clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The 2020 Basketball Preview

New, 1 comment

A new era begins in Fayetteville.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Basketball Tipoff Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

One of the nice things about being a college sports fan is that there’s always something to look forward to. Football season going down the tubes? Let’s get fired up for basketball!

There’s plenty to be excited about for the Hoop Hogs. Following an 18-16 season and a second-round NIT appearance, Eric Musselman is the new Head Hog. He inherits a stable program from Mike Anderson (169-102 in eight seasons), and his first team will play on the wonderfully re-designed Nolan Richardson Court.

The Hogs were picked to finish 11th of 14 in the SEC by the media, which seems a little low, although the Hogs do have some major height issues. I don’t see Arkansas finishing lower than that, but I could see them finishing higher.

This preview is broken up into four sections:

  1. 2019 Recap, where we quickly review last year’s team
  2. Musselman’s Changes, where we review the scheme changes that Musselman is bringing and watch some UALR exhibition film
  3. Roster Overview, where we take the 2020 roster player-by-player and give an overview and outlook for each player
  4. The Big Questions, where we identify a few things to focus on when the season gets underway

2019 Recap

(Confused by any of these stats? Check out the all-new basketball glossary.)

We’ll keep this part short because with a new coach and significant scheme changes, things will look very different.

The 2019 Hogs were very poor on offense and decent on defense. A mixture of bad roster management and sloppy scheming caused the decline of the Anderson era, and the Hogs’ struggles to score last year were the final proof of that.

(NOTE: Basketball rankings are out of 353 Division I teams.)

Anderson’s teams were never elite shooters but instead relied on a high EPR to overwhelm opponents with volume. Most of Anderson’s teams were top-50 in turnover rate and top-100 in offensive rebounding rate, as is required for the “40 Minutes of Hell” scheme to work properly. But that didn’t happen in 2019: the Hogs fell to 181st in offensive rebounding and 154th in turnover rate.

Despite having both Daniel Gafford and Isaiah Joe, the Hogs didn’t get much out of the shots they did create. The only thing they did well was get to the line, but even then, they ranked 304th in actually making the foul shots. The wrong guys shot too often (Harris, Osabuohien) and it didn’t look like enough was being done to create shots for Gafford and Joe.

The Hogs finished 84th in Division I in points per game, but they only got that high because of the fast pace they played at. Efficiency-wise, offense was the problem.

Like the offense, the 40 Minutes of Hell defense depends on dominating EPR. As I’ve discussed before, defensive rebounds and turnovers are basically the same thing in that they both end opponent possessions, and it’s almost impossible to be good at both: you have to either emphasize one or try for balance.

Anderson’s last team was his most imbalanced in terms of EPR: the Hogs were 16th in forcing turnovers but 345th in clearing defensive rebounds. Given that the overall objective here is to minimize EPR, Arkansas’ ranking of 111th shows that it didn’t work. The Hogs needed to be top-50 for us to call it a success.

Musselman’s Changes

I gave a brief overview of the Musselman scheme back in the spring when he was hired, but now we’ve got more information and some film!

Three-point shooting

The Hogs are going to shoot a lot of three-pointers this year. Blame the Rockets and the Warriors at the NBA level, but three-point shooting is taking over basketball. The days of your iso leader pulling up from 19 feet are basically over, which is why Carmelo Anthony doesn’t have a job right now.

Arkansas shot a decent number of 3’s last year, but it felt like Isaiah Joe had to create a lot of his own shots. The Hogs mostly did high ball screens, high picks, and give-and-gos last season. Now we’ll get to see some more technical stuff.

There’s a lot going on in this picture, so let’s make sure we don’t miss anything:

  • The Hogs are in a four-guard look, and the lone forward, Reggie Chaney, has the ball at the top of the key. He’s pulled the tallest Trojan defender out to guard him, thus clearing the lane. This is the value of a big man who can handle the ball a little bit.
  • Joe is running the baseline while Desi Sills (#3) creates a traffic jam under the basket. Joe’s man is going to have a hard time getting through.
  • Mason Jones (#15) is being defended by a forward who is not in a great position to do anything, because he has to give himself space to keep up with Jones. Jones’ job is to screen whoever chases Joe from under the basket.

Despite the Trojan defender doing a nice job of getting around Jones, he’s too late to disrupt a wide-open 3:

Here’s another well-spaced play. Sills makes a nice pass, but watch how the clockwise rotation of Jones and Jimmy Whitt (#33) creates a problem for the two defenders on that side:

Had the defender gotten out to Jones sooner, he could simply have fed Whitt in the post for a high-value shot at the rim. That’s the benefit of proper spacing.

