You’re going to have people that care about you. You’re going to have people that are doing whatever they can to make it work with you. Then on top of it all, if you get to the NCAA tournament, you are on the biggest stage of college basketball and everyone’s watching in the country and being able to see what you can do and what you’re capable of on the highest level of collegiate athletics.”
See the rest of Nabors’ take here:
If Ron Holland Falls Through
If neither Holland or Jordan Walsh are on the Hogs’ roster next season, then a few currently available transfers should shoot to the top of Musselman’s wish list. The top candidate, in BoAS contributor Brandon Baker’s opinion, is Grant Nelson:
1. Grant Nelson | North Dakota State | 6-foot-11 | Forward
Grant Nelson was a late addition to the transfer portal earlier this week after earlier putting his name in the NBA Draft. The 21-year-old forward averaged 17.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.7 blocks while shooting 52% from the field last season at North Dakota State. He’s also a career 31% 3-point shooter for the Bison.
Nelson is currently garnering interest in the mid-to-late second round of the 2023 NBA Draft, though he’s looking to keep his options open should he decide to return to college. Perhaps playing on a bigger stage – like the SEC – will solidify his draft stock for next season.
For more on Nelson and four other top Arkansas basketball transfer prospects, go here:
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