Hoop Hogs’ on-court Q&A in 92-39 exhibition win over D2 UT-Tyler shared some answers while Musselman veiled his rotation

By Kevin McPherson
on 2023-10-22 23:21 PM

By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — The preseason-14th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks didn’t face any real adversity nor did they reveal a true rotation look in their horn-to-horn-dominant 92-39 victory over Division II Texas-Tyler in an exhibition game on Friday at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, but they did answer a few questions as they look ahead to a much-anticipated charity-exhibition home matchup against No. 3 Purdue on Oct. 28.

Let’s jump right into the Hoop Hogs’ Q&A that played out on Nolan Richardson Court on Friday night …

Q: Will either or both of star sophomore forward and preseason first-team All SEC pick Trevon Brazile and highly regarded junior transfer guard Khalif Battle play, and if so how much and what will they contribute?
A: Both played off the bench, with Brazile logging 19 minutes (third most on the team) as he recorded 4 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 block while Battle led the team in scoring (14 points on 4-of-7 field goals, including 2-of-3 from 3, and 4-of-4 free throw shooting) in his 16 minutes.

Eric Musselman’s take: (Brazile) played 19 minutes, which coming into the game, the thought process was really between 4 and 6 minutes a half. So he went a little bit over the plan coming into the game. But he felt good. I think he knew he needed the reps. We certainly felt like he needed the reps. We just don’t go live that much. We practice a little bit more like a football team where we’re in stations and drill work. So he misses a little bit of live action based on how we go about practice. He’s still got a ways to go conditioning-wise. You saw the explosiveness on the dunk, which we’ve seen. And he was really good the other day when we went live in pro day. I think it’s just a matter of getting his timing back. But he wanted to stay out there, which is a great sign as well. Look, (Battle) is a guy that is arguably one of the country’s best free throw shooters. We saw a couple years ago how important a guy that can make foul shots late in a game is for a team. Especially with the amount of close games you have in league play, and close games that you’ll have in the Bahamas. So really important … For a guy that has been out for a long time, and he’s been out for a long time, most of the summer, I thought he came in and shot the ball with great aggressiveness and he’s an explosive scorer.

My take: Considering Bazile was a huge question mark in recent days regarding a return to live, full-contact 5-on-5 scrimmaging in practice, the fact that in a span of nine days he made an earlier-than-projected return and competed at Arkansas’ Pro Day last week when he blew away attending NBA teams before being picked earlier this week by the SEC media to the league’s preseason All SEC first team to suiting up and playing 19 minutes against UT-Tyler is, in totality, more than anyone would have predicted just two weeks ago. Considering all of that, the easy takeaway here is that Brazile, while still not hitting on all cylinders consistently, is on track to give Arkansas exactly what it was missing a season ago after he went down, which is a top-5 SEC talent and skill set on the frontline. Battle has dealt with injury issues (Right foot) since July that have caused him to miss chunks of practice time as well as the team’s Red/White game (Oct. 4) and Pro Day (Oct. 11). He came to the Hogs in April with the reputation as a big time east-coast scorer, and already (albeit against inferior competition) he backed that rep up with 14 points to lead the team. His three-point shooting and free throw shooting — both volume and efficiency — will be what make him (if healthy) a top 6-7 rotation player.

Q: Is El Ellis a point guard, and can he run Arkansas’ offense as lead guard?
A: So far, the answer is a resounding yes relative to what Musselman and the Hogs need from Ellis. Against UT-Tyler, he finished with 9 points (4-of-6 field goals, including 1-of-3 from 3), a game-high 4 assists, a game-high 4 steals, 3 rebounds, and ZERO turnovers in 16 minutes.