Let’s look at one more. This time, Joe originally had the ball on the right wing. He passed to Jones at the top of the key, and then started a “v-cut” where he runs down to the elbow.

Jones directed Ethan Henderson to the left wing and gave him the ball. As soon as the ball went left to Henderson, Joe’s defender (#1) relaxed. Noticing this, Joe completes the v-cut by running right at Jones.

In a pace-and-space scheme, when a perimeter player runs towards you, you basically have two options: rotate clockwise, or screen the guy chasing him. Jones screens Joe’s man, leading to another wide-open 3.

Jones seems to have total command of what’s happening on this play. Watch the whole thing play out:

All told, 35 of Arkansas’ 56 shot attempts were three-pointers against Little Rock. The Hogs hit 13 for a 37% mark, which is pretty good. Over a full season, that would rank about 50th in Division I. Remember that last year’s Nevada team was much worse than that (34.7%) but still one of the better shooting teams in the country because of the higher value of three-point shots.

Perimeter defense

Several years ago, basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy published one of my favorite stat studies of basketball (Here’s one part. Here’s another.) He reached a fascinating conclusion: there is no such thing as “three-point defense.” The percentage of three-point attempts made is almost completely under the control of the offense. Part of it is intuitive: players usually shoot 3’s when they are fairly open. Once they are fairly open, there’s not really much you can do. It’s like “free throw defense” or “pass defense when the receiver is open.” You shouldn’t have let that happen in the first place, and now you have to hope that the guy misses.

Pushed by fans of schools like Syracuse that routinely have high-ranked three-point defense, Pomeroy expanded his conclusion: there are two types of three pointers, “open” threes and “non-open” threes. Non-open threes are only taken when the offense has no other choice but to shoot, either because the shot clock is low or the interior defense is too good. The defense has zero control over the make percentage of either. They can only try to control how many of each are attempted. So “three-point defense” isn’t about make percentage, it’s about attempt rate.

Pomeroy points out that there are two (mutually exclusive) ways to play good three-point defense:

  • Have a really good two-point defense
  • Aggressively defend the perimeter so teams can’t attempt 3s

The first is the strategy of zone defenses like Syracuse and pack-line defenses like Virginia and Arizona. Playing against these teams, offenses get and make “open” threes at a rate similar to everyone else in Division I. But their make percentages are diluted because they have to try a large number of non-open threes when the shot clock is winding down and they can’t get anything inside. So if the “average” Division I team goes 6 of 17 from beyond the arc, then against Syracuse or Virginia, they’ll go 6 of 17 on regular three-pointers... but also 1 of 7 on these non-voluntary attempts. So they end up 7 of 24 from 3 and Syracuse gets to claim it has a great three-point defense, when in reality it has a great two-point defense that forced those shots.

The downside of this strategy is that the defense is very vulnerable if an opponent gets hot. Zone and pack-line teams are notoriously hard to predict in the NCAA Tournament. Syracuse seemingly makes a deep tournament run as a bubble team every other year, while Virginia lost to 16-seed UMBC one year (the Terriers were 12 of 24 from 3 in that game) and then won the national championship the next. If you don’t have a way to prevent opponents from taking three-pointers, you’re at risk of being taken down by a hot team, but you can also pull a bunch of upsets if no one shoots well against you.

Other teams prefer the second strategy. This is the objective of man and matchup defenses like Duke. Pomeroy mentions the late Rick Majerus as a classic proponent of this strategy. Smothering the perimeter and limiting attempts makes it very hard to be upset by a hot-shooting team. However, there are downsides here: aggressive perimeter defense leads to more fouls and more offensive rebounds allowed. It also makes the defense vulnerable to a smaller, faster team that can make rim runs against an overextended defense, like 14-seed Mercer did to Duke in the 2014 NCAA Tournament (Mercer was 11 of 17 on shots at the rim and shot 28 free throws).

Mike Anderson’s teams weren’t really either of these things. Having a dominant shot blocker is kind of the first strategy, and 42% of opponents’ attempts against Arkansas last year were three pointers, 67th-highest in Division I. Anderson’s teams steadily got worse at allowing three-point attempts over his tenure: his first four teams were all top-175 in three point rate defense, and his last four teams were all bottom-175. His last two were both around 300th. The fact that opponents only hit 33% a year ago (giving the Hogs the 108th-ranked three-point defense) was probably more luck than skill, although Daniel Gafford’s shot-blocking abilities probably did force a few non-open attempts.

