I know most Hog fans are stinking belligerent drunk with anticipation for the start of football season in less than two weeks (!), so much so that they probably missed the basketball teams' four-game European tour as it traveled through the internets from Spain and Italy in an impressively low-quality video stream. No worries; I got you covered.
In case you didn't know, the Razorbacks boast the #2 ranked recruiting class in the nation this year. It will be the most highly anticipated and closely watched season since 1995, which I still can't talk about.
Only two players from last year's Elite Eight crew have returned to The Hill, so almost everything on the European tour was a first for this team. But among this shiny new roster are the current projected #3 (Smith), #4 (Black), and #11 (Walsh) NBA draft picks next year. So they have talent and athleticism coming out of their ears: talent from the left, athleticism from the right. But come March, those are never enough by themselves to cut down the nets. What they learn from now to then will make all the difference.
You've seen teams like this before. They're usually called Kentucky, or Kansas or North Carolina. Their freshman talent sometimes dominates, but also sometimes slips and loses. Sometimes they will put the pieces together for a deep tournament run, but other times that freshman inconsistency will show its face in March and end the season sooner than hoped.
Then, win or lose, all the stars will go straight to the NBA. Roughly thirty games, and they're out of a Razorbacks jersey.
Let's enjoy it while they're here.
NOTES FROM EUROPE
What is going on with Jordan Walsh?
You would be forgiven for thinking Arkansas only had two McDonald's All-Americans coming in this year instead of three, because Jordan Walsh was basically a no-show in Europe. Everybody had their share of bad plays, but Walsh had enough turnovers and bricks to slip out of the starting rotation by the fourth game. Imagine a player who, if it weren't for his new teammates Smith and Black, would be the highest ranked recruit Arkansas had ever pulled in, not even being a starter! This is the situation Walsh finds himself in, and while it's unclear if there is something else happening behind the scenes (not listening to the coach, etc.), let's hope Walsh finds his groove when the season starts. He is the definition of explosive, but failed to finish or draw fouls again and again in Europe. He was a very bad 1 of 11 from the field in the last two games. Yet from an athletic standpoint, he looked like a man among boys. Maybe he had problems with the European balls or style of play.
If he can play more to his potential, on the wing opposite Nick Smith, with Anthony Black running the point, those three could match up with many NBA teams, not to mention their SEC opponents.
The Battle for Point
Among the many embarrassments of riches next season, Coach Muss has an interesting dilemma coming his way at point guard. Smith and Black combined are an NBA-level backcourt. But the European tour proved that the leadership of Devo Davis is absolutely essential to this team. Coach Muss spoke in a post-game interview about playing all three guards at once, but that comes with its own risks (like rebounding). When the game is tight in the last minutes, Coach Muss will want/need Davis on the floor. But he will also want Black and Smith on the floor. But he will also want size on the inside...
It's Brazile's World Now
Out of the three sizable shadows of our new stars has emerged a fourth, Trevon Brazile, considered a solid SEC transfer from Missouri who appears to have had quite an amazing summer, because he's awesome now. He shot almost perfect from the field--FOR ALL FOUR GAMES--with dunks and rebounds and three-pointers and generally taking over. When Nick Smith was benched with an injury early in the final game, Brazile dropped 27 points like it was just another day at the office. For the entire European tour, he was always in the right place, doing the right things, and leaving his coaches absolutely beaming. They are beside themselves. Nobody saw this coming, except probably Brazile himself.
His scoring could be so huge for the Hogs, because it gives hope that our offensive output will not rest too heavily on Nick Smith's shoulders.
Tony Tony Tony
Anthony Black, who may or may not go by Tony, I have no idea, is a 6'7" point guard with real speed and unreal potential. Somehow, his extra-big hair doesn't get in the way of his excellent court vision. Defensive hustle? Check. Passing? Check-plus. But still rough around the edges, too. Several times he drove into the lane with ease, but passed the ball away to a player with a lower percentage shot (or turned it over). Coach Muss mentioned wanting to work with him as a scoring threat--and how the kid can both throw and catch lobs around the hoop, both of which he did in Europe. The scouting report on him says he's got extremely high-level basketball IQ, and he visibly improved from one game to the next in Europe. He may be the most valuable player on the team by season's end.
Barry Barry Barry
Coach Muss has been talking up freshman Barry Dunning Jr. every chance he gets. Yet another player refusing to be buried in the shadows of the blue-chippers on the roster. Muss says that Dunning is a first-in-the-gym, last-to-leave type of player, with a keen mind for the game. He even sent his coach his own personal scouting report on one of the opponents. His future at Arkansas looks bright.
Will Two Be Enough?
Damn, this team needs senior leadership it doesn't really have. Last year's squad became experts at winning close games. They were phenomenal at edging out their opponent in the last minutes of a close game, which speaks to their discipline and coaching. But now only two players from last season remain, and when the second European game drew close in the late going, it was Davis and Kamani Johnson who took over and put the game out of reach. As Coach said in the post-game interview, without those two, Arkansas would have lost. The team was a mess in that second game.
Tons of steals, converted into tons of bad passes and lob attempts...one would hope that the Hogs' wild turnover rate will be tamped down once they are playing D-1 opponents. The Euros were shorter and slower, but with quick hands and good ball skills in general. Arkansas looked like a team who could do whatever they wanted, so they had trouble deciding, and then lost the ball during that moment of indecision. Yes, the turnovers were very very bad, but Coach Muss will help them put the kibosh on that problem.
Ok, Nick Smith is an ATM. But despite his talent for scoring, as he led the team in scoring the first three games (he sat for most of the fourth), his presence felt underwhelming. I've seen him listed at both 6'4" and 6'5", but he seems to play slighter. He took up a surprisingly small amount of space across the European tour figuratively as well.
Smith is projected to be the top college player in the NBA draft next year, but not the top player overall (if you haven't heard of French uber-prospect Victor Wembanyama, you will). Smith's high position is a little hard to see from the Euro games, though that could be kind of like a star quarterback playing in a preseason game, just trying to get some minutes in without getting hurt. And even that didn't work, as Smith injured his hand shortly before going to Europe, then injured his knee early in the last game. Both injuries are said to be minimal, so that's great. Let's not worry.
Let's also hope no more calamity or chaos befalls our young star before his breakout (and only) season. Which officially begins in November at the Maui Invitational against top-shelf program Louisville.
I guess we'll have pacify ourselves with our outlandish expectations for the Arkansas football season until then.