Musselman’s take: ”(Ellis) was phenomenal. Some of those guys that I’ve seen through the Red-White game, through pro day, through practices, a guy like El … His minutes were limited tonight just because he’s going to be out there a lot of for us … El is playing the right way, the way we want him to play … El is excited to play with some surrounding pieces so that he can show people his willingness to be a passer and ball distributor and play like a true point guard. I think we’ve seen that since the day that he stepped on campus. Tonight he played with great pace, didn’t turn it over. I was really happy with our lack of turnovers tonight. I mean, we had a limited number of turnovers and three of them I think were moving screens. So you eliminate that part of our turnover game and … El did a great job taking care of the ball.”

My take: Not a pure point guard in the true sense of the position, Ellis has been exceptional in a very small sample size when looking at the team’s first two dress rehearsals under the lights with game officials and fans — Red/White game and UT-Tyler matchup — as he totaled 25 points on a combined 12-of-16 field goal shooting (75%) and a collective 10 assists (6 in R/W and 4 vs. UTT, game highs in both instances) against a combined 1 turnover. On Friday, Ellis made Arkansas’ first score of the game on a drive, then he hit a pull-up mid-range jumper and a three-pointer as he had 7 quick points (plus an assist on another triple) to stake the Hogs to a never-look-back 12-2 lead to start the game. Certainly facing a veteran, savvy, and battle-tested Purdue squad in less than a week is going to be a much more trustworthy measuring stick of Ellis’ competency running the team (and this will be true for all Hogs and their expected roles to some degree), but the stats back up what the eye test is telling us so far: Ellis’ reads, instincts, skill, willingness to move the ball and facilitate, and ability to score at all three levels combined with his effort on defense and overall college experience have bundled together what looks to be a worthy lead-guard starter for Musselman in ’23-24.

Q: Will Arkansas’ defense bounce back after a less-than-desired showing in the Red/White game two weeks ago?
A: Yes it will and yes it did, but we must include the caveat that D2 UT-Tyler is a brand new team (save for one returnee from last season’s 9-17 team) with inferior talent compared to Arkansas and with a new head coach. The Hogs’ defense was smothering and stifling out of the gates, holding UTT to 13-of-53 shooting from the field (24.5%), including 1-of-20 from 3 (5.0%), while forcing 20 turnovers (included 12 steals) en route to a 22-5 advantage in points-off-turnovers.

Musselman’s take: ”We did personnel, but we did not do any scheme stuff. We didn’t walk through any plays because we didn’t know what plays they were going to run, quite frankly. The whole gameplan was no threes. So, to look at the stat sheet to see they went 1 of 20, great job. The one they hit we will look at and see why they hit it … Obviously second half when they were in the bonus, we’ve got to do a much better job of not using our hands. But we want to be a really ultra aggressive team. We want to be a team that has physicality and I thought we did that. I thought our guards were really physical. I think inside interior, we have to probably be a lot more physical than we showed tonight at the 4 and 5 spot. Physicality’s gotta get a lot more aggressive, especially what we’re looking at a week from tonight (against Purdue).”

My take: It’s difficult to form absolute opinions on either side of the ball given the lopsided talent and experience advantage the Hogs enjoyed, but particularly on the perimeter guards Davonte “Devo” Davis, Tramon Mark, Ellis, Battle, and freshman Layden Blocker played a collectively feisty, physical, quick, and opportunistic brand of basketball. Anytime your defense holds a team to under 25% field goal shooting including only 5% from 3 while forcing 20 or more turnovers, it’s a near A-plus kind of performance. Second-half fouling might have been as much about mercy whistles from the game officials as it was mistakes by Arkansas defenders, and we also thought Arkansas could have been more physical inside on challenging drivers, post-ups, and blocking out for rebounds (although the Hogs were plus-14 on the glass, 46-32, a lot of that was due to athleticism advantages and quickness to the ball).

Q: Do we dare to believe our eyes that this Arkansas squad has leveled up as a three-point shooting team?
A: Yes. The Hogs — last season they took 15.9 triple attempts per game (ranking 350th in Division 1) and made 5.0 (352nd in D1) for 31.3% efficiency (326th) — shot off the big fireworks against UT-Tyler, hitting 11-of-34 from distance for 32.4% as six different Razorbacks made a three.