So what about Musselman? Well, it’s hard to say. Nevada allowed a very high three point rate in last two seasons, and the Wolfpack had an excellent two-point defense last year, so that lends credence to the first strategy.

In the exhibition, the Hogs allowed Little Rock to shoot just 3 of 15 from downtown. We saw lots of examples of good perimeter defense, like this nice closeout from Adrio Bailey:

Given Arkansas’ smaller roster, I would guess that the Hogs will emphasize aggressive perimeter defense and force opponents to pound them inside. In last year’s NIT, Anderson played more aggressive perimeter defense since Gafford was gone, and the Hogs held Providence to 3 of 23 from beyond the arc.

Avoiding turnovers

Musselman’s last two Nevada teams finished in top-10 in lowest turnover rates. In 2018, they were the best team in Division I at not letting opponents steal the ball from them. They had different point guards both years, so it wasn’t just one player. As you’ll see in the roster overview below, every transfer brought in by Musselman shares one thing in common: they don’t turn the ball over.

Arkansas did turn the ball over against Little Rock. The Hogs had 18 turnovers. They forced 22, though, and the feeling I got was that Musselman will probably slowly transition parts of the game from Anderson’s system to his, rather than make a sharp break. He knows the current roster can play fast and force turnovers, so he’s going to allow them to do that.

Fouls

Musselman’s Nevada teams rarely fouled, which is because they rarely forced turnovers. In one exhibition game, the Hogs fouled a lot and forced a lot of turnovers. Again, Musselman has indicated that he’s not really a fan of rebuilds, so he’s probably going to adapt his roster for what it can do. More turnovers and more aggressive perimeter defense means more fouls. A lack of size also means more fouls. Three Hogs fouled out against UALR, so hopefully the Hogs can at least limit sloppy fouls once the season starts.

For the record, here’s the exhibition box score:

Arkansas’ ability to hit three-pointers was pretty much the entire difference in the game. If the Hogs can bomb threes and win EPR, they’ll win a lot of games this year.

Roster Overview

Top player Daniel Gafford is gone after leading the team in basically every major advanced stats category: win shares, PER, offensive rating, usage. But Musselman hit the transfer portal hard and brought in some guys who are well-liked by the numbers.

Last year’s team consisted of the big three (Gafford, Joe, and Jones) and... everyone else. Win shares data shows that those three players were entirely responsible for 14 wins... out of 18. They were the top three on the team in every major advanced stats category and there was a significant dropoff in production after them. Now Gafford must be replaced, so it becomes imperative that someone who didn’t do much last year steps up their game in 2020.

Isaiah Joe

Everything is going to revolve around Joe in what could be his final college season (an increasing number of publications have him pegged as a first-round pick in the NBA draft). He was second on the 2019 team in win shares, offensive rating, true shooting, and effective field goal percentage, all behind Gafford. He also had the lowest turnover rate and was third in steals per possession.

About 76% of Joe’s field goal attempts are three-pointers. He shot 41% from beyond the arc and broke the SEC record for made three-pointers by a freshman last year. If the Hogs’ 79-64 exhibition win over Little Rock is any indication, he will probably lead the SEC in three-point attempts per game. Records may fall.

Mason Jones

The 6’5 combo guard was third on the team in win shares and offensive rating and was fourth in true shooting (behind Gafford, Joe, and Desi Sills). He was Arkansas’ best rebounding guard, snagging 7.8% of all available rebounds when he was on the floor. He was also second to Jalen Harris with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.57. He also had the best defensive rating among Hog guards, at 101.8 points allowed per 100 possessions.

So Jones is a jack of all trades. He’s pretty versatile: 61% of his field goal attempts are three-pointers, but he was also the third-best guard at getting to the free throw line (0.42 free throws per field goal attempt). So what’s left to work on? Not much. He had worst steal rate on the team (1.7%) and his two-point percentage isn’t good (46.5%). If he can shoot at least 50% from inside the arc while maintaining his solid 38.6% three-point percentage, then he’ll be extremely valuable.

Desi Sills

Sills came on late in the year and shot a ridiculous 43% from beyond the arc. Unlike Joe, he’s not a pure jump shooter: only 50% of his shot attempts were triples, so defending him isn’t easy. He was Arkansas’ second-best guard at getting to the line and finished third in both true shooting and effective field goal percentage.

