Eric Musselman Praises New Hogs Team as First to Break Offseason Milestone

photo credit: Nick Wenger

Don’t expect there to be much putting the cart before the horse this offseason in Razorback basketball circles.

Last year around this time, almost everyone and their Aunt Val was in awe of the fortunes of a 2022-23 Hogs team that was, on paper, more talented than anything Arkansas has had since the mid-1990s. If anything, the team looked to be even better than expected early on as Trevon Brazile showed unexpected early first-round potential along with the four Razorbacks entering the 2023 NBA Draft.

But Brazile’s season-ending injury, along with the issues with Nick Smith Jr., put a damper on such a promising regular-season campaign that wasn’t partially rectified until the Hogs took down No. 1 seed Kansas to return to the Sweet 16.

Although Arkansas burst out of the gate with a flurry of transfer signings to kick off the offseason, a pair of recent misses in the recruiting world, that of five-star Ron Holland and 6’11” transfer Grant Nelson, have dampened the hype coach a bit heading into the season 2023-24.

Don’t expect this to be the most physically dominant Arkansas basketball team of the Musselman era. Don’t expect it to be the most explosive either, as Brazile no longer has a running mate over the edge like Ricky Council IV next to him.

But still, expect it to turn some heads.

Eric Musselman gives a sneak peek at the new team

There is, of course, much to sort out in the coming months, from the ball-handling duties between Devo Davis, El Ellis and Laydon Blocker, to which transfer guards Brazile develops the best relationship with in pick-and-roll situations to the role a defensively improved Jalen Graham would play.

“Roles and all that kind of stuff haven’t been defined and they don’t want to [be] until probably late September,” Musselman continued a recent episode of the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast. “But we’ve got good length, we’ve got good athleticism. We’ll be able to have the flexibility to play small ball. I also think we can put a big lineup out there at times, so we’re really excited. “

In the four hours a week that Musselman and his staff get with the team at this point, they’ve already gotten a sense that the mix of five returning rotation players (three more than last year), five transfers and two true freshmen already is ahead of the curve in one area.

“We had a party at my house, and from a chemistry standpoint, I think we’re a little ahead,” Musselman said. “We’re also not quite as young as we were, so I think we’re able to add things quickly because of the veterans we have on this year’s upcoming team.”

Chemistry is of course very important, but it is also intangible. The concept of camaraderie presents no clear metrics that the statistics-obsessed Musselman can track. That’s not the case when it comes to the conditioning that forms the foundation of any championship-caliber team.

Breaking New Ground for Arkansas Basketball

Not long after arriving in Fayetteville in the spring of 2019, Musselman explained that he set specific conditioning benchmarks for his Razorbacks in the summer: guards must run the mile in under 5:30, wings must run it in under 5:40 and bigs need to come in under 5:50. (He made an exception for Connor Vanover because of his body frame.)

Running the mile at certain times does not directly translate to training fast muscles and developing explosiveness needed in basketball, but it takes mental strength and endurance to achieve. Developing discipline in an environment away from the normal field and gym is why Musselman pushes his players to do this. In previous years, the majority of the team had taken 3-5 weeks to reach the benchmarks he has set for specific positions.

This offseason, however, Eric Musselman has seen eight of his guys hit their mile times already. That’s the most he’s ever seen do it this early. “It’s usually been something that takes three to four weeks, sometimes five weeks,” he said. “This year’s team will all be sure to pass that mile by the second or third time around.”

The early returns are enough to compel Musselman to say these Razorbacks are “probably the most conditioned team I’ve had coming in.”

It’s a testament that the returning players (Brazil, Davis, Graham, Joseph Pinion, Makhi Mitchell) know what it takes to have another year in the system along with the mature mindset of the incoming transfers and freshmen. There are obvious game benefits to this kind of conditioning, as it should allow Arkansas’ speedy guards to keep their legs enough to attack the basket late in contests while not sacrificing too much defensive intensity.

But before the game even begins, excellent conditioning means the team will be able to train at a high level for longer in Musselman’s fast-paced practices this fall. The extra time will be crucial to incorporating the new Razorbacks as quickly as possible. Team chemistry is one thing, but chemistry plus conditioning lays the foundation for a season that could set even more milestones for success in the Musselman era.

Be sure to watch Torres’ full interview with Musselman below:

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