Basketball

Razorback Roundup: Basketball Offseason

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After making his second Elite Eight appearance in as many years, Arkansas basketball head coach Eric Musselman wasted no time in getting back to work. Transfer season has quickly become one of the more chaotic periods in all of high-level sports, but taking the ride with coach Musselman borderline qualifies as an extreme sport for fans.

Merely two days after the Razorbacks saw their season end at the hands of Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils, Musselman shocked the world by adding his third five-star commit to the 2022 class: Anthony Black.

Prior to this class, coach Musselman had never lured a five-star recruit to Fayetteville, AR, and the Razorbacks had never had more than two in the same class. That streak was broken when Anthony Black, a 6’7 combo guard from Duncanville, TX, committed to Arkansas during the McDonald’s All-American Game weekend.

Black – one of 24 McDonald’s All-Americans – joined Nick Smith Jr (6-4 G) and Jordan Walsh (6-7 F) as the only trio of McDonald’s All-Americans to join the Hogs in the same offseason. All three recruits are ranked as five-star recruits and fall in ESPN’s Top 20 for the 2022 class led by Nick Smith Jr at No. 6 (Walsh is No. 10 and Black is No. 20).

However, these three future stars aren’t the only reason Arkansas’ recruiting class ranks No. 2 in the nation. The trio of five-star recruits is joined by a matching three-piece set of four-star recruits, led by Magnolia, AR native and back-to-back Arkansas Gatorade Player of the Year, Derrian Ford (6-4 G, ESPN No. 70). Joining Ford is the back-to-back Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year, Barry Dunning (6-6 F, ESPN No. 75). Rounding out the class is another Arkansas native, Joseph Pinion (6-6 G, ESPN No. 89) of Morrilton, AR.

Transfer Season

Since the Hogs have (likely) set their freshmen class in stone, the staff has turned their attention to the transfer portal. While accumulating commits from transfers can be exciting, it inevitably comes with outgoing transfers leaving The Hill as well.

Upperclassman

Grad transfers Stanley Umude, Trey Wade, and Chris Lykes faced no decision this offseason – their eligibility was up and their careers ended as Razorbacks. Other upperclassmen like JD Notae and Au’Diese Toney did face a decision, however, and they both chose to sign with an agent and declare for the 2022 NBA Draft, essentially ending their collegiate careers. Jaylin Williams also entered his name in the draft pool, but he has yet to sign an agent and intends to retain his college eligibility as he tests the professional waters.

Outgoing Transfers

The first Hog to announce his transfer was soon-to-be sophomore and former four-star recruit, Chance Moore back on March 29th, the day after Anthony Black committed. Next came the announcement of another former four-star and Arkansas native, Khalen (KK) Robinson on April 1st (no, it wasn’t a joke). Finally, Connor Vanover announced his entrance into the portal on Wednesday, April 6th – the same day the Hogs landed a massive pair of transfers that we’ll get to in a moment.

All of this movement essentially has essentially left the Hogs with three returning players (four if Jaylin Williams withdraws from the Draft), six incoming freshmen, and three open spots to use in the transfer portal market.

Incoming Transfers

This leads us to the exciting part of the offseason: experienced players choosing to continue their careers with coach Musselman and the Hogs. The first domino to fall was a Trevon Brazile on March 30th. Brazile, a bouncy 6-9 forward from Missouri, will join the Hogs as a sophomore next season and retain three years of eligibility. As a freshman with the Tigers, Brazile averaged 6.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game while blocking 1.9 shots in roughly 21.5 minutes per game.

That translates to Per 40 Minute numbers of 12.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.6 blocks. Brazile can play either the “4” or “5” positions on the court and has a unique ability to spring off the floor with surprising speed given his height. This gives Musselman a versatile, athletic frontcourt option that he lacked last season.

Coach Musselman wasn’t done with his big-man reload just yet, however. On April 6th, the same day Vanover left the team, Arkansas landed a pair of twin transfers from Rhode Island in Makhel and Makhi Mitchell. The twin forwards stand 6-10 and 6-9 respectively and are known as defensive presences in the paint.

Makhel averaged 10.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game for the Rams last season. He could easily compete for the starting center position should Jaylin Williams head to the Draft. His brother Makhi is the more versatile of the two and averaged 9.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, and 1.0 steals per game last season. He also shot 30.4% from long range in his last season with Rhode Island after not attempting a 3-pointer in the previous two seasons.

