FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas will have a distinctly different look this season.
Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones left school early and declared for the NBA draft, leaving the Razorbacks without their combined 39 points per game.
For second-year coach Eric Musselman, whose team was 20-12 last season, finding a way to fill that gaping hole on the scoresheet will likely fall to a host of newcomers. Three graduate transfers, two players who sat out last season after transferring into the program and a highly ranked recruiting class largely will be called upon to fill the void.
“We are a top 20 program with Isaiah,” said Musselman. “We are a different team than we were with Isaiah on the roster. From a national respect standpoint, we have a lot to prove. The amount of scoring that Isaiah and Mason gave us, now that’s gone. We have some young pieces. We need to stay or get healthy.”
One familiar face from last season is Desi Sills, a 6-foot junior guard who stepped in last season when Joe missed several games with an injury and averaged 12.4 points over the final 14 games.
Sills will be surrounded by a crowd of newcomers, headlined by transfers Connor Vanover and J.D. Notae, who each had to sit out last season.
Graduate transfers Justin Smith (Indiana), Vance Jackson Jr. (New Mexico) and Jalen Tate (Northern Kentucky) could play big roles.
Smith averaged 10.4 points per game and 5.5 rebounds last season at Indiana. He had four career double-doubles. Jackson, who originally signed with Connecticut before transferring to New Mexico, had multiple 20-point games for the Lobos. Tate spent four seasons at Northern Kentucky including a medical redshirt season. He averaged 10.2 points and 3.7 rebounds per game over his career and was the Horizon League defensive player of the year last season.
Sitting out together helped Vanover and Notae develop a common bond, although Notae has been trying to come back from a wrist injury.
“That was difficult, all the work I put in the summer and I had to go on hold for broken wrist,” Notae said. “I still get treatment every day to get back to 100%. I’m not sure when I will be 100%, but it is getting better. I didn’t want to get hurt. I want to be out there with my teammates.”
Vanover, a 7-foot-3 forward, gives the Razorbacks a unique player who can comfortably play inside or outside. He said he spent last season trying to learn Musselman’s intricate system, knowing he was not going to transfer that knowledge to a game for a full year.
“It feels different this year. I feel like I can count the days down until we play,” he said. “That’s what I’m thinking about — that I will actually get to play. That is driving me and helping me push myself to show what I can do, so when gametime comes, I can display what I have.”
The recruiting class has a distinct Arkansas flavor.
Point guard Devonte Davis of Jacksonville is joined by Fort Smith Northside post Jaylin Williams and Arkansas natives Moses Moody and Khalen Robinson. Both Moody and Robinson were at prep schools.
Musselman had high praise for both Davis and Williams.
“Jaylin has really done a fabulous job,” said Musselman of the 6-10 Williams. “He talks a lot, he’s bought into the system with two feet. He’s in this gym working on his game every single day.”
Arkansas will play seven of its nine non-SEC games at home with only road trips to Tulsa and Oklahoma State before SEC play. Arkansas opens the season Nov. 25 against Mississippi Valley State.
“The first thing with the schedule, some of it was out of our control,” Musselman said. “We tried to limit our travel and avoid getting on planes as much as possible. A lot of different factors went into the schedule.”
Arkansas opens SEC play on the road at Auburn on Dec. 30.
The pandemic has greatly reduced the number of fans who can attend home games in Bud Walton Arena. Only 4,000 fans will be permitted this season, Musselman said
“That’s 3,500 more than in the D-League, so … when you focus on what’s going on, you really should not get caught up in the crowd,” Musselman said. “I get pumped up and enthusiastic with the crowd. We’re just happy to play.”