Musselman making transfer portal work for Hogs rather than against them

The old recruiting adage that “the numbers will work themselves out” is a truism that never changes in college athletics.

Legendary Razorback basketball coach Nolan Richardson is the first coach I heard say it. I’m not sure if it was original with him or not, but it always eventually happens no matter the team or the sport, just maybe not as quickly or as clearly as inquisitive fans want it to.

This comes up because of Monday’s news that graduate transfer forward Justin Smith (6-7, 230) will join Eric Musselman’ Razorback basketball program after playing three solid years at Indiana.

As far as we know, that puts the Hogs one man over the NCAA’s scholarship limit of 13 players. Like me, I’m sure when you heard about the addition your mind instantly began to wonder who will be leaving? Does this mean Musselman knows for sure Isaiah Joe is going to remain in the NBA Draft? Or is so-and-so going to transfer?

The answer at the moment of this writing is uncertain, but what is certain is that Musselman has a plan. In just the short time that we’ve come to know Musselman as the Hogs’ head coach, we know that he has a plan for just about everything, multiple ones even. And that’s a great thing for the Razorback program.

While Musselman made lemonade out of lemons in his first year as the Hogs’ coach, achieving a 20-12 record with a shot to make the NCAA Tournament before the coronavirus abruptly ended the 2019-20 season on the second day of the SEC Tournament, his Razorbacks were undermanned in terms of numbers and talent.

This, of course, was not Musselman’s fault. He took what he inherited and did more than what most expected in his first season with the Razorbacks.

If it had not been for Joe’s knee injury, the Hogs might have won two or three more games, maybe more? But that’s the problem with being undermanned and lacking talent, it becomes very difficult for a team to overcome the bumps in the road that every season brings to nearly every team.

Musselman and his staff are no doubt working very hard to make sure they do not find themselves in the same situation as last season again. Part of that is working the NCAA’s transfer portal like a madman.

The Razorbacks work that transfer portal like a collector works the auction site eBay. A hard-core collector may not bid on every item he is interested in that comes up for auction, but you better believe he knows exactly what is available at any given time so he can pull the trigger on the exact item he wants. He may not always win, but at least he’s in the picture.

That’s the way the Razorbacks treat the transfer portal. Just like with recruiting high school athletes, the staff makes contact with many more prospects than they will ever be able to sign, but if the Hogs never make contact with the player, they never give themselves a chance.

Like almost everything with Musselman, it comes down to numbers and probabilities. He casts a wide net so that he has the best opportunity to land a prized catch.

By any account, the Razorbacks have done well on the transfer portal market this spring, landing Smith, an academic All-Big Ten honoree, who averaged 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds as a starter for the Hoosiers. Add him to forward Vance Jackson (6-9, 220) from New Mexico and guard Jalen Tate (6-6, 170) of Northern Kentucky, and the Hogs have gotten taller, longer, and even a bit more physical.

No doubt, Musselman has a plan for each of these players and how they will contribute to the Razorbacks this season, their lone one as a Razorback.

The numbers work themselves out if Joe stays in the NBA Draft. He has until Aug. 3 or 10 days after the NBA Combine, whichever comes first to make that decision. The big question for NBA teams about Joe will be his knee. Is it sturdy enough for them to take the risk of drafting him?

Joe looked fine after he returned from his knee surgery back in February, but the pounding a knee takes during a NBA or G League season is different.

Of course, Joe has to consider can he improve his draft status enough with one more year at Arkansas to truly make a difference in his draft spot? Could coming back hurt him? Does he even want to come back at all? Or, maybe, he enjoys the college life so much that it’s more than worth coming back to the Hogs for another year?

Those are questions Joe, no doubt, is considering, at this time that no one can really answer. What is certain is that he has a spot with the Hogs if he wants it.

If he does return, it would mean a player would have to be taken off scholarship or transfer. No doubt Musselman has an idea of what he is going do should that happen.

Of course, Musselman may already know what Joe’s plans are. Either way, he’s making sure that he won’t come up shorthanded in terms of bodies and talent like he did a year ago.

That bodes well for the the Razorback program.

Musselman seems to be very good at making contingency plans, which is an area that held the Razorbacks back during the Mike Anderson era. Anderson’s program would rise but then dip when a player or two left for the NBA earlier than expected or transferred out of the program.

Transfers have always been a part of the college basketball landscape, but it’s to an even greater and increasing degree the last decade. Coaches have had to adjust. By being proactive with the transfer portal, Musselman is making this fact of life work for his program rather than against it.