Image courtesy of Arkansas Athletics
First-year coach Eric Musselman exceeded fans’ expectations in his debut season in Fayetteville.
In addition to leading only nine eligible players to a 20-win season, Musselman also signed the fifth-ranked recruiting class and added two quality graduate transfers. He is still active in the portal, recruiting as if another spot will open up, but even without another addition, Musselman has completed a roster overhaul.
Arkansas Head Coach Mike Anderson was fired after eight seasons with the team. Musselman was hired soon after and quickly worked to revamp the roster. He wasn’t going to renew walk-on Jonathan Holmes’ scholarship, removed Gabe Osabuohien from the team, lost Ibrahim Ali to transfer, and lost Daniel Gafford to the NBA. Freshman wing Keyshawn Embery-Simpson entered the transfer portal before Musselman was hired and remained in the portal. He eventually landed at Tulsa. These opened six spots for Musselman to fill.
He filled five spots, two with immediately eligible graduate transfers Jimmy Whitt and Jeantal Cylla, and three with sit-out transfers. The team only had nine eligible scholarship players and a main rotation of seven with a 6-6 starting center. Transfers J.D. Notae, Connor Vanover, and Abayomi Iyiola had to wait their turn for their first year.
In his second offseason, Musselman again had six spots to fill, this time filling them all. Four spots went to highly-touted in-state recruits Moses Moody, Jaylin Williams, K.K. Robinson, and Davonte Davis. The other two went to grad transfers Jalen Tate and Vance Jackson.
Musselman proved in year one he can coach players up to playing to their full potential. The two most-evident examples are Mason Jones and Adrio Bailey, who each had career seasons. With the caliber of signees, the pieces returning, and freshly eligible sit-out transfers from last year, the expectations for the Razorbacks are reaching levels not matched in recent history. Are Hog fans in for more disappointment, or will their expectations be met for the first time since the mid-90s?
On a twitter poll, 46% of fans expect to make the Sweet Sixteen next year, while 40% expect to make at least the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Only 12% expect a first round exit, and 2% an NIT appearance. The Razorbacks haven’t made the Sweet Sixteen since 1995, but Musselman has fans believing it can happen again soon.
It’s hard to say with as many newcomers as the team will have. There will be nine players who have never suited up for the Razorbacks in a game before. Developing chemistry is essential to this team matching such high expectations early on in Coach Musselman’s tenure.
Talent-wise, it should be a no-brainer that the Razorbacks could make the Sweet Sixteen. According to multiple NBA Mock Drafts, next year’s squad will have three or more NBA draft picks in the near future. Each of the incoming freshmen finished ranked in the top 100 in recruiting rankings, and the graduate transfers were both in the top 30 of the graduate transfers rankings. Combined with the new additions, the Razorbacks return NBA-prospect Isaiah Joe and Desi Sills. Connor Vanover is another NBA-prospect eligible to play for his home-state team for the first time, and J.D. Notae provides another scorer to a stacked offensive roster.
The roster will have more quality depth and more bodies in general with thirteen eligible players in 2021 to make any number of rotations possible. The versatility and ability to create more mismatches will better suit a basketball addict who is obsessive over film and tendencies like Musselman is.
To-date, the most wins a second-year coach has tallied in Arkansas history is 21 under Francis Schmidt in 1924. Behind Schmidt, there is a three-way tie for second place between Eddie Sutton, Nolan Richardson, and Mike Anderson with 19 wins in each of their second seasons. Musselman will have to break the record for most wins by a second-year coach in program history if he wants to make the Sweet Sixteen like fans overwhelmingly seem to expect.