The Arkansas men’s basketball team saw a mid-season slump that resulted in a 2-4 start in conference play and sat them near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference. Since then, the Hogs have rallied to win six straight SEC games to crack the top three in the conference standings.
As the case almost always is, teams have to develop to have success. Fans see it every season with teams like Kentucky, Kansas and Duke — with young talent comes a learning curve. Head coach Eric Musselman brought in four 4-star recruits this season. He has added eight transfer players in the past two years to go along with those freshmen.
To say the Hogs had a learning curve would be an understatement. Eight of the nine players who are averaging double-digit minutes this season are wearing the Razorback logo for the first time in their respective careers. Junior guard Desi Sills is the only Arkansas player that has seen significant playing time in the red and white prior to this season.
The team managed to scorch lesser opponents and advance to an 8-0 record entering conference play. Even after a confidence-boosting 97-85 win against a talented Auburn team Dec. 30, the group did not seem to have a strong chemistry.
Five games and four losses later, it seemed as if the team had no chemistry whatsoever. Arkansas lost back-to-back games against LSU and Alabama by an average of 23.5 points. Then a switch seemed to be magically flipped.
Following the Jan. 16 loss at the Crimson Tide, Arkansas has gone 6-1, with the lone loss coming at the hands of likely No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The Razorbacks are gaining confidence each outing and the X-factors for the team are starting to show.
The team has the usual consistent producers like freshman guard Moses Moody, who leads the team with 16.3 points per game and Justin Smith, who brings down a team-high 6.5 rebounds per game. Aside from those two players, there are two freshmen that seem to show out when the team is playing its best ball: guard Davonte Davis and forward Jaylin Williams.
“I think all of us can see the growth that’s been made with all of (the freshmen),” Musselman said after Tuesday’s 81-80 win at Kentucky. “Those guys are really developing and gaining confidence.”
Davis seems to be a crowd favorite among Razorback fans, and it is no coincidence that his best outings have correlated with a victory for the Hogs. His three games with 30-plus minutes were victories over Georgia, Mississippi State and Missouri, games Arkansas won by an average of 17 points.
“I just keep getting better on the court on the defensive and offensive end,” Davis said after a 20-point performance in the victory over Georgia. “Coming off the bench or starting, I’m going to do my job and do whatever it takes to get on the court and help my team win.”
The Jacksonville, Arkansas, native did just that. Since his 20-7-6 outing against the Bulldogs on Jan. 9, Davis’ minutes per game jumped up to 26.3 and he is scoring nearly 10 points per game. To add to his impressive stretch, Davis came up with the big steal to cap off the Kentucky victory.
“We were at Oklahoma State and I told Devo from the sideline to just take it to the cup, and he did,” Musselman said after the Kentucky game. “When he dribble-drives he always brings an extra defender because he gets by his own man.”
Alongside Davis’ increase in production, former Fort Smith-Northside Grizzly Jaylin Williams has battled in the trenches for the Hogs. The 6-foot-10-inch forward bullies opponents down low and is a force on the glass. As his confidence continues to grow on the offensive side of the court, Williams will be able to solidify his role as a factor for the Hogs.
Williams suffered a bone bruise against Oklahoma State on Jan. 30, but came back strong with nine points and seven rebounds in the victory over Kentucky on Tuesday. He is grabbing seven rebounds per game in games where he plays more than 20 minutes.
“Jaylin Williams was really, really good down the stretch in the second half, and I really feel like as the season goes, Jaylin Williams gets better, for sure,” Davis said after the Kentucky game.
As the Razorbacks hit the final stretch of conference play, Davis and Williams will be key to the team's success. The two highly-touted recruits have shown they can make a difference, and that will determine whether or not the Hogs make it far in the “Big Dance”.
"I think that we’re seeing growth with (the freshmen) from a confidence standpoint and from a comfort standpoint playing in this league." Musselman said.
The Hogs will hit the hardwood in Fayetteville this Tuesday to take on the Florida Gators. The game will tip off at 6 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2.