FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — In his third season at Arkansas, Eric Musselman has restored the roar to a once-elite men’s basketball program.
The Razorbacks raced through the Southeastern Conference late last season, then made the kind of run they were known for in the glory days under Nolan Richardson. Arkansas won nine of its last 10 games before the NCAA Tournament, then advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to eventual national champion Baylor, 81-72.
The Razorbacks enter this season ranked 16th, their first preseason ranking since 2007. It’s also the program’s highest preseason ranking since the 2000 season, toward the end of Richardson’s 17-year tenure highlighted by a 1994 NCAA championship.
Musselman has the ranking in perspective.
“Obviously, you want your team and your players to be recognized,” said Musselman. “It really doesn’t matter. Last year at this time we didn’t have a lot of respect and we came on strong at the end. We’ve got to evolve in a lot of areas. We’ve got a lot of good pieces, but we have to figure out a way for the guys to mesh.”
Leading scorers Moses Moody and Justin Smith are gone, but J.D. Notae returns to lead the way. The 6-foot-2 senior guard averaged 12.7 points per game last year. In the team’s Red-White game this week, he had 22 points and six assists while leading his team to a win.
“I think all the SEC coaches, all the SEC returning players — everybody understands JD is as good a 1-on-1 player and as good at getting his own shot as anyone in the country,” Musselman said.
Musselman also praised Notae's offseason commitment.
“He’s transformed his body better than anybody since I’ve been at Arkansas,” Musselman said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been around a player who gets in his lifts like JD. He’s really focused to have a great year. He needs to lead us in a lot of different ways."
The Razorbacks open the regular season at home Nov. 9 against Mercer.
Sophomore Davonte Davis, who averaged 8.5 points and 4.5 rebounds as a true freshman last season, will join Notae in the backcourt.
Davis started 17 games last season, including the last 14. In the SEC and NCAA tournaments combined, he averaged 12.3 points and was second on the team in rebounds (6.7 per game) and total assists (17). He hit the game-winning shot versus Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16.
Several players are still recovering from injuries, including sophomore Jaylin Williams, who provided solid play as a reserve last season, particularly rebounding and defensively. The 6-10 post player has been nursing an ankle injury, but he is expected to be back soon.
“Jaylin aggravated his ankle and is taking it slow, but he should be back soon,” Musselman said.
The news was not as good for Trey Wade, the 6-6 transfer from Wichita State.
“Trey has a knee injury, a tendon, and will be out 4-6 weeks,” Musselman said, “but it won’t require surgery.”
Musselman did not have to look far to find an addition to his coaching staff. Ronnie Brewer, a All-American with the Razorbacks and a first-round draft pick of the Utah Jazz in 2006, will serve as the recruiting coordinator. Brewer, who was an assistant coach at Fayetteville High School, scored more than 1,400 points in his Razorbacks career.
BRINGING THE JUICE
Chris Lykes, a graduate transfer from Miami (Fla.), averaged 15.4 points as a junior in 2019-20 and 16.2 points as a sophomore. He played just two games this past year after injuring his ankle on Dec. 4.
Musselman said Lykes has great potential, but he's still trying to figure out how to fit into the system.
"You’re always looking for guys to bring a little more juice, and he’s one of those guys," Musselman said.
BLENDING THE TROOPS
Musselman has shown a penchant for being able to work players into his system.
Graduate transfer Stanley Umude, a 6-6 guard from South Dakota, has scored more than 1,500 career points and reached double-figures 71 times in 101 games. Kamani Johnson, a redshirt junior, had to sit out last season after transferring from Arkansas-Little Rock. The 6-7 forward is expected to take up some of the scoring load from the losses of Moody and Smith.
“We have a lot of unknowns with the new guys, but they are known players in college,” said Musselman of the 5-7 guard. "We have a lot of unknown as far as combinations, but they know them. They are not unknown to us.”