Eric Musselman doesn’t know how good his Arkansas basketball team will be next year.
With the departures of Justin Smith, Jalen Tate and likely Moses Moody, there will be too many new faces to predict with certainty that the Hogs will be good enough to return to the Elite Eight in 2022.
But one thing is a sure bet: No matter what new transfers Musselman brings in, they will give max effort on the court, just as Jimmy Whitt, JD Nate, Tate and Smith did over the last two years, and Musselman’s transfers did at Nevada before that.
It may take a while for the next Arkansas basketball team to gel and get back to top 10 status, but Musselman’s track record should make it obvious that the team will start out the 2021-2022 season as a Top 25 program.
Almost every major outlet agrees.
Knowing Musselman is a master of the transfer portal, they give Arkansas basketball the benefit of the doubt.
This is known by writers of every major national outlet — except one.
On Tuesday, just a couple weeks after a USA Today columnist urged Musselman to leave Arkansas for Indiana, the nation’s largest newspaper decided it needed to make even more friends in the Natural State.
So the USA Today’s Scott Gleeson released a way-too-early Top 25 ranking that is the equivalent of a slap across Musselman’s face.
He left the Hogs, who finished this season with a 25-7 record and a No. 6 finish in the coaches’ poll, off of his first Top 25 for 2021-2022.
Gleeson pays the Hogs the courtesy of calling them a “close call,” but also decides to put the likes of Texas (finished 2020-21 with a 19-8 record), North Carolina (18-11), Wichita State (16-6) and Houston (which will likely lose Quentin Grimes and was waxed by Baylor in the Final Four) in front of Arkansas.
Most egregiously, he puts five(!) SEC teams in front of Arkansas. That would place the Hogs at No. 6 in the SEC entering the 2021-22 season, which is exactly where Arkansas was predicted to finish entering 2020-21.
Some folks just never learn.
Putting Alabama ahead of Arkansas is understandable given the blue-chip talent that the Crimson Tide have arriving. They also return leading scorers Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly.
But why does Kentucky deserve to come in at No. 9?
Yes, John Calipari is getting some top transfers and five-stars like Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins, but his Wildcats program has lost significant momentum because of its abysmal 2020-21 season.
Turning it around so drastically is far from a guarantee.
Gleeson also puts LSU at No. 21, which is a stretch given Cam Thomas will leave. If Trendon Watford leaves for the NBA, the Tigers will not be this good.
He slotted Tennessee at No. 23 and amazingly has Florida at No. 24. A lot of that depends on the condition of the Gators’ Keyontae Johnson, the preseason SEC Player of the Year who collapsed on the court in and was in critical condition last December.
He didn’t play the rest of 2020-21, but if everything checks out Johnson may play again in 2021-22.
Gleeson putting teams like LSU, Florida and Kentucky over Arkansas is either due to a lack of imagination about the caliber of players Arkansas now attracts or too little belief in Musselman’s system.
Gleeson should give Musselman the benefit of the doubt when it comes to working the transfer portal in the wake of a departing player like Desi Sills.
Musselman has already gotten this transfer season off to a great start by landing Au’Diese Toney, an athletic 6’6″ Pitt transfer who will fill the same defensive-minded big guard shoes as Whitt and Tate.
But Toney will possibly offer more offensive punch than either, based on what he’s done against ACC competition like Duke:
Looking ahead, expect Musselman to land another transfer guard or forward. Heading into Wednesday, guard Xavier Pinson seemed like a strong possibility after averaging 13.6 points, 2.9 assists and 2.7 rebounds for Missouri last year.
Pinson, however, may to decide to go with Auburn, Georgia or Nebraska instead given how loaded the Arkansas backcourt looks after Wednesday’s big news: Miami’s 5’7″ scoring dynamo Chris Lykes committed to the Hogs.
Chris Lykes Is a Bad, Bad Little Man
Lykes played a little more than three season for Miami and put up outstanding numbers. He averaged more than 15.5 points on 38% three-point shooting as a junior in 2019-2020 and entered 2020-21 as a preseason All-ACC selection before sidelined for most the year with an ankle injury.
“Chris is a proven, dynamic guard who has excelled in the ACC,” Musselman said.
“He has the ability to score and get his teammates involved. We like how he attacks the paint and gets to the free throw line. He also has shown great leadership. We are very excited to have Chris join our program and our fans will enjoy watching him play.”
Sykes’ elite quickness and acceleration, sure, but he actually uses his lack of height as an advantage on offense when driving on defenders.