There were downsides, too. Sills was Arkansas’ worst defensive player (104.4 rating) and turned it over at the highest rate (a staggering 26% of possessions ended by Sills were due to turnovers). He was also the Hogs’ worst overall rebounder (4.4%) and defensive rebounder (6.3%). Basically, when he wasn’t shooting, he was a liability... but he’s really good at shooting. If he can limit turnovers, he’ll see the floor plenty because of that, even if he remains a below-average defender.

Jalen Harris

Harris was probably the most polarizing player on the 2019 team. The starting point guard assisted on a staggering 32% of teammate’s made field goals while on the floor. His 2.86 assist-to-turnover ratio was not only best on the team, but among the best in the SEC. He was also a decent defensive rebounder for his size (8.9%, second among guards). When trying to score, he was the best guard at getting to the line (0.47 free throws per field goal attempt).

Unfortunately, a lot of the good that Harris did was canceled out by his shooting. His 0.86 points per shot opportunity was next-to-last on the team, as was his dismal 35.7% effective field goal percentage. He was 8 of 69 from three (11.6%) and took about 40 too many attempts. At some point, it has to be obvious that it’s not working. His poor shooting dragged down his efficiency, but he still somehow managed to rank 5th on the team in offensive rating, though at just 96.5 points produced per 100 possessions, that really says more about the rest of the lineup than it does about Harris.

Harris is going to lose a ton of minutes to Jimmy Whitt this year, but he’ll still play a bunch, and his strengths may benefit from the new system. When he’s on the floor, he needs to focus on being a distributor, and the pace-and-space offense that the Hogs now run will open up lanes for him to drive to the rim and get free throws. He should probably just forget about jump shots: if he pulls up too often, I’m guessing he’ll see the bench.

Jimmy Whitt Jr.

Whitt is back in Fayetteville after transferring out a few years ago. It’s an odd arrangement, but it looks like it will be beneficiary for both Whitt and the Hogs. Last year at SMU, Whitt produced 111.7 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would be second-best on the Hogs, behind only Gafford. His 19.4 PER is also second-best, while his 3.9 win shares would be fourth-best (behind the big three).

So he’s a baller, basically. Whitt posted solid assist numbers (22.7%), but the real key is his turnover rate: just 10.7%, which is ridiculously good for a point guard. It would be second-best on Arkansas’ entire team last year, behind only Joe. Whitt is a great rebounder for his size: his 11% total rebound rate would be fifth-best on the 2019 Hogs and better than every guard by a large margin. His 7% offensive rebound rate would be fourth-best.

Whitt isn’t a great scorer (1.01 TS, fifth-best, and 49.4% EFG, seventh-best) but he does pretty much everything else well. He won’t be asked to take many jumpers, but if he can take care of the ball, rebound well, and take it to the rim every now and then, then he will provide a massive upgrade to the Hogs’ backcourt.

Reggie Chaney

Chaney flashed a lot of talent during his freshman season. With Gafford gone, the spotlight is on him to dominate down low. Chaney was fourth on the team in win shares and PER, behind the big three. He’s a defensive specialist and low-usage offensive player. He recorded 1.07 defensive win shares, second on the team behind Gafford. He actually led the team in block percentage, swatting 10.7% of two-point shots attempted while he was on the floor. His 16.5% defensive rebounding rate was third-best behind Gafford and Henderson, and he definitely needs to get that higher in 2020.

Offensively, he’s fairly efficient (55% EFG, 1.11 TS, fifth- and fourth-best, respectively). His big issue is that he doesn’t get to line very often (0.22 FTA per FGA, second-lowest on the team and lowest among forwards by a large margin). This, combined with his way-too-high turnover rate of 21% (third-worst) caused him to finish with an offensive rating of 95.0, the second-worst among all returning players (ahead of only Henderson).

Chaney needs to cut down on his turnover rate and improve his rebounding, especially defensive rebounding. If he can do that and maintain a 10% block rate, he’ll be a valuable player.

Adrio Bailey

Bailey got off to a strong start last year and then faded in conference play, eventually losing his starting role to Gabe Osabuohien, who has since left the program. Bailey has a lot of talent, but he has an unfortunate tendency to just kind of... vanish. He simply doesn’t appear much on the stat sheet.

Bailey wasn’t much of a scorer, finishing seventh in both true shooting and effective field goal percentage. His offensive rebound rate (5%), defensive rebound rate (13.7%), and total rebound rate (9.4%) were all the worst among Hog forwards. His 7.4% assist rate was second-lowest on the team, while his 98.9 defensive rating was the worst among forwards.

