How Did We Get Here?
Sometimes, it really does take just one injury. (Vanderbilt fans are familiar with this concept.)
Eric Musselman had things rolling along in his first year as Arkansas’s head coach. On February 1, the Razorbacks were rolling along with a 16-5 record. Mason Jones had made a leap into an All-SEC player, and the Razorbacks also had an excellent second option in sophomore Isaiah Joe. And then, Joe missed five games due to injury — during which Arkansas went 0-5. Joe would return, but the damage was done; Arkansas finished the season 7-11 in the SEC and in a tie for 10th — and quite likely on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, though we’ll never know for certain with the tournament being called off.
And now, going into Musselman’s second year, the roster is getting turned over. The Razorbacks had seven players who averaged 14.6 minutes or more; six of them are gone. Then again, turning over the roster isn’t exactly something that Musselman was unprepared for. Musselman built his program at Nevada around transfers and seems to have carried that over to his new position; in addition to three transfers who sat out last season, Musselman also added three more transfers, all immediately eligible, over the offseason. That’s on top of signing the nation’s 8th-ranked recruiting class in the 247 Sports composite, three of them ranked in the national top 100, and all four of them Arkansas natives. (Keeping local talent at home is always a good way to win over the fans.)
For all practical purposes, Arkansas has an entirely new team this season, but it’s one that could win. The freshmen are talented, but the presence of all the transfers — also talented — ensures that none of them will be asked to do too much, too soon. This has the potential to go well.
|Mason Jones||33.9||22||5.5||3.4||0.2||1.6||NBA Draft|
|Isaiah Joe||36.1||16.9||4.1||1.7||0.3||1.4||NBA Draft|
Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe certainly thrived in Eric Musselman’s system, to the point that he won’t have the services of either one beyond his first year. Jones is the kind of player who increasingly doesn’t stick around for his senior year — while he probably wasn’t going to be a first-round pick, what more could he have done at the college level to enhance his prospects of playing professionally? There really wasn’t anything, and as a result, he’s off to play professionally. So, too, is Isaiah Joe, who might have done something to enhance his opportunities by spending a season as the focal point of Arkansas’s offense (rather than playing second banana to Jones), but Joe has a marketable skill (shooting) at the pro level already.
Arkansas also lost three seniors, most importantly Jimmy Whitt, but the more relevant losses for this season are two players who had eligibility remaining. Pass-first point guard Jalen Harris elected to take a graduate year at Georgetown, and Reggie Chaney, a role player last year, might have started for this team but elected to play out the rest of his career at Houston. Perhaps both of them saw the writing on the wall with the talent coming in, but the end result is that Arkansas only returns 15 percent of its possession-minutes from last season — the second-lowest number in the league (ahead of only Kentucky.)
With only two scholarship players back, this section is pretty short. Desi Sills, who started 24 games last season, is the more consequential of the two; Sills has some ability but seems to be caught between playing his more natural point guard and being more of an undersized two. He has some things he does well, but profiles more as a fourth or fifth option. Ethan Henderson played 49 minutes over the season’s first 23 games and then 135 over the last nine, starting six games. (Those minutes mostly seemed to come from Reggie Chaney, who averaged under seven minutes over the final seven games of the season, and might have contributed to Chaney’s decision to leave the program — and might have also convinced Henderson to stay.)
|Vance Jackson||Sr.||6'9"||238||77||transfer/New Mexico|
|Jalen Tate||Sr.||6'6"||175||NR||transfer/Northern Kentucky|
There are ten newcomers here — six of whom have Division I experience. We’ll talk about all of the transfers first.
Technically, three of the ten newcomers were on the roster last year, though none of them played — controversially, in the case of Connor Vanover. Vanover, a 7’3” sophomore from Little Rock, started his career at Cal, where he averaged 7.5 ppg as a freshman and actually shot 35.5 percent from three on a non-trivial number of attempts. He also blocked 1.3 shots per game in roughly 17.5 minutes per game. In other words, a 7’3” guy who can block shots and also can knock down jumpers. This frankly sounds like a create-a-player on a video game. Jacksonville transfer JD Notae, who averaged 15.5 ppg and 3.4 assists, might be this team’s starting point guard, while 6’9” Stetson transfer Abayomi Iyiola has some ability as a rebounder and defender.
Not satisfied with adding three transfers with Division I experience, Musselman added three more in the offseason. All three of Justin Smith (6’7”), Vance Jackson (6’9”), and Jalen Tate (6’6”) are defenders with length, though none of them appear to be great offensive players or shooters. But all of the transfers with the exception of Vanover averaged in double figures at their last stops, so perhaps Musselman can find some offensive punch and a lot of interchangeable parts with this group.
The future, though, comes in the form of the four freshmen. The transfers will buy Musselman some time to develop them, but with four in-state players — the lowest of them ranked 113th in the 247 composite — this is the kind of class that can form the core of a very good team in a year or two. Arkansas has its point guard of the future in Little Rock native Khalen Robinson, and another Little Rock native, 6’6” wing Moses Moody, is the highest-rated player in this class. 6’3” Jacksonville native Davonte Davis can play either guard spot, and 6’10” Fort Smith native Jaylin Williams is a good rebounder and shot-blocker. Keeping the in-state guys at home is always a good way to win over fans, but especially when they’re this highly regarded.
With so many newcomers, this is a little difficult to figure out. Khalen Robinson might be good enough to start right away at the point, but Musselman might elect to play Desi Sills or JD Notae there if he wants to bring Robinson along slowly. Figure on Connor Vanover — who, again, is 7’3” and shoots threes — starting in the middle. Moses Moody should probably have some role to play here, but sorting out all the bodies at the forward spots — where any combination of Justin Smith, Jalen Tate, Vance Jackson, Abayomi Iyiola, Ethan Henderson, and Jaylin Williams could see playing time — is going to be a difficult task.
The bad news here, perhaps, is that the shortened nonconference schedule might hurt Arkansas. With a lot of players with similar skill sets and similar body types, Musselman has less time than normal to figure out his rotation before SEC play starts. And, of course, somebody (or multiple somebodies) will probably be unhappy with his playing time with this setup.
Arkansas profiles as the wild card in the SEC race, and it has everything to do with the roster. Aside from the fact that the Razorbacks have two returnees and ten newcomers, the makeup of the roster makes them difficult to predict. The 12th man on this team will, in all likelihood, be unusually good, and probably a player who would see regular minutes for most teams in the conference.
On the other hand, looking down this roster, I’m not at all sure who the Razorbacks’ best player is — and that can be problematic. There are a lot of guys who, on most power conference teams, would be at best the third or fourth scoring option (at this point in their careers, anyway, in the case of the four freshmen), but there’s really nobody here who I can point to as an All-SEC player or a future NBA talent to carry the team. A setup like this can work, but oftentimes it’s easier to build an offense around a couple of players like Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe and let everything else around them fall into place.
I think Musselman is a good coach, and there’s enough talent here that things shouldn’t go too badly — and there might even be some upside, but there are just too many unknowns for me to feel comfortable projecting this team as a challenger for the conference title. 7th place feels appropriate, splitting the difference between the talent level and the fact that basically none of these guys have ever played basketball together before this season.