The Arkansas Razorbacks are bringing a face that should be familiar to LSU fans to Fayetteville.
The Razorbacks tapped former Tiger assistant coach and Nevada Wolfpack head man Eric Musselman to try and get Arkansas back into the upper echelon of the SEC.
Continuing with our SEC basketball preview series, I reached out to Evin Demirel. Evin writes more about Arkansas sports at BestOfArkansasSports.com and ArkansasFight.com. He also wrote a Slate.com feature on the forgotten story of “Wash” Randall, the first black LSU Tiger.
1. Last year was a down year for an Arkansas program that’s been pretty successful the past few seasons. Arkansas finished 18-16 overall and 8-10 in SEC play. How do the Hogs bounce back in 2019-20 and get back in the upper echelon of the SEC?
With flamethrowers like Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones and Desi Sills, we know this team will be lethal from the outside. But the high-level winning recipe is simple: Rebound with ferocity and consistency, defend with integrity and consistency, shoot well from the free throw line with consistency.
See a theme? Each season in the Mike Anderson era was predictably full of ups and downs, as was seemingly each game within that era. For the Hogs to make a dark horse run at the NCAA Tournament, they can’t afford the kinds of lapses in concentration and technique that plagued the Anderson-coached teams.
2. LSU fans may remember Eric Musselman’s brief time in Baton Rogue. After LSU he took over Nevada and turned the Wolfpack into the Mountain West’s power house program, winning at least 24 games in all four years, appearing in the NCAA tournament three times and making the Sweet 16 in 2018. What’s the expectation for Musselman at Arkansas?
In the short term, Hog fans expect him to make Arkansas competitive enough to occasionally beat a powerhouse, and well-coached enough to avoid the same kind of flummoxing losses to opponents with inferior talent that plagued Anderson.
They want to see a run at March Madness contention in his first year, but would understand settling for the NIT. By Year 3, and perhaps even by Year 2 if the improvement is steep enough, they will expect Musselman to not only take Arkansas back to the NCAA Tournament (as Anderson did) but return it to the Sweet 16, something no Hogs team since 1996 has achieved.
3. How does Arkansas replace a guy like Daniel Gafford?
After leaving early for the NBA, the 6’11” Gafford — with all this length, athleticism and energy — can’t be replaced.
But, in Musselman’s small ball scheme, he doesn’t need to be. Instead, expect an improved 6’8” Reggie Chaney to man the center position most of the year, with help from 6’9” Ethan Henderson, and 6’7” forwards Adrio Bailey and Jeantal Cylla.
There’s an outside chance that 7’3” transfer Connor Vanover, who played for Cal last year, will get an exception to play this season. Razorback fans got a sneak preview of a Gafford-less team in last seasons’ NIT, and the spacing looked a lot better in those games.
4. I’m looking at the Razorback roster and I’m not seeing a lot of size. How is Arkansas going to counter teams that have serious length in the front court?
It’s going to be a tough.
Rebounding and rim protection will be a major concern, but by all accounts the Razorbacks will be much improved in consistently blocking out and man-to-man defense.
Assuming Vanover doesn’t play, Arkansas’ success against the near seven-footers will hinge on Chaney’s ability to stay out of foul trouble (and avoid injury), Bailey improving for his final season and Cylla’s ability to consistently hit the three-pointer and draw the opposing big man out of the paint.
All teams preach guards and wings helping to crash the boards, but for the Razorbacks this will be even more vital. Expect senior guard Jimmy Whitt, who averaged 6.4 rebounds a game at SMU last season, to pace the backcourt here. The 6’5” Mason Jones and 6’2” Desi Sills will also help, while the X-factor is 6’5” Isaiah Joe.
Can the otherworldly sharpshooter, who’s beefed up his skeletal frame in the off season, round out his game?
5. Arkansas is bringing back Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones, adding SMU graduate transfer Jimmy Whitt and we know Musselman can bring a program to the top of its league. But the SEC has also improved as a basketball conference and could get eight schools into the NCAA tournament. So what’s a realistic expectation for Arkansas in 2019-20?
Yes, the SEC slate will be grueling but, outside of a trip to Indiana, Arkansas has a fairly easy non-conference schedule. Musselman’s Hogs should have time to get their sea legs and pad the win total before January hits.
A realistic expectation is 19 to 21 wins, slightly improved from last year. Granted, at Nevada, Musselman was able to flip the switch in that very first season but the rigor of the SEC is a different beast.
Hog fans will understand and forgive an outmanned and outsized Razorbacks team falling to the SEC powerhouses this season. They would like to see the Hogs put a scare in some of these teams, though, with great shooting and fundamentals and not be blown out in the first half — an all-too-often occurrence in big conference games during the Mike Anderson era.