To his credit, however, he had the second-lowest turnover rate on the team (12.1%) and the fifth-best steal rate (2.1%). Moving forward, the Hogs really need him to get better as a rebounder, and be more efficient as a scorer, even if he’s not a high-volume shooter.

We saw what Bailey can be in the Little Rock exhibition game: he scored 8 points of 2 of 2 shooting and 4 of 4 at the line, led the team in assist rate, and was second in offensive rebound rate. That helped him finish with a 0.23 win share, second-best on the team behind Joe.

Jeantal Cylla

Cylla was the top player for UNC-Wilmington last season. He’s a high-volume scorer whose efficiency is only decent (107.7 offensive rating, still fourth-best on the 2019 Hogs). He’s a three-point threat, and 29% of his attempts last season were triples. He didn’t shoot well on those (31%, needs to be at least 33% to justify continued attempts), but he can get to the line fairly well. Despite handling the ball a lot of for the Seahawks, he turned it over on just 9.8% of his possessions, which would be second-best on the 2019 Hogs.

His defense is a question mark. His 1% steal rate would be the worst on the 2019 Hogs by a large margin, and he’s a below-average defensive rebounder (13.5%, worst among Hog forwards).

To really boost the Hogs, Cylla needs to be a better rebounder. He would be very comfortable as Arkansas’ highest-use forward on the offensive end, so he only needs to be efficient enough to justify continuing to feed him the ball.

Ethan Henderson

Henderson recorded most of his minutes during the NIT, where he looked... decent! His height will be needed on a height-depleted team this year. Henderson actually finished with the best defensive rating on the team (93.7, sample size is quite small, though). He swatted 4.8% of two-point attempts while on the floor and recorded a steal on 3.2% of defensive possessions.

Offensively, though... different story. He turned it over on 20.9% of his offensive possessions (very bad) and recorded a not-great 50% EFG. His 85.8 offensive rating was second-worst on the team ahead of only Osabuohien.

I expect him to continue to operate as a bit of a defensive specialist and foul absorber. While it would be nice if he could develop more on the offensive end (maybe as an offensive rebound specialist?), I’d settle for not turning it over as a start.

Connor Vanover

The coaches don’t sound optimistic about the 7-foot-3 Vanover getting a waiver to play in 2020, which is a shame, because he could really help this team. His coach at Cal was fired, which I thought made waiver approval almost automatic, but apparently not in this case.

Vanover is a stretch forward: 43% of his shots are three-pointers, and he shoots a decent 35% from beyond the arc. His 54.5% EFG would be fifth-best on the 2019 team. His turnover rate is a big selling point: just 8.7%, best on the 2019 Hogs by a huge margin. This allowed him to record an offensive rating of 105.1, which would be fourth-best on the 2019 Hogs behind the big three and quite a bit ahead of all the other returnees.

As expected, Vanover can block shots: his 8.9% rate was better than Gafford and behind only Chaney. His 17.2% defensive rebounding rate is a little low for his height. He needs to be at 20% or more (Gafford led the team at 23.6%). Because he spends much of the time on offense behind the perimeter, his offensive rebound rate isn’t good (5.2%, fifth-best). One thing that stands out about Vanover is how fuel fouls he commits: just 1.4 per game. Guys over 7-feet tall are often uncoordinated and commit a lot of fouls, but that’s not an issue for Vanover.

Big Questions

Arkansas was picked 11th in the SEC for a reason. There are still a lot of unknowns.

#1: Who is getting the rebounds?

Arkansas was 312th out of 353 in total rebound rate a season ago, and now top rebounder Gafford is gone. Whitt and Jones are decent rebounders for their height, but Chaney, Henderson, and Bailey aren’t exceptional... or at least, they weren’t last year. Arkansas probably isn’t going to finish 16th in the country in forcing turnovers again, so they had better improve on last year’s 346th defensive rebounding rank or the defense is going to struggle. Someone needs to step up and have a big year.

#2: Can the Hogs generate inside scoring?

Three-point shooting will be fine, but the Hogs need some forwards to score to keep the pressure on defenses. Cylla was a volume scorer for UNCW, so he might have a chance. Chaney and Bailey need to at least be efficient with the ball.

#3: Will foul trouble kill this team?

The Hogs committed 26 fouls against Little Rock and saw three players foul out. Aggressive defense and lack of size could end up keeping some of Arkansas’ most talented players off the floor due to foul trouble. It will be interesting to see how Coach Musselman manages this.