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Is this the year Hogs can’t get back on track? #year #Hogs #track #englishheadline


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Arkansas is 1-4 to start SEC play, officially the worst start to a conference slate under head coach Eric Musselman.

Razorback fans are accustomed to slow starts under Musselman. In fact, through the first five SEC games each of his four seasons in Fayetteville, the best record was his first year. The Hogs started the 2019-20 campaign with a 3-2 conference record. The starts have gradually gotten worse each year.

In 2020-21, Arkansas started 1-2 in SEC play before finishing the first five games with a 2-3 record. The following year, the Razorbacks started 0-3, but ultimately made it to the 2-3 mark through the first five conference games. This year feels different, though.

Not only is the 1-4 start the worst to-date under Musselman’s leadership, but the main thing keeping Razorback fans hopeful for a third straight mid-season turnaround seems just to be the fact that Musselman has orchestrated two in a row already.

The team doesn’t seem to have an identity right now. Initially, it seemed to be an elite defensive team that would be able to compete by holding opponents to low scoring totals. Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt, in which the Hogs surrendered a season-high 92 points, completely changed that from a certainty to another question mark on this team. Granted, that performance could potentially be chalked up to a one-off, bad defensive performance, but it still happened, and it was ugly.

Even though Musselman has led the charge for back-to-back season turnarounds, fans aren’t necessarily sold on that happening for a third straight year. A combination of missing two key players, not having any shooters, and just not having the pieces of the roster fitting together like they were supposed to have turned many fans into skeptics.

This poll shows that over 40% of Razorback fans who participated don’t seem to think Arkansas can get back on track. Granted, getting back “on track,” isn’t defined, but I definitely think the “No” answers grew in number after the Vanderbilt game more than if the question was posed after the Alabama game.

Musselman knows there’s work to do. He’s said it countless times: the team is still growing, it’s still learning, the staff is still learning, etc. He repeated it in the post-game presser after the loss Saturday.

“I just think the level of competition has changed,” Musselman said. “Because of that our defensive deficiencies are showing up with each game, and our competitive. I mean, we’ve lost three straight games by double digits. I don’t recall a team we’ve coached doing that unless it was at the NBA level. Disappointed with the competitiveness. Disappointed with when a team make a run, combating that run. But again, we have a whole group of guys that’s learning, and we’re trying to learn as well.”

I think the question is not “will” this team get back on track, but more “can” it?

Musselman has a tall task ahead of him compared to the previous two turnarounds. He said so himself after the loss to Alabama.

“We have a much more uphill battle than we did the last two years,” Musselman said. “I know that for sure.”

“We can talk about the last two years,” Musselman continued, “we are in a completely and utterly different state and in a way more uphill battle than we’ve been since I’ve been here, to be quite honest.”

The first turnaround was largely due to an injured Justin Smith, who, when he returned to action, helped lead Arkansas to win 11 of its last 13 games of the regular season before making an Elite Eight run in the NCAA Tournament.

The second turnaround was a matter of changing the lineup and no injuries. Musselman went big, adding Trey Wade to the starting lineup against Missouri, and gave JD Notae heavy primary ballhandling responsibilities. With that change, Arkansas ended the regular season winning 14 of its final 16 games.

This season, though, Arkansas has two injuries and a lineup/roster problem. Nick Smith Jr. (knee management) was a starter when available, and Trevon Brazile (torn ACL) was playing the sixth man role until his injury. With those two out of lineup, not only are two perimeter shooters missing, but the team is also without a matchup problem as a stretch-four in Brazile and a player who can create his own shot or create opportunities for teammates in Smith.

“I think we’ve had injuries in the past – you know (Justin) Smith got back right away – I think he missed five games – and Isaiah (Joe) missed a stretch,” Musselman said after the Alabama loss. “We struggled when both those guys were out, but I thought when Isaiah came back we changed things quickly, and certainly Justin’s first game back we struggled at Alabama, but I thought we were able to gain some momentum. Just the scoring and the shooting numbers, we’re missing – and I want to be perfectly clear: there’s no excuse – I’ve been around the game way too long and injuries are part of the game, but we’re missing two guys that we had projected to play right around 60 minutes for us. So we’ve got to keep searching and figure it out.”

Musselman has searched, but to this point there hasn’t been too much that he has found outside of inconsistency.

Because of the injuries, the roster, largely built around Smith and Brazile’s abilities, is in limbo with no identity. Five-star freshman Anthony Black is carrying a great deal of the load, along with Wichita State transfer Ricky Council IV, but they can only do so much.

There are no shooters on the roster outside of freshman Joseph Pinion, and the team is shooting a miserable 29.09% from three at the time of this article, good enough for 332nd out of 363 Division 1 teams.

Brazile was shooting 37.9% from three, while Smith shot 30.0% from outside. There is also no evidence that either of those percentages would have improved, considering so far, neither has played against SEC competition. Smith still could come back and prove he’s a better shooter than the percentage shows (which I think he is), but the point remains that there was no certainty that with either Brazile or Smith healthy that this would even be a decent shooting team.

Discussing either one any further right this second seems like low-hanging fruit. The fanbase is aware neither is available at the current juncture. There’s no point playing the “what if” game in the middle of the season when a team still possesses this much talent. So, assuming neither returns, what can this roster do to get back on track and salvage the season?

In my mind, things need to drastically change. Style of play, scheme, rotations – everything. Slow the pace of play down. Work the ball through the frontcourt. Focus on defense as has been the case for three-plus years under Musselman.

How can that happen?

I’m a proponent of the two-big lineup, whether that’s the twins together or Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham, I think playing two bigs has its advantages, especially offensively. Musselman has praised each of the twins, but primarily Makhi Mitchell, as a defensive stalwart and great piece and stopping opponents’ interior threats, but I think using him as an offensive threat more would be beneficial to the offense, for multiple reasons.

This article isn’t for me to diagnose and solve the problems of this Arkansas team, though rather, I am simply answering the question: can this team even get back on track?

I still think yes. The team is still talented. Pieces are still there, but Musselman is just trying to figure out how to fit them all together now that the picture has changed with Brazile and Smith’s injuries.

On top of the fact that Musselman has proven he can get a team back on track twice, he has openly admitted that this is his toughest task yet, which, at least to me, symbolizes that he is willing to try anything and everything to succeed. The man has coached college basketball, in the NBA, in the CBA, in the G-League – he has ample experience to draw from here.

I don’t necessarily think this team finds all the pieces perfectly and makes another deep NCAA Tournament run, but I do think they figure it out, make the tournament, and win at least one or two games for the third straight year.

I also think this year teaches Musselman another lesson about roster building: shooters are important. The 2024 recruiting class is loaded with shooters, especially the high-priority targets Arkansas is targeting in Dink Pate and Jase Richardson.

This team will still make the tournament at the very least. They can get back on track. Will they exceed just making the tournament? Will Musselman perform magic for the third straight year? We can wait and see.

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