The line between an artist and a mad scientist might be quite fine, but it’s a line Eric Musselman seems very comfortable balancing. In his quest to develop Arkansas’ basketball program, Musselman is taking full advantage of his freedom to tinker with his roster both in-season and out, trying to find the perfect puzzle pieces, the best ingredients. Pick your preferred metaphor. He likes trying new things.
National college basketball analyst John Rothstein nicknamed Musselman “The Importer” years ago because of Musselman’s affinity for “importing” transfers from other programs into his own, but Musselman has proven himself to be much more.
In addition to filling rosters with transfers before it was cool, Musselman’s high school recruiting reached new heights this year. Over the course of the season that just ended, we watched Musselman spend the first two months experimenting with different lineups and making in-game adjustments with regularity. Once that lineup was found, like finding the right five letters in Wordle every day, the Hogs were set for a run to the Elite Eight.
We knew some of Arkansas’ players would leave the program after the loss to Duke. Three seniors had exhausted their eligibility. We also knew Musselman signed five high school recruits in November, so those three spots were already spoken for, and some other roster attrition would be likely. That is the norm in college basketball, and there were a few players who struggled to get on the floor at Arkansas this season and therefore were likely candidates for the transfer portal. As expected, Chance Moore, KK Robinson, and Connor Vanover announced they were entering the portal in the days after the Hogs’ season ended.
Even with the loss of those players, there still appeared to be a chance much of Arkansas’ starting lineup would stay in place. JD Notae, Au’Diese Toney, and Jaylin Williams all had the option to return next year, but in what may or may not have been much of a surprise, Notae and Toney announced they were leaving. Williams has announced he is entering the draft but retaining his option to return.
Razorbacks in Early National Rankings for 2022-23 Season
All of a sudden, Arkansas is looking at a very different team next year. The Razorbacks were at or near the top of many of the first round of way-too-early predictions, but much of that was based on the chance that multiple starters would return. Now the Hogs are faced with the possibility that all five of the starters will be gone, although Williams could still return. Either way, this makes next season much harder to predict.
Even in the last couple of days, however, at least two way-too-early rankings are giving Arkansas the benefit of the doubt and still putting them in the top 2 despite Williams’ situation and Notae and Toney leaving. On Friday, 247Sports’ most recent rankings put Arkansas at No. 1 and NCAA’s ranking had the Hogs at No. 2 (more on that below).
The potential of the new players is incredibly exciting. Musselman signed three McDonald’s All-Americans and three more top-100 players. Since the Duke loss, the Hogs have signed four more players all 6’9″ or taller, two of which come from high-major conferences. If nothing else, Arkansas will be a much taller, longer team next year. One of the Hogs’ weaknesses this season is they didn’t play anybody that could replicate Williams’ size if Williams got into foul trouble. Williams missed some key minutes in the first half against Duke because of foul trouble, and it proved to be a costly stretch for the Razorbacks.
Newcomers to Arkansas Basketball
Most likely, that won’t be an issue next season. Even if Williams doesn’t return, the Hogs will have 6’9″ All-Pac 12 forward Jalen Graham from Arizona State, 6’9″ forward Trevon Brazile from Missouri, and twin brothers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell from Rhode Island. For fun, let’s peek a snippet of what Graham can do:
One of the common aspects of the best teams Arkansas faced this season was multiple bigs. Arkansas faced it against Duke, Gonzaga, and Auburn. It caused trouble for the Hogs last season (even though the Hogs still ended up beating Auburn and Gonzaga) but those mismatches shouldn’t be issues for Arkansas next year. These players all appear to be great rim protectors. When you pair that size with potentially elite scoring in the back court from the incoming freshmen, it’s easy to feel like those way-too-early #1 rankings are justified.
Does Musselman finally have all the best cards in the deck? Possibly. But he will still have to find the best way to put the right five players on the court together. One of the goals for next season should be to avoid a mid-season lull like they had the last two seasons. To do that, the right lineups need to be identified, and the players will need to buy in sooner than January. Hopefully it happens quickly, particularly since the Hogs are going to travel to the Maui Invitational the week of Thanksgiving along with some other top teams. If that happens, Arkansas could possibly earn a 1- or 2-seed in next year’s NCAA Tournament.
