How Arkansas coach Eric Musselman is rapidly rebuilding the Razorbacks’ roster

Someone left a copy of an article on Arkansas coach Eric Musselman’s desk recently that laid out in plain terms just how different his second Arkansas team will be from his first undersized, overachieving bunch.

The point was something to this effect: last year’s Arkansas team had just four eligible, scholarship players over 6-foot-5 and none taller than 6-8. This year’s squad could have as many as nine players standing 6-6 or taller and three taller than 6-8.

“It was a really interesting stat just how much bigger we truly are this year,” Musselman said. “We’re going to look a lot different getting off the bus.”

The Razorbacks will certainly be bigger, but that’s not the only way they’ll look different.

In his first full recruiting cycle since taking over Arkansas in 2019, Musselman signed four freshmen in the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class and completed a haul of three graduate transfers last week by landing Indiana forward Justin Smith. Arkansas will also have have three transfers who sat out last season, but will will be eligible in 2020-21.

Kentucky is garnering attention for a level of attrition rivaling the most the program has experienced in John Calipari’s tenure as coach. But the Wildcats’ roster churn is second to a school in its own conference as Arkansas is on track to have 10 new faces on the court next season — no eligibility waivers required.

Collectively, the group will upgrade a roster that won 20 games in Musselman’s first season as coach and provide the Razorbacks with previously lacking options for how to play after an up-and-down small-ball season in 2019-20. Judging by Musselman’s track record, it could be a formula to propel the Razorbacks to their first Sweet 16 since 1996. 

The recruits

The graduate transfers

Justin Smith | Indiana | F | 6-7 

Noteworthy: Led Indiana in minutes last season

Jalen Tate | Northern Kentucky | SG | 6-6 

Noteworthy: Quality defender

Vance Jackson | New Mexico | PF | 6-9 

Noteworthy: Can play in the post or take the 3-point shotTransfers eligible after sitting

JD Notae | Jacksonville | G | R-JR | 6-1 

Noteworthy: Averaged 15.5 pts, 6.2 rbs, 3.4 assts, 1.6 steals as sophomore at Jacksonville

Connor Vanover | California | C | R-So | 7-3 

Noteworthy: Arkansas native who averaged 7.5 ppg in bench role as a freshman at Cal 

Abayomi Iyiola | Stetson | F | R-Jr | 6-9 

Noteworthy: Was Stetson’s leading scorer in 2018-19  

Musselman’s staffs at Nevada from 2015 to 2019 developed a formula that projected how productive transfers would be. “We had it nailed,” Musselman said, and it translated to four 20-plus win seasons, three NCAA Tournament appearances and a Sweet 16 run in 2018.

That success helped Musselman land the Arkansas job, and once he took it, he quickly began scouring the transfer market while also acknowledging there would need to be tweaks to the formula to fit a higher level of competition.

“There’s got to be a balance at the Power Five level,” Musselman told CBS Sports. “We started to see even this year some grad transfers and some transfers at the Power Five level that have semi-failed from a productivity standpoint. The philosophy we brought from Nevada, we could not have the same blueprint. It’s not going to work. You’ve got to have an infusion of really good, young high school players as well.”

Having a crop of in-state, four-star prospects from the Class of 2020 to pursue helped Arkansas expedite the recalibration. All four of Musselman’s high school signees are from the state, and the group is Arkansas’ first top-10 class since 2011.

It was an especially impressive haul considering Musselman and his staff were starting from behind.

“I thought the staff did a great job,” Musselman said. “Usually you can play catch up in Year Two or Year Three on guys. But a lot of times that first class there are guys that are already down the road with certain programs. But all four of those guys gave us an opportunity to come into their homes and sell them a vision and to come on official visits. They gave us a platform to at least give us a chance, which was really awesome.”

Unchartered territory

Between having three sit-out transfers and some injury problems last season, Arkansas’ rotation essentially managed itself. His teams at Nevada always had several transfers sitting out as well, meaning there were often just nine available scholarship players.

“That’s been the formula through this entire time that I’ve been doing college,” Musselman said.

However, Musselman will juggle a competition for playing time in 2020-21 that is more intense than any he’s overseen in his time as a college coach.

Even if star guard and 3-point shooting machine Isaiah Joe keeps his name in the NBA Draft, the Razorbacks could have 13 eligible scholarship players in the 2020-21 season. That means managing minutes will be a greater challenge than it ever has been for Musselman as he blends a talented freshman class with experienced transfers and a few returning players who played key roles last season.

In that way, Musselman’s sixth season as a college head coach will be unchartered territory. But he’s already devised one unique formula that carried a program to the upper-echelon of the sport.

And by incorporating elements of it into a new system at Arkansas, he’s already addressed the biggest deficiency of a 20-win team. The little piglets of last season will be full-grown Razorbacks in 2020-21.

“We’re going to look a lot different in the layup line,” Musselman said.

Channeling the Bucks 

One attractive part of Musselman’s pitch to prospects is his vast professional experience. He spent over 20 years in the NBA and in developmental leagues, including stints as coach of the Warriors and Kings, before landing at Arizona State as an assistant in 2012. He’s also been a long-time student of analytics.

So it should come as no surprise that he plans to model an NBA system for the 2020-21 season. Musselman wants the Razorbacks to play like the Milwaukee Bucks. While Arkansas does not have a Giannis Antetokounmpo equivalent, the Hogs do have a cache versatile players who will be happy to hoist 3-pointers.

Even 7-3 center Connor Vanover will get in on the long-range action after sitting out last season as a transfer following a freshman campaign at Cal in which he shot 35.5% from beyond the arc on 2.7 attempts per game. The Arkansas staff has studied the way Bucks’ center Brook Lopez plays — he’s one of the best 3-point shooting centers in the NBA — and will have Vanover modeling the way Lopez and his brother and Bucks teammate Robin Lopez handle pick and roll situations.

“We feel like, unlike last year, we can have a really, really big lineup,” Musselman said. “We can also have a lineup that’s really small and versatile.”

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