FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas men’s basketball team’s rigorous two-hour workout Wednesday at the Eddie Sutton Performance Center was their third of 10 allowed practices in advance of a four-game swing in Italy and Spain coming in early August.
The intensity of practices has been an eye opener for much of the Razorbacks’ 15-man roster, which includes six highly-regarded freshmen, five transfers and only two returning scholarship players in Davonte Davis and Kamani Johnson.
“It kind of sets them up for what practices will be like in October,” third-year Coach Eric Musselman said. “So I think it’s good, especially for a new team. They probably don’t know how intense the expectations are. So I think they’ve got a feel the last three days. We have some guys that are really tired for sure right now.” Freshmen Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Black tested for the rough and rugged approach to their first full-scale college practices.
“I would say probably the biggest transition, the biggest difference is just … when we compete, I would say just the physicality,” Black said. “But once you’re here for a couple of weeks, you get used to that. So I think all the freshmen, we’re all used to it now, so we’re playing more physical, we’re taking bumps, doing stuff like that a lot better.” Smith had two of the workout’s best plays, a full-speed transition feed to Jordan Walsh for a dunk, followed a few minutes later by another throw on the break to Makhel Mitchell for a slam.
Smith said the transition from North Little Rock High School has been smooth.
“Coach Muss knows what he’s doing and the coaching staff knows what it’s doing,” Smith said. “He knows what he’s doing when it comes to the next level. So, you know, just trying to get better each and every day. Just trying to lead the team and try to get some wins down the line.” The Razorbacks tied the team record for this camp with 168 points in a three-minute drill called the “Warriors Drill.” In it, players sprint up and down the court with the middle man shooting a layup, which is good for one point, and the two wings shooting three-pointers. The Razorbacks ran the drill three times in succession with only brief breaks between in the middle of the practice.
Trevon Brazile, a transfer forward from Missouri, pointed out something that was evident in large portions of Wednesday’s work: The Hogs are going hard on defense.
“One thing I’m looking forward to is being able to see what this team can bring outside of practice,” Brazile said. “We’ve been playing each other. Sometimes I think our defense is so good that we make the offense look sloppy.” Musselman obviously wants to win all the games in Europe, but team bonding, family retreats and learning about rotations are all parts of putting together a team being built to return deep into the NCAA Tournament after back-to-back Elite Eight seasons.
“I think this thing is going to be good, but it’s one piece but that’s never going to leave my mind, that it also is just one piece to a long puzzle leading up to November,” Musselman said.
“Then that puzzle continues to evolve once you get, as we’ve seen our team evolve in January and February. Is the trip important? Absolutely. And it’s important for a lot of things.” Musselman said the team has already done plenty of exercises pre- and post-practice to learn each other better. Flying to Europe on Aug. 6 for the nine-day excursion will lend itself to other advantages.
“It’ll give us some chemistry,” he said. “It’ll give us another body of work, going against different people.” Asked if he thinks this roster will be a good shooting team, Musselman put in a critique of last year’s club, which shot 30.4% from three-point range to rank 320th among 350 teams, yet beat No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga in a Sweet 16 game before losing to Duke.
“Well, I’m praying — and so is my wife [Danyelle] — that we shoot better than last year,” Musselman said. “To make an Elite Eight and be in the 300s shooting the ball from three is a testament to how hard our guys played, because we were one of the worst shooting teams in all of college basketball.
“And the numbers tell you that. So we’ve got to be a lot better and I think we are.” Musselman said he thinks Walsh at small forward will make threes and Brazile should be one of the best stretch 4 players in the country.
“We know that Nick can shoot,” he said. “I think that Anthony’s an underrated shooter. So from a shooting perspective, I think Ricky Council has improved as a three-point shooter, although he’s a really good dribble-driver, great transition finisher and a guy that can draw free throws. I think that … We should be better shooting the three. We’ll see what the results look like.”