Arkansas Basketball: Newcomers ignite optimism for 2020-21

Roster turnover is a challenging construct to overcome in the world of college basketball. Of course, recruiting powerhouses such as Duke and Kentucky are quite used to the concept, but schools like Arkansas are perhaps not as accustomed to losing 5+ players in a single offseason. Yet, the Razorbacks suffered that exact fate this summer. Not only did they lose Mason Jones and Jimmy Whitt, but key depth pieces also departed. Then, Isaiah Joe re-entered the NBA Draft after originally electing to return, which should have been the last nail in the coffin for the program’s hopes in 2020-21. 

Yet, the Razorbacks will still receive plenty of consideration as a potential preseason Top 25 team. How, you might ask? It all starts with Eric Musselman, who is perhaps the best non-blueblood coach nationally with handling roster turnover. To put it simply, the eccentric sideline commander is no stranger to dealing with several newcomers. He was able to push Nevada (his last stop) into the national spotlight with superb work in the transfer market and has Arkansas trending in a similar direction.

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Now entering his second season in Fayetteville, Coach Musselman has already contrived a roster in his image. With a talented group of incoming transfers and the No. 8 overall recruiting class in the nation joining the fray, Arkansas looks poised to build on its 20-12 (7-11 SEC) record from last season despite losing arguably its three best players. 

While it would have been great to have Joe and/or Jones back, there should still be plenty of optimism. There is no shortage of talent for the coaching staff to work with. In fact, the biggest potential challenge could simply be learning everyone’s strengths and developing strong team chemistry. Coach Musselman, though, is well-known for his ability to build an energetic culture that young stars can buy into.

His high-energy coaching style also embodies how his teams perform on the court: up-tempo and fun. Musselman-led teams always play a fast pace, limit turnovers, let it from my deep, and excel at drawing contact. They are perimeter-oriented with constant 4-or-5-out lineups and make swiss cheese out of defenses with their ball-movement and transition offense. There are some downsides to this scheme (such as struggles on the glass), but Coach Musselman has been quite successful.

How about those freshmen guards?

Looking ahead to this coming season, Arkansas features a bevy of perimeter talent poised to wreak havoc on opponents. The biggest stars of this group, in my opinion, are incoming freshmen Moses Moody and KK Robinson. These two head to Fayetteville as four-star recruits oozing with star potential. While relying on first-year players to fill major roles can be a slippery slope, they are spectacular talents.

Moody is perhaps the more well-known of the duo, having played on a ridiculously stacked and well-balanced Montverde Academy team last season. An elite sniper from beyond the arc, Moody is deadly in catch-and-shoot situations while also being able to create for himself out of the triple-threat. Not only will his offensive game fit perfectly in the Hogs’ system, but he is also a terrific wing defender as a result of his IQ and lengthy wingspan. Moody should be a lock to fill a starting role and could be the team’s go-to star. Even though he is only ranked as the No. 45 overall recruit in the class, Moody has “one-and-done” written on him.

Robinson is similarly headed to Arkansas from a prestigious basketball school in Oak Hill Academy. Ranked as the No. 61 overall prospect in the class, KK is a lightning-quick lefty that can harass guards into turnovers on one end, and burn them off the dribble on the other. He should thrive in Musselman’s transition-heavy system with his shiftiness at speed and finishing ability. Given Arkansas’ experienced depth of ball-handlers, Robinson will likely begin the year coming off the bench. Yet, he is someone that I am really high on and could see his role increase as the season progresses.

Robinson and Moody look to be the heir to Jones/Joe for this coming season. While living up to that expectation will certainly be difficult, their supporting cast on the perimeter is superb.

Veteran returners and transfers will fill critical roles.

Returning guard Desi Sills leads this group. The rising junior started 24 of 32 contests for the Razorbacks last season while averaging 10.6 points per game. He also ranked third on the team in 3-pointers made, although at just a 32.9 percent rate (he shot 46.0 percent as a freshman). Due to his familiarity with the system and strong play a year ago, Sills is a lock for big minutes either as a starter or sixth man for this team. He is only main rotation player from last season returning.

The Razorbacks also secured a pair of veteran backcourt pieces that will be eligible to take the court out of the transfer market. JD Notae was arguably Jacksonville’s bet player before departing and he posted averages of 15.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game in 2018-19. He sat out last season due to transfer rules and is the type of self-creating guard that could excel at Arkansas. Notae will be able to handle some of the ball-handling duties for the Razorbacks

Jalen Tate, on the other hand, is a graduate transfer from Northern Kentucky. A highly-capable two-way guard, he earned the Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year award last season. As a result, he should be able to set the tone on the defensive end. Generating pressure on opposing guards is a staple of Coach Musselman’s system and Tate’s ability to do just that puts him in the conversation to start from Day 1. He also chipped in 13.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game for the Norse last season despite playing with injuries. He is a versatile option.