Musselman’s take: ”I mean, if the results are like this, I feel it’s not going to be like (this). We’re going to have to mix it up a little bit more. I thought we were a little aggressive from beyond the arc … (senior wing Jeremiah Davenport has a) really, really quick release. The guys look for him when he’s in. He’s a guy that’s going to take a high volume of shots in his minutes. We need to try to find him in transition. We need to try to run some plays for him to come off screening actions. But yeah, he’s got incredible confidence shooting the ball and he’s got really deep range … Right now, Joseph (Pinion, sophomore wing) has a green light to shoot when he feels he’s open. And KB (Battle) does and even T-Mark. He shot some pull-up jumpers. We were really aggressive shooting the ball from 3. I mean, 34 threes attempted, when we probably could have gotten to the foul line at a much higher clip.”

My take: It’s too soon to say Arkansas will be one of the top three-point shooting teams in the SEC, but this team should at minimum make monumental progress in all aspects of the three-game — volume of makes and takes and efficiency. Drilling down on six Hogs making a three on Friday night is that half of those players — Davenport (3-of-7), Pinion (3-of-7), and Battle (2-of-3) — made multiple triples for a collective 47.1% shooting from distance. Davenport started 3-of-5 after entering the game in the first half to help dig the Hogs out of a 2-of-9 start shooting from 3, then it was Pinion early in the second half knocking down his three-balls in rapid-fire succession. Although Ellis (1-of-3), Davis (0-of-2), and Mark (1-of-4) combined to make only 2-of-9 from distance in this particular outing, what others were able to do proves this team has as many as eight viable options shooting from beyond the arc on any given night when you include frontliners Brazile (0-of-4) and Chandler Lawson (1-of-1). Musselman raved about his team’s ball movement and spacing, and that provided open three looks as well as clean driving lanes.

Q: Aside from Brazile’s return and Mitchell’s starting-center destiny, who else impacted the Hogs’ frontline rotation?
A: Two noteworthy developments — 1) senior forward Jalen Graham (back spasms) did not play, and 2) senior forward Lawson continued to carve out a likely Top 8-rotation role as he finished with 3 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal, and multiple deflections against UT-Tyler. True freshman 6-11 center Baye Fall started and had 6 rebounds (second-most on the team), 1 block, and 1 steal in 11 minutes. Senior forward Denijay Harris chipped in 6 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 steal in 14 minutes. 

Musselman’s take: ”Back spasms. Yep. (Graham) had back spasms. Was out about a week and then practiced one day and it locked back up on him. I have no idea what it will look like. You would think in a week that he would be able to be in uniform next week. That’s got to be the hope and the thought … I thought (Lawson) was… First of all, the three he made and took is what we need him and want him to do with his feet set. But I thought great defensive activity. He was a really good help defender for us tonight in the post. Really happy with the way that Chandler played and rebounded the ball as well … We thought it was important to give (Fall) a start tonight … But I thought Baye did a good job playing his minutes. I thought he was active as a shot-blocker. He ran the floor hard. He’s just a young player who’s got to continue to progress. But we wanted to give him an opportunity to start, which he got tonight.”

My take: Graham is a Top 8-rotation piece and a change-of-pace at the 5-spot backing up Mitchell, so it’s now about how soon can he return and will he prove to offer more than just his patented one-on-one offensive flare once he gets his rotation chances? Lawson, and we’ve been saying this for weeks, looks to be fitting in nicely as a connector at both ends of the floor (a.k.a. glue guy), in some ways bringing value similarly to what Trey Wade did two seasons ago. Chandler’s elite wingspan and defensive instincts aid him in racking up deflections, steals, and blocks, his willingness to battle on the glass and help defensively, and his self-actualization on offense (a.k.a understanding his strengths and his role) makes him a key piece to the Hogs’ puzzle moving forward. Fall gives the Hogs depth at center as a third option, with the same being said of Harris in term’s of a small-ball 4 backing up Brazile and Lawson.

