Arkansas basketball roster shaping up nicely

From the moment Arkansas’ historic NCAA Tournament run ended in the Elite Eight, the priority for head coach Eric Musselman has been reloading his roster, and he has quickly assembled the parts that, on paper, look capable of doing damage once again in 2021-22.

There was no time to reflect or relax. In fact, there wasn’t even time for contract negotiations immediately following the season as Musselman requested those be tabled as he dove in to the transfer portal with both feet.

As a result, he landed three impact additions in a matter of 10 days, and even though there is still some work to be done, Musselman is comfortable and confident in the pieces he has in place at the moment.

STRONG CORE IN PLACE

Last season, Arkansas entered the year with a very talented roster, but one that lacked continuity and experience in an Arkansas uniform. While the Razorbacks have certainly had some attrition, they’re currently set to return five contributors — three with starting experience — that account for over 40% of the scoring in 2020-21.

Bringing back reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year JD Notae and breakout freshman Davonte Davis is a strong start in the backcourt, which will also benefit greatly from the return of a healthy KK Robinson. Front-court duo Jaylin Williams and Connor Vanover, who both are in line to make significant strides this offseason, will be back in the mix alongside a healthy, cleared Abayomi Iyiola.

Things are obviously still subject to change. Such is the nature of the sport today. However, as currently constructed, Arkansas will have a strong foundation of returning talent and role players to build around who understand the culture and expectations of being a Razorback.

“We wanted to try to get some guys that would fit in with some of our returners,” Musselman said. “Obviously the way that Devo Davis ended the season and the way that Jaylin Williams ended the season. For the entire season JD Notae proved that had incredible scoring ability, and obviously Connor Vanover had a really good start to the season. So we just kind of took all these returning pieces and then tried to go out and find guys that would really compliment them.”

REINFORCEMENTS ON THE WAY

In addition to the strong cast of returners, help is on the way to Fayetteville. Actually, one important piece is already on campus and has been practicing with the team since December in 6-7 Little Rock transfer Kamani Johnson, a former All-Sun Belt forward who brings toughness and physicality in the paint and on the glass.

Arkansas is excited about a pair of early signees in dynamic incoming 4-star, top 100 freshman wing Chance Moore out of Powder Springs (Ga.) who had a stellar senior season at powerhouse program McEachern, as well as the untapped potential of 6-9 highly-ranked junior college power forward Akol Mawein out of Navarro College in Texas.

Then there’s the latest additions that will be joining the Hogs via the transfer portal. Musselman nabbed a quick pair of impact players with a strong track record of success out of the ACC in former Pitt wing Au’Diese Toney and Miami point guard Chris Lykes, both of whom are expected to be playmakers and significant contributors for the Razorbacks.

“We really, really felt like we wanted a dynamic guy that could score the ball at that point guard position, and obviously we feel like Chris can do that for us because he’s a proven player in the ACC,” said Musselman. “And then Au’Diese Toney is a guy that is so versatile, He’s great in transition. He’s long, he’s athletic. He can play the two, he can play the three, he can play the four. He fits in our transition offense. He’s a much improved three-point shooter.”

The most recent signee is former South Dakota star Stanley Umude. While he didn’t play in a high-major league, Umude put up gaudy numbers over the course of his career with the Coyotes. At 6-7, with an inside-out game, he should slot in perfectly whether Arkansas decides to play big or small from game to game.

“Stanley, same thing. A guy that can play multiple, multiple positions,” said Musselman. “He can do so much. He can post up against equal-sized or smaller players, he’s got a great turnaround jumpshot, he can make face-up threes, he can rebound the basketball, especially as a defensive rebounder. He’s a good runner of the floor.

“He’s in that perfect size range for us where we can play him at the off guard if we had to and we wanted to be big and be a post-up team for a few possessions at the off-guard spot. We can play him at a natural small forward or power forward.”

Umude and Toney, in particular, are luxury pieces for Musselman, who likes to build his roster around versatility and position-less players. Both provide floor spacing and are multiple as scoring threats while having the size and athleticism to defend the perimeter or guard and rebound in the paint.

“We don’t really call our guys power forwards or small forwards. They’re basically wings,” said Musselman. “That’s where him and Au’Diese Toney come in. They’re both wings that can complement each other, and depending on the defensive matchup, we can kind of play those guys in certain spots. But, I think just the versatility, really, of both those guys becomes really, really important for us as we look at the style we want to play and the pace we want to play at and what we’re going to do defensively as well.”

SEAL OF APPROVAL FROM YURACHEK

Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek, who earlier in the week inked Musselman to a lucrative new contract, has done his homework and approves of the new additions. He’s also been pleased to see the returners already back in the gym working on taking the next step next season. As far as Yurachek is concerned, it’s all part of the culture that has been ingrained in the program.

“I just talked to Coach about them and I’ve watched their videos and they are all impressive young men,” said Yurachek. “At least in their highlight videos and there’s a reason they call them highlight videos, and I’m sure Coach Musselman will fine tune his game and bring our new players in with our returning players.

“I was over in the training room yesterday and it was pretty exciting to see those guys. They’re already in there working hard. Devo and KK and Jaylin looking forward to the next season and getting better in the weight room and on the court. We’e in April and our season has been completed for about two weeks and those guys are already dialed in and focused on getting better for next year and that’s the culture that Eric has set within our program.”