SPORTS

By Robby Edwards | Photos courtesy of Razorback Communications

Top-Ranked Recruiting Class Has Hogs High in Preseason Polls

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Eric Musselman has masterfully managed his roster in his three years as head basketball coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks.

He has skillfully selected and incorporated transfers each of the last two years and guided the Hogs to 53 total wins and back-to-back NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearances.

Fans might expect more of the same, but Musselman changed tactics this year. “We’ve had three really good years,” Musselman said. “The first year was cut short due to COVID, but we felt even that year that we were really gaining momentum at the end of the year. The (NCAA) transfer portal has been really good to us and now we have six freshmen, so our roster management has changed the last couple of years.”

Only two returnees who played in more than five games are back, meaning 11 newcomers dominate the roster.

Freshmen include 6-5 guard Nick Smith of North Little Rock; 6-4 guard Derrian Ford of Magnolia, Arkansas; 6-6 forward Joseph Pinion of Morrilton, Arkansas; 6-7 guard Anthony Black of Duncanville, Texas; 6-6 guard Barry Dunning of Mobile, Alabama; and 6-7 forward Jordan Walsh of Desoto, Texas.

These aren’t just any freshmen — all six ranked among the top 100 recruits in the nation.

Smith was named the USA Today National High School Boys Basketball Player of the Year last year and is the preseason Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook National Newcomer of the Year for this season. He’s the No. 1 overall recruit and combo guard according to 247Sports, and the No. 2 overall recruit and No. 2 point guard according to Rivals.

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In his three seasons as head coach, Eric Musselman has led Arkansas to 20-12, 25-7 and 28-9 records and consecutive Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA Tournament

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Freshman Nick Smith of North Little Rock, who was one of five finalists for the Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Boys Player of the Year, was selected to play in the Jordan Brand Classic and was named co-MVP after scoring 27 points

Davonte “Devo” Davis, a junior from Jacksonville, Arkansas, hit the game-winning shot against Oral Roberts University with 3.1 seconds left to send Arkansas to the Elite Eight two years ago

Kamani Johnson, a 6-7 senior forward who transferred from University of Arkansas - Little Rock, played in 26 games last year and shot 62.1% from the field

Smith was named the USA Today National High School Boys Basketball Player of the Year last year and is the preseason Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook National Newcomer of the Year for this season. He’s the No. 1 overall recruit and combo guard according to 247Sports, and the No. 2 overall recruit and No. 2 point guard according to Rivals.

Walsh is No. 11 overall nationally and the No. 4 small forward according to ESPN. Black is No. 14 overall and the No. 1 point guard listed by 247Sports. Ford is No. 69 nationally and the No. 11 combo guard by 247Sports. Dunning is ranked No. 74 overall by ESPN and the No. 21 small forward. Pinion is No. 89 overall and the No. 17 shooting guard according to ESPN.

“Some coaches, and certainly we have felt like, ‘Hey, we can get old quick, you can win quick,’ but then you have to start thinking about sustainability,” Musselman said. “How do you continue to build the program? I think, especially at the (Southeastern Conference) level, you have to win with really talented freshmen that are basically going to be (NBA Draft) lottery picks or first-round picks. There aren’t a lot of lottery picks in the transfer portal.”

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Freshman Anthony Black, a member of USA Basketball’s 2022 USA Nike Hoop Summit Team, was listed fifth on the 2023 NBA Mock Draft by NBADraftRoom.com

Freshman Barry Dunning, a two-time Gatorade Alabama Player of the Year (2021 and 2022), has launched a nonprofit focusing on the mental health of athletes

Ricky Council, a 6-6 junior transfer from Wichita State University, averaged 9.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in 49 career games for the Shockers

Smith, Black and Walsh were all high school McDonald’s All-Americans. Dunning, Ford and Pinion were all nominees for the prestigious All-America squad.

National outlets have noticed, and the Razorbacks have been ranked as high as No. 1 in the nation by ESPN.com and SI.com, No. 2 by NCAA.com and TheAthletic.com, and No. 5 by CollegeHoopsToday.com.

“With expectations come responsibilities,” Musselman said. “That’s what we’re trying to tell the team with six freshmen. You have to be responsible with your work ethic and responsible with how you prepare and practice.”

Smith averaged 26.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game as a prep senior at North Little Rock High. Walsh averaged 15.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists at Link Year Academy in Missouri; Black averaged 13.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.2 steals at Duncanville High; Ford 23.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists at Magnolia High; Dunning 25.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.3 steals and 2.6 assists at McGill-Toolen Catholic High; and Pinion 24.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 2.1 blocked shots at Morrilton High.