As strong as the anticipation for next season is, it can be difficult to remember that preseason hype guarantees nothing once the ball is tipped in November. Five stars next to a recruit’s name don’t promise All-American status. From what we know of Musselman’s history, not all of these exciting players will play much next season. Eventually, he’ll find the best 7- or 8-man rotation and stick with it. In fact, as of this writing, there are 14 signed players for next season – one over the allowed limit. That means if Williams returns, someone may be asked to leave.*
*If this happens, it’s an ugly side to the sport. Even in this NIL era, these are theoretically still amateur athletes. Amateurs should not be forced to leave their program just because another player comes along, especially when we know some players are going to fill seats on the bench regardless. But I digress…
Potential Weaknesses of 2022-23 Razorbacks Team
There are a couple of other glaring weaknesses compared to this year’s team. It was regularly noted that Arkansas was among the nation’s best free throw shooting teams in the country. The incoming big men have a weakness here as none have shot the freebies as well as Toney and Williams did this year. In an SEC game when officials call 45 fouls, this could be an issue. On the flip side, it helps that most of transfers coming into the Arkansas basketball program – from Jimmy Whitt Jr to Au’Diese Toney – show significant free throw shooting improvement from what they did at their previous schools.
Another issue is experience. The Razorback team we just enjoyed brought back three key contributors from the 2021 Elite Eight team, and many of the players on the bench were part of that squad as well. If Williams doesn’t return, Devo Davis and Kamani Johnson could be the only players on the team next year with meaningful NCAA Tournament minutes (unless there are more portal surprises). With six new freshmen and four incoming transfers, experience in a winning college program will be lacking. This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Some teams are able to overcome that. Frankly, it’s hard to keep winning experience on a roster at the highest levels of college basketball.
Even with these caveats, Musselman undoubtedly has risen this program to the conversation among the nation’s elite. That doesn’t necessarily win a trophy or hang a banner, but it puts Arkansas in the right spot for now. It does mean that Arkansas’ goals will be high next year – higher than they’ve been in a generation.
It’s awesome to see the excitement for Arkansas basketball extending beyond the season again. Did you know the football team is in the middle of spring practice? And that a backup quarterback just entered the transfer portal? It seems like hardly anyone is talking about that. However, many people are trying to figure out what Musselman will do with his roster next year. It could be his masterpiece.
The preseason accolades for the Razorbacks are coming so fast and furious that the Razorback Communications staff can’t keep up with them all. Consider that in the below Tweet from late Friday, the No. 1 ranking in 247Sports isn’t even included.
Here’s part of what Issac Trotter writes, after praising the four new Arkansas basketball transfers:
“Arkansas has high-level ball-handlers and elite talent on the wing. The front court is absolutely jam-packed with difference-makers. Arkansas could have five guys on the bench who could start for other teams. Arkansas’ current roster is good enough to be ranked No. 1 in the country.”
“But Musselman is tireless on the recruiting trail, so don’t be surprised if he somehow reels in another game-changer. A veteran, long ball-handler who can play some defense and knock down open 3s could be the one addition Musselman eyes.”
As for the NCAA itself, Andy Katz has dropped Arkansas to No. 2, giving the edge to the more experienced Arizona squad. If this is going to be an off-season of feeling “slighted” because the Hogs sometimes get dropped to No. 2 or No. 3, it’s going to be an historic off-season indeed.
“The anticipation is that Arizona may only lose Benedict Mathurin of its key players. So, if four are back — including Christian Koloko to go along with Kerr Kriisa, Dalen Terry and Azoulas Tubelis — then Arizona should be the top pick. The bench will be strong with Pelle Larsson, Oumar Ballo and Adama Bal even more comfortable under the AP national coach of the year.
“The Hogs, a surprise Elite Eight team for the second-straight season, picked up the second-best recruiting class in the country led by Nick Smith. Arkansas also did well in the transfer portal by nabbing Jalen Graham of Arizona State. Jaylin Williams declared for the NBA draft but there’s always a chance he comes back. This Arkansas team will be young but loaded with talent. Don’t be shocked if it just takes a few months to have them reach their full potential.”