See how here:
“The landscape of college athletics right now has changed and how you adapt to that change is really going to be a key factor in who’s successful,” Musselman said on the Hog Pod with Bo Mattingly.
“We’re seeing five guys in programs going to the transfer portal. We’re seeing starters who play 30-plus minutes go, too.”
Arkansas will have the quickest backcourt in the nation in 2021-22 with Sykes, KK Robinson and Davonte Davis, but they will need long, lanky “3 and D” types and strong rim protectors in the mold of Justin Smith or Moses Kingsley to deal with opponents looking to take advantage of Sykes and Robinson’s height.
Expect Musselman to target these kinds of players going forward. Whoever he gets, he will pair with a core of returning players who have already built a winning culture and seen it paid off with a deep tourney run.
He said he expects Robinson, Devo Davis, Jaylin Williams, JD Notae and the others to teach the new players a “culture of practice and heart, a culture of coming in the morning, getting shots up, of getting in extra weightlifting sessions.”
Programs like Florida and Kentucky have built this kind of culture in the past, but they didn’t have it in 2020-21 like the Razorbacks did.
There’s no reason to expect anything to change heading into 2021-2022.
Best moments of the Arkansas basketball 2020-21 season:
Arkansas Basketball Projections That Make Sense
Most national college basketball writers do expect Musselman to continue working the transfer portal like a boss.
These early Top 25 projections are proof:
It's never too early when you're in the top 25! pic.twitter.com/vXAwDS5Mov
— Arkansas Basketball Recruiting (@RazorbackMBBRec) April 6, 2021
Below are some breakdowns of various outlets and their rankings for Arkansas and other SEC teams.
Arkansas: No. 10
But Alabama’s at No. 1.
Here’s what Patrick Stevens had to say about the Crimson Tide:
“The Crimson Tide put down a marker this year on how it intends to play moving forward: Lots of three-pointers, a fast pace and a stingy defense.”
“Do John Petty Jr. and Herbert Jones come back for another run? What impact does top-10 freshman JD Davison have in a backcourt with holdovers Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford?”
“At this point, Alabama might be in line to have more answers than anybody”
Arkansas: No. 12 (Alabama No. 8)
“Eric Musselman has worked the transfer portal better than arguably any coach in college basketball over the last several years, Jeff Borzello wrote.
“A point guard is high on the list for the Razorbacks. If they land an impact player to run the show, this ranking could look low.”
Arkansas: No. 14 (Alabama No. 9)
Leaving: SG Desi Sills (transfer), PF Justin Smith, SG Jalen Tate, SF Vance Jackson
Likely gone: SG Moses Moody
Coming back: SG JD Notae, SG Davonte Davis, C Connor Vanover, PF Jaylin Williams
Adding: SG Au’Diese Toney (transfer), SF Kamani Johnson (transfer), SG (No. 113), PF
“It might look like the Razorbacks are losing a lot in potential lottery pick Moses Moody and three seniors, but don’t underestimate Eric Musselman in recruiting transfers from other schools.”
“Arkansas will reload and be just as athletic and full of shooters as it was last season.”
Arkansas No. 16 (Alabama No. 3)
“The Razorbacks are likely losing a lot – including projected first-round pick Moses Moody.”
“But JD Notae should return as a double-digit scorer, and Eric Musselman is already reloading, most recently with Au’Diese Toney, a transfer from Pitt who averaged 14.4 points and 5.9 rebounds this season.”
Garry Parrish gives the nod to Alabama because the Tide should return four of their top seven scorers. He expects five-star point guard JD Davison and four-star big Charles Bediako will also pay big dividends.
Arkansas: No. 17 (Houston No. 6 [despite losing DeJon Jarreau]; Alabama No. 9; Kentucky No. 15)
“Talented sophomores Davonte Davis and Jaylin Williams could be breakout stars, JD Notae is a gifted scorer and Pitt transfer Au’Diese Toney provides the versatility Musselman loves in his forwards.”
In-depth Interview with Eric Musselman
On the turning point of the season after losing four of five games in January:
“At Bama, I told them, I said, “Hey, the game’s on me. The [previous] LSU game was on you guys as players.”
“This Bama game is on our decision as a staff to put weighted vests on you to have a difficult practice where you’re holding bricks. I know you didn’t have your legs.”
“And by the way, Nate Oats knows that we didn’t have legs too because he came out and said it the second time around we were a different team that played with a different energy level.”
Listen to the entire interview below.
He addresses what he wants out of his coaching career amid the reports of other programs courting him at 32:30 and what Arkansas fans should expect next season at 34:24.
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