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Eric Musselman takes over an Arkansas team that returns a lot

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How will this play out?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

Certainly, the expectations for the Mike Anderson era at Arkansas were higher than that.

In nine years between UAB and Missouri, Anderson went to the NCAA Tournament six times. He made the Sweet 16 in 2004 at UAB, and the Elite 8 in 2009 at Missouri. In Anderson’s eight years at Arkansas, the Razorbacks made the NCAA Tournament just three times and never got out of the first weekend — something, by the way, Arkansas has not done since 1996. Anderson was a connection to the glory days under Nolan Richardson and was supposed to bring them back.

Instead, he went 169-102, 78-64 in the SEC. That wasn’t a bad record by any stretch; the problem was that the highs were not high enough. His best season was 2014-15, when he had Bobby Portis on the team, and the Razorbacks went 27-9, 13-5 in the SEC, and got a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to North Carolina in the second round. Portis was one of a few five-star recruits to come through the state of Arkansas during Anderson’s tenure, but he was the only one to become a Razorback. Losing Archie Goodwin and especially Malik Monk — whose older brother played football and basketball at Arkansas — was a problem for Anderson, and it is worth pondering how differently things might have played out had Arkansas been able to keep at least one of those two at home.

On the other hand, Arkansas didn’t have to make a change. Last year, an extremely young Arkansas team went 18-16, 8-10 in the SEC, and figured to have a lot coming back this year. Even with a coaching change and the attrition that comes with it, Arkansas returns 68.5 percent of its possession-minutes from 2018-19 — the second-highest number in the SEC. They lose Daniel Gafford, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder and the 38th pick of the NBA Draft, and little else of consequence.

Eric Musselman comes in from Nevada, where he went 110-34 in four seasons and built the team mostly around transfers. That appears to be what he’s going to do at Arkansas; the Razorbacks have five newcomers this season and all five of them are transfers. Two are of the graduate transfer variety; three are regular transfers that should have to sit out a year. That latter fact means that Arkansas might only have nine scholarship players available. That was a fact of life when Musselman was at Nevada; frequently, the Wolf Pack would have multiple players sitting out and thus have a thin bench as a result. It remains to be seen if this approach will work in the SEC, or if Musselman can adapt and start recruiting freshmen.

But if Musselman’s Nevada teams are any indication, scoring points won’t be a problem. Musselman’s last three Nevada teams ranked 36th, 7th, and 26th in offensive efficiency. On the other hand, his most recent team — a preseason Top 10 team that finished 27th in KenPom and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — felt like a disappointment. I’m not completely sold on this hire, but especially because Arkansas didn’t feel like it needed a change.

Who’s gone?

Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Daniel Gafford 28.7 16.9 8.7 0.7 0.9 2 NBA Draft
Keyshawn Embery-Simpson 14.6 4.1 1.2 0.6 0.7 0.1 transfer/Tulsa
Gabe Osabuohien 15 3.1 3.2 1.4 0.9 0.5 transfer/West Virginia
Jordan Phillips 5.4 1.4 0.7 0.1 0.1 0 transfer/UT-Arlington

The big loss, obviously, is Gafford — easily Arkansas’s best player last year, and a legitimate NBA prospect who’s now playing for the Chicago Bulls.

The rest of the losses are pretty minimal. Keyshawn Embery-Simpson had his big moment, hitting a game-winner against Vanderbilt in Fayetteville, but otherwise didn’t do much. Gabe Osabuohien was dismissed from the team in August and landed at West Virginia, and that was after posting an 83.3 offensive rating (bad) as a sophomore. Jordan Phillips appeared in just seven games, and none after January 5.

Who’s back?

Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Player MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG Notes
Isaiah Joe 30.1 13.9 2.8 1.7 1.5 0.1
Mason Jones 29.3 13.6 3.9 2.8 0.9 0.1
Jalen Harris 30.8 7.6 2.9 5.6 1.1 0.2
Adrio Bailey 18.6 5.6 3 0.7 0.7 0.7
Reggie Chaney 16.3 5.4 3.5 0.7 0.6 1.4
Desi Sills 17.1 5.3 1.3 1.7 0.6 0
Ethan Henderson 4.3 0.9 1 0.1 0.3 0.2

There were signs of potential from Gafford’s supporting cast last season. It wasn’t good enough to propel the Razorbacks to the NCAA Tournament, but that was also a team that had no seniors and four freshmen among the team’s top eight players.

6’5” sophomore Isaiah Joe didn’t do much other than shoot three-pointers as a freshman, but he did that well enough to be the Razorbacks’ second-leading scorer. He shot 41.4 percent from beyond the arc, a number that went up to 42.6 percent in SEC play. Those numbers would be impressive for anyone, much less a guy who attempted eight threes a game. It’s enough that he could be a star even if the rest of his game never develops. (This is the Matthew Fisher-Davis path.) 6’5” junior Mason Jones was less proficient at shooting threes, but was more proficient as an all-around scorer — getting to the foul line quite frequently, and shooting 80.4 percent once there. With those two, the Razorbacks would appear to be very well set on the wings.

