FAYETTEVILLE – If our nation’s coronavirus pandemic ever sufficiently eases for the Razorbacks to play their November/December nonconference basketball schedule, it could behoove paying particular attention to Arkansas’ opponents’ best players.
For someday perhaps some will play for the Razorbacks instead of against them.
Vance Jackson, Justin Smith and Jalen Tate, three now on University of Arkansas scholarships as graduate transfers, played or at least were supposed to play against Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman before signed to play for him.
Musselman coached the University of Nevada in 2018-2019 when his Wolfpack played home and home Mountain West Conference games against New Mexico and Jackson. Then the Lobos’ third-year sophomore, Jackson transferred then redshirted a year after his freshman season at Connecticut.
Former Indiana forward Smith, Musselman had seen on film evaluating the Razorbacks he inherited from Coach Mike Anderson. Anderson’s 2018-2019 Razorbacks beat the Hoosiers at Walton Arena then lost to the Hoosiers at Bloomington, Ind. in the second round of the Postseason NIT. Musselman saw Smith firsthand when the Razorbacks beat the Hoosiers last season in overtime at Bloomington.
As for now former Northern Kentucky University swingman Tate, Musselman saw a studio’s worth of film prepping last season’s Razorbacks to play against NKU.
Turned out that both teams’ star players, NKU’s Tate and Arkansas’ Mason Jones since turned pro as the 2019-2020 SEC Co-Player of the Year, missed Arkansas’ 66-60 victory because of injuries.
Musselman still felt like he knew Tate firsthand from the all prep work before last season’s Arkansas vs. NKU game. So these aren’t three Pigs in a poke Musselman adds as Razorbacks grad transfers.
“I think we’re really familiar with those guys,” Musselman said. “You’ve already game-planned for them and you’ve seen them live, Obviously, we didn’t see Jalen Tate live, but all the way up until tipoff we had prepared as if he was probably going to play. So when Justin Smith got in the portal, or Vance Jackson or Jalen Tate, I did not have to spend hours watching game tape. Those hours had already been done.”
And thoughts of their Arkansas potential projected.
“I had a vision of how those guys could fit in,” Musselman said. “I had a strong feeling of characteristics that they would bring to our team. We had a really good feel for them as players.”
Smith’s games against Arkansas weren’t statistically impressive, but Musselman saw plenty of other game film to be impressed.
The 6-7 forward started all 32 Indiana games last season with a team-leading 31 steals and team-leading 971 minutes while averaging 10.4 points, and 5.2 rebounds while reputed for his defense and was Big Ten All-Academic graduating in three years.
“He’s a really key piece for us,” Musselman said. “He’s a guy that at his size can play a bunch of different positions. His natural position is probably as a small forward. If you wanted to play really big, he could play the off guard. If you wanted to play small ball he could play the four spot. Kind of tells you the value that Indiana had in playing him the most minutes on what was a tournament team.”
Injured for the 2019-2020 season Vanderbilt guard Aaron Nesmith and 6-6 Tate, the Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year while for 23-9 NKU averaging 13.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.9 steals, were the best opponents Arkansas never saw last season.
“At 6-6, to have a guy that can play the point guard position with his length, he’s a great passer,” Musselman said. “His defensive ability, you’re talking about at the Division I level being the defensive player of the year. Every year he’s played college basketball he’s been on the (Horizon League) all-defensive team.”
Musselman knows what 6-9 big man Jackson can do. When the Lobos routed Musselman’s Wolfpack, 85-58 in Albuquerque, Jackson double-doubled 18 points and 10 rebounds with seven assists and three steals playing everything except point guard.
“To get a player 6-9, 230, it’s interesting because the versatility is the first thing that comes to mind with Vance,” Musselman said. “He can play the 4, he can play the 3, he can play the 5, he can play the 2. He has the ability offensively and defensively to really play four positions on the floor.”
And use his size scoring and rebounding inside and range outside.
“You’re talking about a player who’s made 157 three-balls in his college career,” Musselman said. “He’s capable of a double-double on any given night.”