Recapping dud season for Musselman, Arkansas men's basketball

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman walks off the floor, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, at the conclusion of the Razorbacks’ 78-72 loss to UNC-Greensboro at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. (Andy Shupe/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas men’s basketball team’s most impressive victory didn’t count on the Razorbacks’ record.

That sums up a bummer of a season.

The Razorbacks played Purdue — ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press preseason poll — in an exhibition game at Walton Arena and beat the Boilermakers 81-77 in overtime before a sellout crowd on Oct. 27.

“It felt like an NCAA Tournament vibe to be honest,” Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman said after the game. “Who gets to watch that in October? It just doesn’t happen.

“That game was incredible for anybody that got to witness it. It really was.

“Almost as good as any game I’ve participated in and it’s an exhibition game.”

Arkansas played well enough to make you wonder if at No. 14 in the AP and USA Today preseason coaches’ polls, the Razorbacks were being undervalued.

But it turned out Arkansas was vastly overrated.

In Saturday’s NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings, the Razorbacks were No. 115.

The victory remains impressive — and now difficult to explain — because Purdue won the Big Ten regular-season championship and is ranked No. 3 in the current AP poll after spending some time in the top spot.

Purdue (29-4) lost to Wisconsin 76-75 in overtime in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals on Saturday, but the Boilermakers are assured of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Arkansas finished 16-17 with an 80-66 loss to No. 15 South Carolina in a second-round SEC Tournament game at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday in Nashville, Tenn.

“Not the season we wanted, but sometimes that happens in basketball,” Arkansas junior guard Tramon Mark said. “Sometimes that happens in life.”

There were some notable victories that did count on the Razorbacks’ record.

Arkansas beat No. 11 Duke 80-75 in the ACC/SEC Challenge on Nov. 29 at Walton Arena and swept two games from Texas A&M, beating the Aggies 78-77 at home on Mark’s last-second shot and 78-71 on the road.

SEC teams that will play in the NCAA Tournament — No. 5 Tennessee, No. 9 Kentucky and Florida — didn’t win at Texas A&M, but the Razorbacks did.

“It was an up-and-down season,” Arkansas senior guard El Ellis said. “We really weren’t consistent with anything.”

Ellis and Mark were among seven transfer additions and nine newcomers overall.

It was a roster formula that worked well previously for Musselman at Nevada and Arkansas in putting together teams that had reached the NCAA Tournament the last six times the event was held.

Musselman has signed 26 transfers at Arkansas, including the addition this season of Ellis (Louisville), Mark (Houston), Khalif Battle (Temple), Jeremiah Davenport (Cincinnati), Keyon Menifield (Washington), Chandler Lawson (Memphis) and Denijay Harris (Southern Mississippi). They joined returning transfers Trevon Brazile (Missouri), Jalen Graham (Arizona State) and Makhi Mitchell (Rhode Island).

Impact transfers at Arkansas previously under Musselman included All-American JD Notae (Jacksonville), All-SEC pick Ricky Council (Wichita State), Jimmy Whitt (SMU), Justin Smith (Indiana), Jalen Tate (Northern Kentucky), Stanley Umude (South Dakota), Au’Diese Toney (Pittsburgh), Trey Wade (Wichita State), Chris Lykes (Miami) and Kamani Johnson (Arkansas-Little Rock).

Musselman’s transfers on NCAA Tournament teams at Nevada were led by twins Caleb and Cody Martin (North Carolina State), Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois), Kendall Stephens (Purdue) and Hallice Cooke (Oregon State).

But the transfer magic didn’t work this season.

“We just never found a groove with each other,” Brazile said. “I can’t put my finger on one specific point. Just kind of a little bit of everything.

“It was a year of learning and a year of adversity.”

Musselman said throughout the season the Razorbacks had good practices.

“We’ve had some bad moments in games,” Musselman said after Arkansas beat LSU 94-83 in the home finale. “But this team works, man. I like coaching them. Wish the record was better.”

Arkansas hadn’t finished with a losing record since the 2008-09 season when the Razorbacks were 14-18. They were 7-13 against SEC opponents this season and went 1-8 against teams ranked in the current AP poll.

Arkansas’ struggles weren’t for a lack of Musselman and the staff trying to find solutions. There were 17 different starting combinations and 13 players got at least one start.

“I don’t know,” Battle said when asked why the Razorbacks didn’t win more games. “I mean, I hear a lot of things … Coach gets a lot of negative attention, but the whole coaching staff works really hard.

“At the end of the day, it’s on the players.

“These guys [on the staff] spend overtime working on the game plan, watching film, doing a lot of detail-oriented stuff. It’s on the players, the season.”

All of Musselman’s first eight college teams won at least 20 games. Five of his teams won 25 or more games, including records of 28-7, 29-8 and 29-5 his final three seasons at Nevada and 25-7 in 2021 and 28-9 in 2022 at Arkansas.