Point guard is a different matter. 6’2” senior Jalen Harris is a classic Mike Anderson point guard: a good ball-handler and distributor, but not much of a scoring threat. He shot an awful 34.1 percent from the floor, and 68.9 percent from the foul line. 6’2” sophomore Desi Sills was more of a scoring threat — he shot 46 percent from beyond the arc, albeit on a relatively low number of attempts — but was also quite turnover-prone as a freshman.

In the paint, Arkansas will probably hope for improvement from 6’8” sophomore Reggie Chaney, who ranked third in the SEC in block percentage as a freshman, and also showed some upside as a rebounder and a low-post scorer (55.3 percent from the floor.) 6’6” senior Adrio Bailey is a four-year role player with a career arc that used to be more common in college basketball: used sparingly as a freshman, then breaking into the rotation as a sophomore and becoming a regular starter as a junior, before really breaking out as a senior. That last part is, of course, up in the air. 6’8” sophomore Ethan Henderson appeared in just 12 games as a freshman.

Who’s new?

Player Height Weight Notes
Player Height Weight Notes
Jimmy Whitt Jr. 6'3" 175 graduate transfer/SMU
Jeantal Cylla 6'7" 215 graduate transfer/UNC Wilmington
JD Notae 6'2" 185 transfer/Jacksonville
Abayomi Iyiola 6'9" 210 transfer/Stetson
Connor Vanover 7'3" 225 transfer/California

As mentioned before, Eric Musselman went very heavy on transfers when filling out his roster. That comes with some considerable downside: all indications are that JD Notae and Abayomi Iyiola will sit out this season, and Connor Vanover may as well — the 7’3” sophomore’s waiver application has yet to be approved by the NCAA, and of course it may not be.

The two graduate transfers will play. Jeantal Cylla is the depth piece, a 6’7” transfer from UNC Wilmington and Florida Atlantic before that, who averaged 13.7 ppg and 4.6 rpg — for a UNC Wilmington team that went 10-23. Jimmy Whitt is the first player I can recall to start his career one place, transfer out, and then transfer back to the place where he started: he was a four-star recruit and a good get for Mike Anderson back in 2015, but then he transferred out and played two years at SMU. Last year, Whitt averaged 12.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, and 4.0 apg, and he could be the answer at point guard.

Schedule

Date Opponent
Date Opponent
11/5 Rice
11/12 North Texas
11/16 Montana
11/19 Texas Southern
11/22 South Dakota
11/25 at Georgia Tech
11/30 Northern Kentucky
12/3 Austin Peay
12/7 at Western Kentucky
12/14 Tulsa
12/21 vs. Valparaiso (North Little Rock, AR)
12/29 at Indiana
1/4 Texas A&M
1/8 at LSU
1/11 at Ole Miss
1/15 Vanderbilt
1/18 Kentucky
1/22 at Mississippi State
1/25 TCU
1/29 South Carolina
2/1 at Alabama
2/4 Auburn
2/8 at Missouri
2/11 at Tennessee
2/15 Mississippi State
2/18 at Florida
2/22 Missouri
2/26 Tennessee
2/29 at Georgia
3/4 LSU
3/7 at Texas A&M

The nonconference schedule is reasonably tough, but not overwhelming. There aren’t many big names; on the other hand, teams like South Dakota and Northern Kentucky are good enough to catch them napping, and while Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky aren’t great, those aren’t easy wins, either. It’s conceivable that Arkansas could be 11-0 going into a trip to Indiana on December 29.

SEC play for the Razorbacks is bookended by Texas A&M and LSU; in between, they’ll play Mississippi State, Missouri, and Tennessee twice each.

Outlook

In theory, Arkansas should be fine this year, with 68.5 percent of its possession-minutes returning from a team that frankly wasn’t that bad in 2018-19. But that assumes that the returnees are good fits for Eric Musselman’s system, and that some of the young players improve as expected. And if Arkansas really does go into the season with just nine players on scholarship, then they’re an injury or two away from having a really short bench.

That’s why I have Arkansas ninth. The way that the SEC sets up this season, there are about three teams that are clearly at the top and then six that all look fairly similar; out of that group, Arkansas probably has the lowest floor if only because of the new coaching staff and the potential depth issues. The upside is the NCAA Tournament, but probably not much of a run once there; Arkansas’s 23-year drought since its last Sweet 16 looks like it will probably continue.

Long-term, Musselman might well be an upgrade on Anderson, but there might be some kinks in the short term. I would have felt pretty confident about Arkansas this year if Anderson were coaching the team and I can’t really say that now.