Analyzing John Calipari’s inaugural roster for the Arkansas men’s basketball team, which includes nine signed players.

Arkansas men’s basketball coach John Calipari expressed his desire for “eight or nine” players for his debut Razorbacks team, possibly with a 10th player understanding his role. As of now, he has secured nine players.

Arkansas has the top-ranked transfer class and sixth-best freshman class, per 247 Sports, coming to Fayetteville next season. Calipari brought several members of his final Kentucky team with him to the Natural State, which should alleviate some concerns about team chemistry. The others look as though they will seamlessly fit into a Calipari system.

Here are the additions to the Razorbacks: returning player Trevon Brazile; transfers Zvonimir Ivisic from Kentucky, Jonas Aidoo from Tennessee, Johnell Davis from Florida Atlantic, Adou Thiero from Kentucky, and DJ Wagner from Kentucky; along with freshmen Karter Knox, Johnuel “Boogie” Fland, and Billy Richmond.

Here’s an early look at the nine scholarship players on the roster, their roles, and an overview of the team.

First, let’s consider a projected starting lineup: DJ Wagner, Johnell Davis, Adou Thiero, Trevon Brazile, and Jonas Aidoo.

This lineup offers a blend of experience and skill. Notably, each player has at least one year of college basketball under their belt. Aidoo and Davis bring significant experience, with four and five years, respectively. This addresses a potential issue seen in Calipari’s recent teams—lack of experience, especially during crucial moments like the NCAA Tournament, often relying heavily on freshmen.

Calipari recently expressed his embrace of the NCAA transfer portal and the necessity of having a more experienced roster. The era of relying solely on freshmen to win is shifting, although freshmen can still play vital roles on championship teams, as seen with Stephon Castle’s impact on Connecticut’s 2024 national title win. However, Castle was the only freshman starter among the Final Four teams.

One challenge with the projected starting five is its perimeter shooting. DJ Wagner struggled, shooting 29% from three-point range in the 2023-24 season. Johnell Davis shot 41% from deep, and Trevon Brazile followed with 35%, albeit on fewer attempts per game. Davis is likely to be relied upon as the primary perimeter shooter, with Johnuel Fland potentially providing additional threat off the bench.

Fland, initially committed to Calipari at Kentucky, has been under scrutiny regarding his ability to handle the starting point guard role as a freshman. If he secures the position, sharing the court with Davis could ease some of that burden. Alternatively, serving as Wagner’s backup could aid his growth.

With Aidoo holding down the paint on both offense and defense, Arkansas boasts one of the most formidable interior presences nationwide. While his physicality has been doubted, his average of 1.8 blocks suggests room for improvement.

To further ensure the Razorbacks’ success, the defensive contributions of Brazile and Thiero are crucial. Brazile’s ability to block shots and offer support at the 5 spot adds depth, but concerns linger about his physical presence and reliability. Thiero stood out as one of Kentucky’s top defenders last season, with the team notably struggling defensively during his absence midway through the year.

Associate head coach Kenny Payne could be a big part of the inside game, particularly on defense. Payne was on Calipari’s Kentucky staff for a decade and won a national title and reached 3 Final Fours. The Wildcats had five top-10 defenses in Payne’s time in Lexington while they were never being better than 35th without him, per KenPom.

One of this roster’s biggest strengths, though, is its versatility. Every player barring Aidoo can play multiple positions.

Where the college-experienced played at least in some part last season:

  • Wagner: 1, 2, 3
  • Davis: 2, 3, 4
  • Thiero: 3, 4
  • Brazile: 4, 5
  • Aidoo: 5
  • Ivisic: 4, 5

The college adjustment is difficult, but the freshmen come in with high ceilings and versatility. Fland enters college with a shooter’s reputation and has a strong dribble-drive game. He can deputize at the 1 or 2 spots. Knox has a college-ready frame and can play in the 3 and 4 spots. Richmond’s role will likely be the biggest question among the three freshmen, but he has improved drastically over recent seasons and is best in the 3 or 4 spot.

The versatility of each of the players gives Arkansas a variety of potential lineups. There’s a potential for a small-ball team, a big-guy lineup and potentially a run-and-gun team, should some players take a leap in three-point shooting.

Additionally, each of these nine will likely have some sort of role in the team. Richmond is likely the biggest question mark overall in those terms, but Calipari’s insistence on going with “eight or nine” players may show the coach’s confidence in the freshman.

Among the transfers, Ivisic is the biggest unknown. He didn’t play much at Kentucky but showed promising flashes of potential. His 7-2 frame and ability to dribble and shoot from distance makes him an exciting prospect.

Calipari said he wanted to keep his roster small, so as to not develop players just for them to transfer. Depth, particularly in the front court, is another area of concern. Calipari isn’t bothered, though.

“Someone said, ‘What if you get two guys injured?’” Calipari said at the Razorback Roadshow event in Little Rock. “Yeah, you’ll have six really happy guys.”

If Calipari decides to add a 10th player, he likely won’t be a starting-caliber addition given Calipari has stated the role will be that of a 10th man.

Don’t expect Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins or Kansas State’s Arthur Kaluma to walk into Bud Walton Arena. Should the Razorbacks sign a 10th, it’s more likely they add a developmental player or another experienced piece who won’t command much playing time.

There’s plenty of potential and potholes in this Razorbacks team. Calipari has assembled a talented roster with ambitions of a run in March. The way-too-early on-paper outlook on this roster is that it likely fits into the preseason top-15-to-20 and among the best in the SEC.


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