The Arkansas Razorback basketball program loaded the roster this offseason, balancing young in-state talent with big-time transfers, but the biggest news of the summer for the Hogs was Isaiah Joe’s decision to return for his junior season.
Saturday, Aug. 1, two days before the deadline to withdraw his name from the National Basketball Association draft, the sharpshooter out of Fort Smith announced on Twitter that he would return for another season with head coach Eric Musselman and the Razorbacks.
“Just like being in the NBA, playing at this school has been a dream of mine throughout my childhood,” Joe tweeted. “I couldn’t ask for a better fan base, coaching staff, or teammates.”
As a freshman, Joe set a single-season Razorback record with 113 made 3-pointers, and though he missed six games last season as a sophomore, he connected on 94 three-pointers. The prolific shooting guard is poised to be one of the top players in the Southeastern Conference this season, and will be considered a preseason favorite for SEC Player of the Year.
The hype around the Razorback basketball team was high even before the announcement that Joe would be returning. Musselman brings in the No. 5 rated recruiting class in the country according to ESPN. Alongside incoming freshmen, he secured three highly touted graduate transfers in Justin Smith, Jalen Tate and Vance Jackson.
The three bring a lot of experience and talent to a young Razorback roster. As a junior, Smith started every game for Indiana averaging 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. In his career at Northern Kentucky, Tate averaged 10.2 points per game and was named to the Horizon League All-Defensive team three times. In three seasons at New Mexico Jackson averaged 10.8 points per game and shot 35.3% from the 3-point line.
Arkansas retains just three players who have started a game: Joe and juniors Desi Sills and Ethan Henderson. These three combined to average just 28.1 points per game last year and at 6 feet 8 inches, Henderson was the tallest Hog to start a game in the 2019-2020 season.
Compared to a year ago, the Arkansas roster is nearly opposite. A team that struggled with size and shooting now has 10 players standing over 6 feet 6 inches tall and is loaded with perimeter shooting threats. The only thing that is expected to stay consistent is the lockdown defense that Musselman harps on each week. In 2019-2020 held opponents to 69.2 points per game, 27.2% shooting from three and averaged an SEC best eight steals a game.
The addition of four 4-star recruits in Moses Moody, Davonte Davis, Khalen Robinson and Jaylin Williams gives Arkansas very high expectations. The Razorbacks will also profit from 7-foot-3 redshirt sophomore Connor Vanover and shifty redshirt junior guard JD Notae, both of whom sat out in 2019-2020 due to transfer rules.
“We’ve got a lot of guys learning the system, learning the playbook,” Musselman said in a Zoom meeting with the media in late July. “I think from an evaluation standpoint we’ve got to get creative with how we evaluate just because of the landscape with COVID-19, but right now ‘roster development’ is what we are trying to do right now.”
Playing time will be a new battle with such a deep roster, something Arkansas did not deal with last season. Only six players averaged more than 15 minutes per game in 2019-2020. With the addition of so many new players and the news of Joe returning for the 2020-2021 season, Musselman will have tough decisions to make when it comes to spacing out minutes.
“Every team has got their own identity,” Musselman said in a recent Zoom meeting with the media. “Certainly Isaiah changed the landscape of who we are, what our identity can look like, but I do think for sure that we have some roster flexibility for how we want to play.”
The preseason polls are rolling in, and Aaron Torres from the Fox Sports website ranked the Hogs No. 20 in his first poll after the NBA draft declaration deadline.
“A team that didn’t start a single player over 6’6 a season ago will enter 2019-2020 as one of the deepest, tallest and most versatile clubs in college basketball,” Torres said in his preseason poll article. “This team will have the size, depth and athleticism to compete with anyone in college hoops next season.”
The team has been practicing together for nearly three weeks now, and the addition of Joe back into the lineup will change a few things. With fall sports in question, the team can only hope that it can showcase its talent this winter.