Incoming freshman Davonte Davis (No. 113 overall recruit by 247Sports Composite) could also be a threat for reserve minutes. The fact that he is not likely to be a major part of the rotation just goes to show how deep this roster is.

Improvements in the frontcourt? Definitely.

Looking to the frontcourt now, Arkansas also made some substantial upgrades in that department this offseason. Justin Smith (Indiana) and Vance Jackson (New Mexico) both joined the fray as graduate transfers while 7-foot-3 sit-out Connor Vanover brings plenty of size to the center spot as well. Those four appear likely to fill most of the frontcourt minutes. It might also be worth mentioning that incoming freshman Jaylin Williams could also see playing time as the No. 80 overall recruit in the class while Ethan Henderson returns after a bench role last year.

The best fit of these newcomers is Jackson. He can function at either frontcourt spot and is a threat to score from distance and in the paint. With his addition, Arkansas can play a 5-out lineup without having to give up much size underneath. The 6-foot-9 forward has shot 35.4 percent from three on 354 total attempts to this point in his career.

Smith, on the other hand, looks to be the biggest impact defender of the frontcourt. He started all 32 games for Indiana a season ago and is thus familiar with the rigors of high-major basketball. Smith doesn’t stretch the floor much, but can defend multiple positions and brings a ton of energy for the floor. He posted averages of 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game for the Hoosiers.

As for Vanover, he is a bit of a wildcard. He obviously brings a great deal of height at 7-foot-3 but got pushed around some as a freshman at Cal. Regardless, though, he shot 35.5 percent from three during that campaign and ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in block rate (9.4%). Vanover is a versatile threat. He sat out last year due to transfer rules and could be a difference-maker off the bench. He will change how opponents can attack Arkansas with his floor-spacing and rim protection.

Arkansas’ frontcourt pieces will not receive nearly as much attention as those on the perimeter, but the program’s year-over-year personnel improvement in this area shouldn’t go overlooked. This group is vastly superior to the frontcourt rotation of a year ago and could be the most pivotal reason for a potential breakout season for the program.

Statistics via KenPom

As evident here, Arkansas is no stranger to winning the turnover battle under Coach Musselman. The Razorbacks take care of the ball well and do a great job forcing mistakes defensively as well. As a result, they averaged a +4.47 advantage in turnovers per game last season. That mark remained fairly steady at +4.28 in SEC play. Even with an essentially brand-new group of guards, I’m expecting similar numbers in this area. Adding veteran defenders like Tate certainly helps with that optimism.

On the downside, though, Arkansas was consistently outrebounded last season; they averaged 6.75 fewer boards per game than their opposition last season. While the team’s scheme played a great role in that, their personnel was not sufficient against high-major competition. That mark rose to the team being outrebounded by 9.89 boards per game in conference play

With the aforementioned additions to the frontcourt above, though, we should see the Razorbacks take big strides on the glass. Simply having more size helps, but Jackson, Smith, and Vanover all posted respectable rebounding rates at their last stops as well. Even marginal year-over-year rebounding improvement would go a long way for Arkansas. Add in Jaylin Williams to the mix as a potential breakout freshman and that is a strong core in the frontcourt to work with.

The Hogs should already win the turnover battle in most games, and holding their own on the glass would help build larger possession differentials. They already averaged more field goal attempts per game than their opponents last season despite dismal rebounding numbers. Just imagine how that differential could look with average glass-cleaning.

Just how good can the Razorbacks be if everyone gels?

With all of this talent on the roster, Arkansas’ biggest concern might actually be trying to formulate a rotation. Coach Musselman traditionally runs shorter rotations than most of the nation with only seven or eight players, but every scholarship player will compete for minutes. That could make things tricky, but as already alluded to, Musselman is someone that I trust greatly on the sidelines. Having this much depth will allow him to “ride the hot hand” on occasion, especially early in the year while everyone jockeys for playing time. Additionally, this might simply be his first season coaching in which he has enough talent to run a deeper rotation.

On the whole, Arkansas is a team that I am definitely buying stock in heading towards this season. The Razorbacks’ bandwagon lost a lot of passengers as Jones and Joe elected for the NBA Draft route this offseason, but this is still a very strong roster. If the freshmen live up to the hype and the veterans fill out the crucial roles around them, they could threaten the favorites (Tennessee and Kentucky) in the SEC. An NCAA Tournament appearance should in the cards for the Hogs during this coming season, and the future is extremely bright as well.


Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business.