Q: Will the Top 7-8 rotation please stand up and reveal itself?
A: Yes and no against UT-Tyler. The jury is still out a bit given injuries, plus Musselman played everybody with little drop-off in playing time so he was able to somewhat veil his intentions to distribute minutes and roles moving forward. 

Musselman’s take: ”Well one, just the health of Battle. I think that he looked fresh. He looked healthy. You know, we have no idea on Graham, obviously. So really, I don’t know … who’s going to be healthy come next week because we have a week of physical practices. We’re going to have to really work on our post defense. We’re going to have to really work on defending the three. When you play someone in the Big 10, that’s as physical a league as there is, but I’m excited. Regardless of results next week, it’s going to be great for us, for sure, to play a team that’s, I mean they’re going to come in here like a well-oiled machine. They know their roles and they know who they are and they’re really, really well-coached. So it’s quite the challenge, but we need it. We’ve got some tough games coming up right out of the gate and we’ve got four games before going to the Bahamas, and then Duke. We might as well challenge ourselves as quick as possible. I’m not going to stress about the minutes. You know, cause I’m in the weight room with them. I run on the treadmill. I’m with them every day at practice. There are certain guys that have earned stuff, but yeah, we’re deeper, for sure. So if you’re deeper, you can look, we’ve studied rotations in Final Fours. We’ve studied NCAA tournament teams’ rotations. I’ve read four articles on hockey rotations and line changes this morning. Guys were laughing at me on staff. They saw that I was reading an article on the Rangers cause they know I’m a baseball fan. I told them it was the New York Rangers and not the Texas Rangers. We’re not going to sub like a hockey team, but at least I’m studying it.”

My take: With all pieces healthy, I see the start-of-season Top 8 rotation this way …

-Lawson and Davenport are 8a and 8b (depending on matchups, foul trouble or injuries, and other factors) with Pinion in position to interchange with Davenport
-Blocker, Fall, and Harris next up providing depth

*Battle logically projects as a Top 8-rotation piece, but large chunks of missed practice time in his first season in the system raises the question, at least for now, as to how soon he factors into that group. Our guess is he’ll be there by the time of the regular-season opener against Alcorn State on Nov. 6 if not as soon as the Purdue exhibition game on Saturday (Oct. 28).

The backcourt quartet of Davis, Mark, Ellis, and Battle is promising and in some ways may be better than what the Razorbacks lost to the 2023 NBA Draft in Anthony Black, Nick Smith, Jr., Jordan Walsh, and Ricky Council IV. In addition to the aforementioned numbers posted Friday night by Ellis and Battle, fourth-year junior guard Davis — SEC All Defensive team a season ago and preseason All SEC second-team pick — finished with 9 points (including 4-of-6 field goal shooting) a game-high 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals against UT-Tyler, while fourth-year junior Mark had 10 points (3-of-7 shooting overall from the field and 3-of-3 free throws), 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal. Davis, Ellis, and Mark seem entrenched in the Top 6 rotation with Battle knocking on the door if not already there. Davenport and Pinion each offers elite three-point shooting and floor-spacing possibilities to the offense, and each will see opportunities as a result although both are works in progress defensively. The Hogs employed some zone defensive looks at times when those two were on the floor on Friday. Blocker (5 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal in a team-high 21 minutes on Friday) is capable of playing (and defending) both the 1 and 2 and will provide backcourt depth. Brazile, Mitchell, and Graham are a year in the system and the first two of those are no-doubt starters if healthy with Graham poised to step up his role if healthy. Again, Lawson’s value is Top 8-worthy entering the season. Fall and Harris give Musselman two more frontline options.

(Last updated: 2023-10-22 23:21 PM)