Transfer czar Eric Musselman and his Arkansas basketball squad are back for another year as SEC title contenders.
Riley’s Ranking: 16th
A message from Eric Musselman to his fellow coaches:
Yes, while the new transfer rule sent college basketball into a frenzy, I imagine Mussleman stayed calm and collected. His experience with the portal gave him a clear advantage over his competition.
For instance, questions other coaches grappled with — Do you risk running off rotation players by adding a flashy new piece? How do you balance pursuing pure talent versus maintaining continuity? Which mid-major players can play at a higher level? — Musselman worked through years ago. The head coach has proven to be a savant at building a roster via transfers.
Usually, Musselman’s teams gain notoriety for their offense. Big guards who protect the rock, crisp ball movement, pristine shot selection and top-notch shooting all characterize his M.O. But in an interesting pivot, the Hogs rode their fierce defense to an Elite Eight berth in 2021. They ended the season ranked 10th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. (Prior to that, a Musselman-coached squad had never finished higher than 35th in that category.)
But replicating this success won’t be easy. Plus-defenders Moses Moody, Jalen Tate, Justin Smith, and Desi Sills have all left by way of the NBA draft, graduation, or transfer. Those four provided switchability on the perimeter and active, opportunistic hands (89th nationally in defensive turnover rate). Despite landing some splashy transfers — Miami’s Chris Lykes, Pitt’s Au’Diese Toney, and South Dakota’s Stanley Umude — none of the Hogs’ newcomers profile as defensive stoppers.
However, Arkansas returns enough from last season to stay afloat on D. And on offense? That’s where the top-10 potential lies this season.
New faces for Arkansas basketball
Lykes left a cascade of dysfunction at Miami for a thriving culture in Fayetteville. The diminutive guard feasts out of ball screens, where he maximizes his leverage to best his defender. Leaving his man stumbling, he uses elite quickness to attack the basket.
But he must get healthy — over the last two seasons, Lykes has played in just 17 games (only two in 2020-21). However, unlike when he was at Miami, he won’t need to shoulder the scoring load for Arkansas, which should decrease wear and tear. Musselman could even implement him as a second-unit terrorizer off the bench (more on that later).
Along the perimeter, Toney and Umude both fit the prototype of thick-framed, multi-positional wings that Musselman covets. The two transfers will deliver some pop in the stead of Moody and Tate.
Similar to Lykes, Toney bolted out of an imploding ACC program. Often, inconsistency (and perhaps a lack of motivation) marred his play at Pitt. In a new situation and with a new coaching staff, Toney should be able to maximize his talent. The springy lefty generates his own offense, gets to the charity stripe and rebounds well for his position.
Umude, on the other hand, led the Summit League in usage rate last season, displaying a well-rounded game. Notably, he also ranked 7th in assist rate and 6th in defensive rebounding rate in the conference. Most importantly, the dude is a pure BUCKET. In five contests last year, he eclipsed the 30-point mark, including a 40-piece in a December win over South Dakota State.
Umude scores most of his points from the mid-range, exhibiting graceful footwork and a smooth shooting stroke. He’s also strong at the rim — although he sort of bullied Summit defenders, which might not translate to the SEC. Nonetheless, given Musselman’s track record, expect one of Umude or Toney to consistently score in double figures.
The Hogs welcome two more under-the-radar transfers in Trey Wade from Wichita State and Kamani Johnson from Little Rock. The frontcourt duo faces a tall task: filling the void of the departed Justin Smith. A season ago, Smith supplied the Razorbacks with rim protection, relentless rebounding and interior scoring. In particular, his ability to iso out of the mid-post and run the floor proved essential to Arkansas’ offense. While neither will make a Smith-like impact, both will help on the glass and add some physicality to the frontcourt.
Razor-back for more
Even with the arrival of the “shiny new toys,” the returning players should give Arkansas fans the most optimism. Sophomore Davonte “Devo” Davis played an integral role in the Elite 8 run, hitting his groove in the postseason. The 6-4 guard locks down opposing lead guards, makes hustle plays and rebounds ferociously. Don’t just take my word for it:
“Me, I don’t just go after rebounds,” Davis said. “I attack them. I try to get everyone I can.”Davis to Whole Hog Sports, back in February
His impact will continue to increase on offense. Davis wants to punish his foes every time the ball is in his hands. But even with his attacking mindset, he still showcases finesse with his slick handle:
Davis’ classmate Jaylin Williams brims with upside at the center position. With rare coordination and passing for a big, Musselman can deploy the 6-10 sophomore all over the court. Defensively, Williams uses his length to blow up ball screens and sacrifices his body to draw charges. A COVID infection stymied him last season, but prior to that, he saw increased minutes in conference play.
Finally, two more returners in the backcourt could challenge for bigger roles. Last season, senior JD Notae functioned as a boom-or-bust scorer off the pine. Perhaps he can limit the volatile play in his second high-major season and stay on the court. Then, there’s sophomore point guard KK Robinson, a former star at Oak Hill Academy. I fell in love with Robinson’s game in the summer of 2020, but a foot fracture caused him to miss the majority of his freshman season. If he can stay healthy, he has a chance to usurp the starting role from Lykes and form a menacing backcourt tandem with Davis.
With another roster flush with talent, Musselman continues to lead Arkansas on an upward trajectory. Finishing better than last season won’t be easy, but a return to a Nolan Richardson-like level seems imminent under this regime.
Projected starters: G – Chris Lykes (Gr.); G – Devo Davis (So.); G/F – Au’Diese Toney (Sr.); G/F – Stanley Umude (Sr.); F – Jaylin Williams (So.)
Projected bench: G – KK Robinson (So.); G – JD Notae (Sr.); F – Kamani Johnson (R-Jr.); F – Trey Wade (Sr.); C – Connor Vanover (Jr.)
Strengths: Shot creation; lineup versatility
Weaknesses: Perimeter defense outside of Davis; inconsistent three-point shooting
Best player: Davis
Breakout player: Williams