Collectively, the group gives Arkansas its highest-ranked recruiting class in school history —  No. 2 in the nation and No. 1 in the SEC by both ESPN and 247Sports.

“What we’re telling our guys right now is ‘How do we get better every year?’” Musselman said. “That’s been a staple of our program. We want to get better every day. Where that winds up in March (at the NCAA Tournament), we don’t know because obviously you have to stay healthy.”

That six-pack of freshmen is enough to generate plenty of buzz, but that’s not all the Hogs have going for them. Musselman and staff dipped back into the transfer portal and added junior Ricky Council, sophomore Trevon Brazile, senior Jalen Graham and twin seniors Makhi and Makhel Mitchell.

Council, a 6-6 guard, was the Sixth Man of the Year last year in the American Athletic Conference, averaging 12.0 points at Wichita State and leading the team in scoring 10 times.

Brazile, a 6-10 forward, started 22 games at Missouri last year, averaging 6.3 points and 5.0 rebounds; he was ranked third in the SEC (47th nationally) with an average of 1.92 blocked shots.

Graham, a 6-9 forward, earned second-team All-PAC 12 honors at Arizona State University a year ago, averaging 9.9 points and 4.6 rebounds.

Makhi Mitchell is a 6-9 forward-center and Makhel Mitchell a 6-10 center. Makhi averaged 9.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.39 blocked shots, and Makhel averaged a team-best of 10.7 points along with 5.6 rebounds, both at University of Rhode Island.

Blending newcomers has paid huge dividends in Musselman’s three years.

Last year, after going 25-7 and reaching the Elite Eight in 2021, Musselman had two key returnees to work with in guard JD Notae and forward Jaylin Williams. They responded with Notae earning third-team All-America honors and leading the team with 18.3 points and 3.7 assists, and adding 4.6 rebounds per game; Williams became an NBA Draft second-round pick of the Oklahoma City Thunder after averaging 10.9 points and 9.8 rebounds.

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Freshman Nick Smith of North Little Rock, who was one of five finalists for the Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Boys Player of the Year, was selected to play in the Jordan Brand Classic and was named co-MVP after scoring 27 points

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Trevon Brazile, a 6-10 sophomore transfer from University of Missouri, started the final 22 games of the year last season for the Tigers and recorded at least one blocked shot in 12 straight games

Freshman Jordan Walsh, who was selected to participate in the Jordan Brand Classic, was rated the No. 4 small forward in the nation by ESPN, and listed No. 7 by 247Composite, 247Sports and Rivals

Musselman brought in senior transfers Stanley Umude (11.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Au’Diese Toney (10.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Chris Lykes (7.6 ppg) and Trey Wade (3.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg). They helped the Hogs go 28-9 and reach the Elite Eight again. On the way to a No. 8 final national ranking, Arkansas recorded NCAA Tournament wins over Vermont, New Mexico State and No. 1 seed Gonzaga.

Six-four junior guard Davonte Davis and 6-7 senior forward Kamani Johnson are the two impact returnees this year.

Davis played in 37 games last year with 14 starts, averaging 8.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Johnson saw action in 26 games with one start, averaging 2.3 points and 2.7 rebounds.

Musselman got a preview of this year’s squad with a late-summer trip to Europe. “We had a great time in Italy and Spain,” he said. “We got to play four games. We have so many new players. The extra practice time really helped and obviously to be able to play competition for four games was phenomenal.

“We never practiced,” Musselman said. “We did go to some outdoor courts and do a little bit of a walkthrough. Sometimes we didn’t even have a basketball, and one time we did it on the beach. We used it more for team bonding and trying to get to know each other. We tried to form some team chemistry as much off the floor as on the floor.”

When they were on the floor, this year’s group of two returnees, five transfers and six freshmen went 4-0. “We had an opportunity to evaluate our roster and a chance to look at some roles,” Musselman said. “We turned the ball over way too much offensively. The competition got better with each game. The fourth game was the best competition we played, and it was the best we played.”

University of Arkansas Razorbacks
2022-23 Men’s Basketball

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(Seated l-r): Ricky Council IV, Joseph Pinion, Davonte Davis, Derrian Ford, Cade Arbogast, Anthony Black, Nick Smith Jr.

(Standing l-r): Barry Dunning Jr., Jalen Graham, Trevon Brazile, Lawson Blake, Makhi Mitchell, Makhel Mitchell, Jordan Walsh, Kamani Johnson

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