The most recent transfer news to hit was the announcement of 6-9 Jalen Graham from Arizona State. Graham averaged 10 points, five rebounds, and one block per game with the Sun Devils last season. He provides another layer of aggression in the paint and possesses good touch from just inside the 3-point line.

All four of these transfers provide a level of size, athleticism, and physicality that Arkansas lacked last season. Yes, the Hogs found their golden lineup using Au’Diese Toney (6-6), Stanley Umude (6-6), and Trey Wade (6-6) as their trio of forwards alongside JD Notae (6-1) and Jaylin Williams (6-10), but this years’ squad holds the potential to field an entire lineup of 6-7 or taller players including perhaps the best passer on the team, Anthony Black.

Not only did coach Musselman add size, he also added athleticism, versatility, defense, toughness, and experience to what could go down as the greatest recruiting class in Arkansas Razorback basketball history.

Here is a look at the roster changes that have been announced so far. The left side of the visual shows what happened to the players from the 2021-22 roster, and the right side shows the current construction of the 2022-23 roster.

Off the Court News

During what turned out to be a busy Wednesday with the departure of Connor Vanover and the arrival of the Mitchell twins, it would’ve been easy to overlook the coaching staff news that dropped. Assistant Coach Clay Moser announced his resignation from the position with a heartfelt thank you message via his Twitter.

Moser has been a part of Musselman’s staff since he arrived in Arkansas, making this a substantial loss for the Hogs. However, it did leave the door open for former men’s basketball director of operations, Anthony Ruta, to be promoted to the assistant coach position.

“We are excited and fortunate to have Anthony make this progression on our staff,” Musselman said. “His tireless work ethic and overall basketball knowledge led us to hire him both as director of operations and assistant coach at Nevada and then again here at Arkansas. Anthony has proven himself time and again in every facet from scheduling, recruiting, player development, and on-court instruction. He has been an integral part of our teams’ successes as well as developing our philosophy and terminology. He has built strong relationships with our players and has done a phenomenal job representing the University of Arkansas and Razorback basketball these past three years.”

Keeping the new assistant as an in-house hire may have been the best bet for coach Musselman as he tries to keep Razorback basketball trending in the right direction – or to keep the Muss Bus rolling, if you prefer. It should be noted that Ruta also made this same position transition under coach Musselman during his time in Nevada. In his two years as the director of basketball operations, the Wolf Pack won 24 and 28 games. In the next two seasons after his promotion to assistant coach, Nevada would win 29 games each season. Perhaps history will repeat itself on The Hill.

Potential Razorback Rotation

It may not be a good idea to attempt to piece together this rotation puzzle when we’re not even sure we have all the right pieces yet, but why not try with what we’ve got so far?

Without going into too much depth (that will come at a later date), the near “staples” in what we predict to be an eight-man rotation next year are the three five-star recruits in Anthony Black, Nick Smith Jr, and Jordan Walsh along with Devo Davis and Jaylin Williams (if he returns). That leaves three – potentially four – open spots to fill.

Makhi Mitchell is perhaps the most versatile player on the roster next season. At 6’9, his truest position will be at the power forward, but we could see him play stints at small forward and center. His elite defensive presence and versatility almost guarantee he’ll see playing time next season. Trevon Brazile adds a “vertical threat” the Hogs have been lacking thanks to his combination of length and leaping ability, things that newly-added Arizona State transfer, Jalen Graham adds. They will likely battle for playing time since they play a similar position.

The 9th spot in the rotation becomes tricky. Makhel Mitchell is a tank down low and could average upwards of 1.5 blocks per game even off the bench. Though he’s not as versatile, he’ll likely see time at the center position with the right matchups. After the 6-10 big man, the final spot will likely be matchup-based between Derrian Ford, Jaxson Robinson, Kamani Johnson, Joseph Pinion, and Barry Dunning.

Ford is the most likely to see minutes should either of the starting guards get in foul trouble given his SEC-ready strength and ball-handling ability – and the fact that the frontcourt is loaded with options. Next up would likely be Jaxson Robinson thanks to his experience and shooting ability, followed by Joseph Pinion also due to his shooting prowess. It could be hard for forwards like Johnson and Dunning to crack the rotation given the sheer amount of talent and bodies ahead of them.

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