Young hoop Hogs have sights set high for 2022-23 season

Arkansas’ Makhel Mitchell (22) and Trevon Brazile (2) defend against Rogers State’s Kofi Hamilton during an exhibition game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. (Arkansas Athletics)

My plan for this column was to throw some cold water on the hype surrounding Eric Musselman’s fourth iteration of the the Arkansas Razorbacks.

After back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight the last two seasons, signing the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class with the No. 1-ranked freshman Nick Smith Jr., and being ranked in the Associated Press Preseason Top 10 for the first time since the 1994-95 season, I thought it might be time to tamp down expectations for this team.

Nothing hurts a somewhat sensitive Arkansas fanbase more than expecting too much and being disappointed when those expectations and reality meet.

The football Hogs are experiencing a bit of that right now as Sam Pittman’s squad has been hamstrung by a concentration of injuries in the defensive backfield as well as facing a road game at Mississippi State without starting quarterback KJ Jefferson, who is the straw that stirs the Razorbacks’ drink.

Fair-weather fans have jumped off the bandwagon already with five games left to play, and the Razorbacks are sitting at a mediocre 4-3 coming off their bye week. Pittman’s team faces the Auburn Tigers at 11 a.m. Saturday in Auburn for a contest that is huge for the Hogs for a number of reasons, including the likelihood of their bowl eligibility and crawling out of the SEC West cellar.

But back to basketball for the moment. It may still be time to keep expectations for Hog Ball in check, but after watching the Razorbacks squash Rogers State in an exhibition game Monday night, it is hard not to be excited about what is going on over in the Eddie Sutton Practice Gym and what will be on display this year at Walton Arena.

Razorback Men’s Basketball

Opponent: at Texas (exhibition)
When:  3 p.m. Saturday Oct. 29
Where: Moody Center, Austin, Texas
TV: None

Next 5 games

Nov. 7 – North Dakota State
Nov. 11 – Fordham
Nov. 21 – Louisville (Maui Classic)
Nov. 22 – Texas Tech or Creighton (Maui Classic)
Nov. 23 – TBD (Maui Classic)

As the young folks say, the Razorbacks’ drip is impressive.

The talent is oozing right now like icing on a hot cinnamon roll. The combination of athleticism and skill on display is reminiscent of the early to mid-1990s — the glory years of Nolan Richardson’s program. I hesitate to think that it might be better.

Maybe I need a little cold water poured on me!

While this particular group of Hogs have proven nothing yet, it’s safe to say this is a squad Nolan would have loved to have coached with its skill, quickness, explosiveness, length and depth.

The score Monday night against Rogers State was inconsequentially 83-49. It could have been worse had the Hogs shot better from the free-throw line (20 of 37 for 54.1 percent) and had fewer turnovers (16). Those numbers will go down as the Hogs get more accustomed to playing together and as Musselman tightens the playing time.

Razorbacks who turn the ball over and miss free throws won’t be seeing as much or any playing time as the Hogs move forward. Unlike Richardson, Musselman likes to keep a tighter rein on his roster, regularly playing six to eight, maybe nine players in contested games. Richardson regularly used nine to 11 players to fatigue opponents in an attempt “to make cowards of them all.”

That’s not Musselman’s way, and how could anyone argue with his results? It sure has felt good watching the Razorbacks extend their season deep into the NCAA Tournament the past two years. Since the late 1990s, too many Razorback seasons ended with a game or two in the Big Dance or no dance card at all.

These Hogs have already made it clear that their goal is not just one step beyond the Elite Eight but two. Yeah, a national title. I don’t know if these Hogs will have played enough together by March for that to be a realistic goal, but Musselman’s D-League and NBA experience has him as prepared as any coach to put a team together over the course of a single year to reach the ultimate goal.

That’s heady stuff to be talking about in October before a “real” game, but if it is on the Hogs’ minds — and it is — then why not the media’s finger tips and voices?

Nick Smith Jr. (6-5, 185) has a killer’s instinct. He has cobra-like quickness and possibly even a silkier shot than advertised. He can leap too. A back-side put-back slam dunk showed that Monday night.

Fellow five-star recruit Anthony Black (6-7, 198) is like no other Razorback I’ve seen — save perhaps Joe Johnson — with the skills of a point guard but the length and height of many Razorbacks who have dabbled in the paint. His sight line is above most who will guard him, and the Hogs have plenty of high flyers and finishers to take advantage of his vision.

This is a Razorback squad that’s going to play above the rim, perhaps like no other in recent memory. Arkansas has had some athletic big men, but Trevon Brazile (6-10, 212) and Jalen Graham (6-9, 225) are very skillful to go with their hops. Five-star recruit Jordan Walsh (6-7, 205) and Ricky Council IV (6-6, 205) aren’t as tall as Graham and Brazile but have Michael Qualls’ type athleticism in more polished packages.

That’s just scratching the surface on this team. Joseph Pinion (6-5, 190) displayed a deft shooting touch that Muss and his staff will put to good use, and that’s not even mentioning Devo Davis (6-4, 185) and Kamani Johnson (6-7, 230), who are the old heads, who’ll no doubt set the tone for the squad with their experience and leadership.

Now, the Hogs have been invited to a barbecue of sorts in Austin, Texas this Saturday by Chris Beard and his No. 12 Texas Longhorns for a rare top-12 matchup in an exhibition game, held in the brand new Moody Center.

The only question is whether the meat on the menu will be brisket or pork?