Outstanding schedule awaits wily group of Hoop Hogs

Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman reacts on the bench in the second half of a second-round college basketball game against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 18, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Just as the Arkansas Razorback football team is preparing to begin preseason football drills on Friday, the off-season workouts for Eric Musselman’s basketball Hogs draw to a close today until their preseason practice begins in October for another highly anticipated season.

Arkansas has yet to release its full schedule. Dates, times, and possibly even opponents might not be totally set. Or perhaps the SEC’s and/or Arkansas’ media relations departments is just waiting for the optimum time for its release. From what we do know, the 2023-24 schedule is going to be one of the most attractive and competitive the Razorbacks have played in its modern history.

Arkansas has always worked hard to have strong games for fans mixed in with the buy-in games needed to make every program profitable.

Those of us who are old enough will remember the Triplets blowing out Memphis State in 1977, the Hogs whipping Michigan in 1981 in Barnhill Arena, the upset of No. 1 North Carolina with Michael Jordan at Pine Bluff in 1984, a victory over Kansas and Danny Manning at Barnhill in 1986, and the loss to UNLV at Barnhill in 1992.

While it is hard to say beforehand that any of the games on this year’s schedule will be as fondly recalled as those to old-timers like me, I think this may be the highest octane pre-conference schedule the Hogs have ever played.

Getting Purdue, which stands to be a top-five team in the preseason polls, to come to Bud Walton Arena on Oct. 28 for a 3 p.m. charity exhibition game is a huge preseason treat.

The week of Thanksgiving the Razorbacks will compete in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas. The high-powered field includes Memphis, Michigan, North Carolina, Stanford, Texas Tech, Villanova and Northern Iowa.

The ESPN-arranged showdown with Duke at Walton Arena on Nov. 29 in the first-ever ACC/SEC Challenge is an outstanding early Christmas gift for Hog fans. The Blue Devils might be the No. 1 team at that point in the season.

The Razorbacks play Oklahoma in the BOK Center at Tulsa on Dec. 9 in the third-annual Crimson and Cardinal Classic. The Sooners, of course, will join the SEC for the 2024-25 season, and one guesses, the two proud programs will play regularly — hopefully home and home — from that point forward.

If you notice all of that happens before Christmas, and well before SEC play begins in late December or early January.

That’s a lot of fantastic basketball for Razorback fans to enjoy around the holiday season.

Arkansas guard Joseph Pinion (5) scores on a fast break against UNC Asheville during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Musselman has never been a coach to back away from a challenge, but he must believe he has something very good brewing with his squad to court that kind of schedule.

His Hogs are a very interesting mix of returning players and transfers that have a ton of college experience, just not playing together.

The Razorbacks are mixing four experienced players from the transfer portal in Tramon Mark (6-6, 185) from Houston, Khalif Battle (6-5, 185) from Temple, Jeremiah Davenport (6-6, 215) from Cincinnati, Denijay Harris (6-7, 195) from Southern Miss, and El Ellis (6-3, 180) from Louisville with Razorback returners Davonte Davis (6-4, 185), Jalen Graham (6-10, 220), Makhi Mitchell (6-10, 240), Joseph Pinion (6-5, 195), and Trevon Brazile (6-10, 220).

Kenyon Menifield (6-1, 150), a sophomore who transferred from Washington, is redshirting this season. Considering his slight build, a year of honing his craft as well as working in the weight room likely is the best thing for him. Musselman pointed out that transfers he had coached in the past had greatly benefitted from such a developmental year.

With that kind of experience, the basketball IQ of this squad is likely relatively high, and Musselman commented Tuesday that his frustration level this summer after workouts is much less than last year when he was working with not only new players to his system but also many more freshmen.

The Hogs do have two freshmen working with the team full of veterans in Baye Fall (6-10, 210) and Layden Blocker (6-2, 180). It might be hard for either of them to break into Musselman’s notoriously short rotation this season, but no doubt they will be given their shot.

Musselman said the Razorbacks aren’t even close to establishing a playing rotation or roles for the players yet. That will come when preseason workouts start in October. He added that he hopes the team will develop greatly from where they start in November and when the NCAA Tournament begins in March.

One thing that did please Musselman was that he could only point to one bad workout this summer with veterans like Davis and a little bit surprisingly Graham setting the tone. Every Hog fans knows and appreciates the gusto that Davis plays with, but Musselman credited Graham with making an evolution in his work and practice habits.

Of the new additions, it seems Ellis, after getting comfortable, is becoming not just a leader by his work but also with his voice. Ellis was a scorer at Louisville, and Musselman wants him to continue to put pressure on defenses with that gift, but also develop into more of a facilitator with the ball in his hands.

Musselman said Fall’s 3-point touch surprised him, and that Blocker has a maturity about him that most freshmen don’t possess.

Mark is cut in a similar mold as Davis with a tenacious demeanor on the defensive side of the ball. It sounds like the Razorbacks will be able to attack opponents on the defensive end as well as the offensive end this season.

Davenport has proven that he can stretch the floor as a 3-point shooter, according to Musselman, which is something the Hogs struggled to do last season.

Musselman said the team has been overly cautious with the health of Brazile’s knee. The 6-10 skilled forward was playing like a potential All-SEC performer last year when he tore a knee ligament in December. Musselman said they wanted to wait the full nine months after his surgery before putting any undo stress on his knee.

The Razorbacks have a daunting schedule, but from Musselman’s description, they have the talent to acquit themselves well against the challenges that are on the horizon.