“This is new territory,” Musselman said. “Right now the season ending stings.”

Musselman said he’s “probably more motivated right now at this moment than I ever have been” after missing the NCAA Tournament.

“I can’t wait to work,” he said, referring to recruiting the transfer portal.

Transfers who the Razorbacks add will join two 4-star high school signees in 6-6 guard Isaiah Elohim from Sierra Canyon in California and 6-9 forward Jalen Shelley from Link Academy in Missouri.

In Mitchell’s two seasons at Arkansas, he experienced the high of reaching the NCAA Tournament last season, including a victory over No. 1 Kansas, and the disappointment of this season.

“This year was fantastic for me personally. I played the best ball of my career,” said Mitchell, who averaged 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds the last nine games. “I’ve love being here. I love the atmosphere. I love Arkansas as a whole.

“For everything Arkansas has done for me, I’m truly grateful to be a Razorback.”

Mitchell is among six Razorbacks who have exhausted their college eligibility — according to the Arkansas compliance office — along with Davenport, Ellis, Graham, Harris and Lawson.

Players planning to enter the transfer portal on Monday are sophomore guards Keyon Menifield and Joseph Pinion.

Battle and Davis each have a season of eligibility remaining, Brazile and Mark have two seasons and freshmen Layden Blocker and Baye Fall have three.

Brazile, a 6-10 redshirt sophomore who can hit three-pointers, block shots and run the floor, is listed on several NBA Draft boards.

After Brazile missed all but the first nine games last season when he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee, he missed seven games late this season with knee soreness before returning for the final seven.

Brazile, a first-team preseason All-SEC pick by media and coaches, showed his NBA potential with 19 points and 11 rebounds against Duke, 14 points and 17 rebounds in a 77-74 double overtime victory over Stanford at the Battle 4 Atlantis and 13 points and 12 rebounds in a 90-85 overtime victory over Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament opener.

“I’m going to go back home, get healthy and then talk to my inner circle about what I want to do next,” Brazile said. “Then we’ll see what happens.”

Davis, a guard from Jacksonville who is the only four-year scholarship player in the Arkansas program, went through senior night ceremonies against LSU, but said he’s not sure about his future plans.

“I’m taking everything step by step, leaving it in God’s hands,” Davis said. “Knowing that I have another year, of course if that’s an option then I’ll look at that.

“I’m a senior, so this could be the end of my college career. But whatever God wants, I’m leaving it in his hands to make sure I’m able to go through the process the right way.”

Mark averaged 16.2 points to lead the Razorbacks. He had a career-high 35 points at home against Texas A&M and scored 34 against No. 4 North Carolina. He was held to a season-low two points by South Carolina in the SEC Tournament.

“I haven’t given any thought to it yet,” Mark said of his plans for next season.

Battle started the season strong, averaging 16.4 points the first 10 games. Then he went through a stretch where he didn’t play at home against Texas A&M and played 15 or fewer minutes in eight other games.

In the end, Battle became one of the SEC’s most dangerous offensive players. He averaged 26.7 points the last nine games, including a career-high 42 against Missouri, 36 against Vanderbilt and 34 at Kentucky in consecutive games. His final scoring average was 14.8 points.

“We just lost,” Battle said after the South Carolina game when asked about his plans for his final season of eligibility. “Right now, like, my mind is getting ready for next year.

“I don’t know. That’s it.”

Roster breakdown for Arkansas

Going into the transfer portal

• G Joseph Pinion

• G Keyon Menifield

Others could enter the portal

Has eligibility remaining

• G Khalif Battle (1 season)

• G Davonte Davis (1)

• F Trevon Brazile (2)

• G Tramon Mark (2)

• G Layden Blocker (3)

• F Baye Fall (3)

• F Blake Lawson (1)

High school signees for next season

• G Isaiah Elohim

• F Jalen Shelley

Has exhausted eligibility according to Arkansas’ compliance office

• G Jeremiah Davenport

• G Ellis Ellis

• F Jalen Graham

• F Denijay Harris

• F Chandler Lawson

• F Makhi Mitchell

• G Cade Arbogast

By the numbers

16-17 — First losing season for the Razorbacks since going 14-18 in 2008-09.

42 — Career-high points for Khalif Battle in an 88-73 victory over Missouri. He averaged 26.7 points the last nine games.

83-51 — Victory for Auburn over the Razorbacks at Walton Arena in the SEC opener for the most-lopsided home loss for Arkansas against a college team. The Phillips 66ers, an AAU powerhouse from Bartlesville, Okla., beat the Razorbacks 74-39 during the 1950-51 season.

16.2 — Tramon Mark’s team-high scoring average. He scored a career-high 35 against Texas A&M.

17 — Different starting combinations for Arkansas.