While football is still king in the SEC, the conference’s basketball programs continue to make leaps toward rivaling that dominance. Arkansas certainly fits into that category. An Elite 8 appearance last season to eventual champ Baylor alerted the rest of the conference, and the college basketball world in general, that the Arkansas basketball is back.

While SEC programs continue to bring in quality coaches, Arkansas has positioned itself to be right in the middle of it with 3rd-year head coach Eric Musselman.

“What our league has done,” Musselman said, “it gets great 5-star players, and they’ve really adjusted to playing the transfer game as well. I think this is the one year that the SEC really dove in as a league in that transfer pool of players and it has drastically improved.”

Arkansas, which opens the season ranked No. 16 in the country, is among that group as well. Here’s a closer look at the upcoming 2021-2022 basketball season for Arkansas.

Best player: JD Notae

To pinpoint just one would be a tough task given that Arkansas’ top 2 scorers and 3 of the top 4 are gone. Senior guard JD Notae is a spectacular offensive-minded player, according to Musselman, but also has steadily improved his defensive game in addition to hitting the weight room to bulk up for the grind that is the SEC schedule.

Named the SEC Coaches Sixth Man of the Year, Notae was 3rd on the team in scoring last year averaging (12.8 points per game average). Considering he only played 22.5 minutes per game, that’s a lot of scoring in a short period of time. Averaged out over 40 minutes it comes to 22.2 points per game. He led the team with 46 steals and scored in double figures 21 times, leading the team in scoring in 7 games.

Biggest strength: Momentum

After last season, the Razorbacks are primed to make another run in the postseason, at least mentally. Reaching the Elite 8 as the Hogs did a year ago is a major step forward in not only the carryover momentum into this season but also in attracting the nation’s top talent for future seasons.

“Certainly, from a recruiting standpoint that puts you on the map,” Musselman said.

The Hogs won 25 games last season, most since the 26-win campaign of 2016-17. And the 13 SEC victories were the most by an Arkansas team since 2014-15, and only the 2nd time the Hogs have posted that many conference victories since 1993-94.

Biggest weakness: Team chemistry

As noted, Arkansas no longer has its top 2 scorers, and with a plethora of transfers moving in to mesh with a group of young and talented players, it’ll be interesting to see just how long it takes for the team to develop chemistry.

The talent level is high, though relatively young, and the transfers are experienced but, of course, not with the Arkansas program or one another. So, getting those players up to speed and meshing with the young talent will be Musselman’s biggest challenge.

A perfect example is graduated senior transfer Chris Lykes (from Miami).

“I think he’s going to be a fan favorite,” said Musselman, who added that he’d like to see the 5-7 sparkplug step up his game defensively. Lykes’ playing time will also be determined by how well he learns the Arkansas playbook.

“(Right now) he doesn’t know our offense well enough, and that’s an issue,” Musselman said.

Key to the season: Role playing

With all the new players combined with the young players, finding and then carrying out their respective roles will be the key to Arkansas’ season. On one hand, you have young sophomore players like Davis and Jaylin Williams, who appear to be taking leadership roles early on.

Then you have transfers coming in like graduated senior Stanley Umude, who led South Dakota in scoring, but will be asked to modify his role as a distributor as much or even more so than as the scoring machine from up north.

Scouting the backcourt: Impressive

Along with Notae, Umude is a potential superstar, who Musselman said has grasped the Arkansas scheme and will be a player that the offense runs through. At 6-6, he will play many roles this season.

As South Dakota’s main scorer, averaging 21.6 points per game (ranked 9th nationally) and a go-to player who took 35.5% of the team’s shots, Umude’s biggest adjustment will be to limit those shots and instead get the other players more involved.

Davonte Davis is a 6-4 sophomore guard who played in 30 games last season, starting 17. He was 2nd on the team in assists with 64 and steals (35) while averaging 8.5 points per game.

“He’s really a spectacular, fun, electric player,” Musselman said.

Continuing to cut down on mistakes has been his path to success and will continue to be one of Davis’ main goals this season.

Scouting the frontcourt: Emerging

Sophomore forward Jaylin Williams is emerging into a team leader. Williams and Davis are the vocal leaders on the court directing traffic. Musselman said the duo is also the team’s culture setters as well. That’s saying a lot for a pair of sophomores.

Junior forward Connor Vanover played in 29 games last season, starting 27 of those. He averaged 6.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game a year ago.

Then there are new faces from the transfer portal. Au’Diese Toney (from Pitt) at 6-6 is listed as a guard but can also move to forward as needed. Jaxson Robinson is new from Texas A&M. Musselman said he hasn’t missed a beat since joining the Razorbacks.

The 6-6 sophomore guard is a scoring threat but also works hard on defense. His versatility will be utilized to the fullest moving from frontcourt to backcourt depending on the situation.

Predicting how far they’ll go in March: Sweet 16

As we’ve harped upon, the fate of the season depends on how fast this team learns to play together. Replacing 3 of your top 4 scorers is certainly no easy task, but Arkansas has the shooters and will play solid defense.

They’ll be among the best in the SEC, but getting back to the Elite 8 will be a tough task. They have the talent to do it and maybe by March they’ll jell and make a serious run. Or maybe they’ll take a page from last season’s success.

“We made no excuses,” Musselman said. “We went through the pandemic as normal as we possibly could. I think that had a lot to do with our success.”

Maybe a no-nonsense approach is just what the Hogs need? If that can be repeated, a Final Four appearance isn’t out of the question. But for now, we’re going to play it safe and say Sweet 16.