No. 16 Arkansas hosts Mercer on Tuesday in the season opener for both teams in Fayetteville, Ark.
The Razorbacks enter the game on the heels of a 25-7 campaign in 2020-21 that finished in the Elite Eight with a loss to eventual champion Baylor. Arkansas was picked in the preseason rankings to finish third in the Southeastern Conference, behind Kentucky and Alabama.
But there are plenty of introductions to be made starting this week.
Arkansas lost five players from last year’s team to either graduation, the NBA or the transfer portal. Only guards Davonte Davis and JD Notae are back from Arkansas’ top six point-scorers from a year ago.
Davis was essential in the Razorbacks’ run through the NCAA Tournament last year and relishes his role as a lockdown defender often assigned the opponent’s lead guard. He’s also a tenacious rebounder.
Davis was a second-team pick for the preseason All-SEC team. Notae was the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year last season and is expected to fill the same role in 2021-22. He was picked as a first-teamer on the All-SEC preseason team.
Coach Eric Musselman secured a half-dozen players from the transfer portal. Five of them have been either first or second in scoring or rebounding on their former squads in their career. Included in that group are guard Chris Lykes (Miami), and perimeter players Au’Diese Toney (Pittsburgh) and Stanley Umude (South Dakota).
Arkansas also expects 6-10 forward Jaylin Williams to make an impact. Williams is a superb passer and a stopper on the defensive end thanks to his length and quick feet.
“Versatility is the trademark of our group,” Musselman said. “We’re going to have a lot of depth on this team because of that versatility.”
Arkansas played two scrimmages, most recently a 68-60 win over North Texas on Oct. 30. Musselman said improvement was tangible.
“We’ve shown behind closed doors and then probably in the two exhibition games that we can be a team that can go on big offensive runs in a short stretch when we play defense,” Musselman said. “I thought our defense was much, much improved over North Texas.”
Mercer went 18-11 in 2020-21 and ended its season with a loss to North Carolina Greensboro in the Southern Conference championship game.
The Bears return two players — guard Neftali Alvarez and forward Felipe Haase — named to the conference preseason honor roll. Alvarez was a third-team All-SoCon selection last year after leading the team with a 13.1 points-per-game average and will be one of the top point guards in the league.
The Bears head to Fayetteville after a 93-61 exhibition win over Fort Valley State on Nov. 3 that left Mercer coach Greg Gary wanting more from his team on the defensive end.
“We need to be able to limit the other team’s time in the paint and just be more physical to stop them the best we can,” Gary said. “On top of that, just crashing the boards on both sides of the ball and forcing more contested shots.”
Arkansas and Mercer have played five times in the history of the programs. The Razorbacks own a 4-1 advantage.
The Bears won the most recent game, 69-66 in overtime in 2015 in a game played in North Little Rock.
–Field Level Media