Musselman has plenty of practice time to mold Hogs for SEC play

We are in the thick of college basketball season, but this week the No. 11 Arkansas Razorbacks’ schedule slowed down a bit after Monday’s 74-61 victory over Troy.

The Hogs had played four games in eight days on Monday, playing three in the Maui Invitational last week. However, when we look ahead at the month of December, the pace of competition slows a bit.

The Razorbacks play only five games over the next three weeks leading up to Christmas. After the holiday, the Hogs promptly open SEC play on Dec. 28 with a road trip to LSU before playing host to Missouri a week later on Jan. 4. In all, that’s six games in five and a half weeks.

Even if coach Eric Musselman lets the players off for some time around Christmas, that leaves a good bit of practice time for the Razorbacks to gel and improve in the coming weeks.

The Razorbacks (6-1) are already solid as their play has shown early this season, but that has been without Nick Smith Jr., the player generally considered to be the most talented Hog on the roster.

The 6-5 freshman guard from Jacksonville played six minutes against Troy, basically just testing his knee out after missing the Hogs’ first games. The assumption is he will play in Arkansas’ 3 p.m. Saturday game against San Jose State (6-2) that will be televised by the SEC Network.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: San Jose State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

Dec. 6 – UNC Greensboro
Dec. 10 – Oklahoma (in Tulsa, Okla.)
Dec. 17 – Bradley (in North Little Rock)
Dec. 21 — UNC Asheville
Dec. 28 — at LSU

How much he plays, we don’t know.

It will be interesting to see how Smith mixes in with the rotation Musselman had already established. Junior Devo Davis will be back, too, after taking a short break from basketball for personal reasons.

Davis had been a starter before missing Monday’s game on his leave of absence. He also was averaging 31 minutes a game, which was the ninth most amount of minutes in all the SEC, as Musselman slyly pointed out after the win over Troy.

It will be interesting to see whether Davis, the most experienced Razorback on the team, returns to his starting role or if Musselman goes in a different direction?

Musselman did say Monday night that in anticipation of the Hogs’ SEC slate he would be using more of the size he brought into the program in the last recruiting cycle.

Last year the Razorbacks were vastly outsized by their last two opponents in the NCAA Tournament — Gonzaga and Duke. Foul problems neutralized 7-foot-1 Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren (now with the Oklahoma Thunder) before he fouled out, but Duke’s overall team size was an issue in the Razorbacks’ 78-69 loss to the Blue Devils.

By no means is the lineup Musselman has been deploying small, but there is no sense in having size and not using it, particularly when it will likely be needed in SEC play.

Now is the time to experiment with the Razorbacks at as close to full strength as they have been.

One of the moves mentioned is sliding 6-10 Trevon Brazile from the power forward to the small forward spot. Musselman did not mention who would move into the four spot along with 6-9 center Makhi Mitchell, but based on his recent play, it could be 6-7 senior Kamani Johnson.

Johnson has proven to be the Hogs’ most physical player over the course of this short season, and his physical presence is something the Hogs will need against certain squads this season.

That leaves a crunch at the two guard spots. It’s hard to imagine Ricky Council IV not starting, considering how he’s played this season. The same can be said for Anthony Black.

That leaves Davis, Smith and Jordan Walsh, who might be the Razorbacks’ best on-the-ball defender with his length, quickness, and aggressiveness, coming off the bench, if Musselman opts to start a bigger lineup.

Now, Musselman did not exactly say he was going to start a bigger lineup, but that the Razorbacks would play with a bigger lineup.

Brazile and Johnson could continue coming off the bench, but playing more in tandem along with Makhi Mitchell and his 6-10 brother Makhel. Jalen Graham, a 6-9 senior transfer from Arizona State, also has the talent to help inside though his minutes have been limited in Arkansas’ first seven games.

Having so many talented players is a nice problem for Musselman and his staff. Practices will certainly be competitive as the Hogs work their way toward their SEC schedule.

Nick Smith Jr. (UA Athletics)

No doubt the Razorbacks that produce the most in practice will be rewarded with playing time in games.

Musselman likes to keep the circle of players he uses in games pretty tight. Seven or eight guys has been the norm his first three seasons at Arkansas.

Will the talent on this team make him expand that to nine or 10? I don’t know? We’ll just have to see.

Through seven games this Razorback team has been fun to watch. The high-flying antics of dunkers like Council, Brazil, and Black make me wonder if Musselman and his Hogs are opening an Arkansas chapter of the Phi Slamma Jamma fraternity that made waves at Houston back in the 1980s.

It’s probably not fair to mention these Hogs with players like Clyde “The Glide” Drexler and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, in particular, as well as Benny “The Bomb” Anders, Larry “Mr. Mean” Micheaux, and Micheal “The Silent Assassin” Young, but this Razorback squad does have some serious hops.

It’s yet to be seen what type of team Musselman will be able to mold this talented group of freshmen, transfers, and two key returners into, but with Smith getting healthier and Davis back in the fold, all hands should be on deck for Saturday’s contest with San Jose State and moving forward.