With Trevon Brazile Returning, a Look at John Calipari’s First Arkansas Team

Expectations will be high for the new Razorbacks coach, but meshing a completely new group together likely isn’t a recipe for title contention.
Arkansas Razorbacks forward Trevon Brazile will return for the 2024–25 season.
Arkansas Razorbacks forward Trevon Brazile will return for the 2024–25 season. / Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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The most memorable moment from John Calipari’s introductory news conference with the Arkansas Razorbacks was a classic Calipari quip.

“There is no team,” Calipari said, holding himself back from going through the traditional first news conference diatribes about “the first team meeting” that every other new coach in America seems to use. 

The reloading job Calipari walked into at Arkansas isn’t exactly unprecedented in the modern transfer portal. The Kentucky Wildcats, the job he left, also retained no scholarship players, and several other high-profile jobs barely had enough players returning to play two-on-two, let alone five-on-five, in spring workouts. But it was quite the undertaking, one that appears largely over in the first week of June after the Hogs announced talented forward Trevon Brazile would be returning to Arkansas after testing the NBA draft and transfer portal. 

Technically, the Brazile addition is a “retention” for Arkansas, since he spent the last two seasons there under Eric Musselman. Practically, though, this was a complete re-recruitment, with Brazile diving headfirst into the draft process for most of the time Calipari spent building his roster and then serendipitously becoming available late when the Razorbacks needed a starting-caliber power forward. 

Once thought of as a potential first-round pick, an ACL tear early in the 2022–23 campaign and general ineffectiveness on a dysfunctional Arkansas squad last season left Brazile’s pro stock shaky. Instead, he’ll become the ninth piece of the puzzle for Calipari’s team, which features an intriguing mix of players following from Kentucky, top transfers and a few freshmen from Kentucky’s fall signing class. Calipari has said in interviews he plans on having nine core pieces and rounding out the remaining four scholarships with developmental players he termed as new-age “walk-ons.” While nothing is ever definite in this day and age of roster building, here’s a look at what Calipari’s first Arkansas team will look like. 

Point Guards: D.J. Wagner, Boogie Fland

Wagner had long been thought of as a surefire one-and-done, but a middling first college season at Kentucky overshadowed by teammates Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard’s explosions left Wagner’s stock such that a second year of school made sense. After considering other options, he eventually followed Calipari to Arkansas, where he’ll be the presumed starting point guard. He’ll benefit from a fully healthy season after dealing with nagging injuries throughout 2023–24, but improving as an outside shooter is essential. Fland, a talented freshman from New York, should provide some bench shot-creation. 

Wings: Johnell Davis, Karter Knox, Billy Richmond, Adou Thiero

The headliner here is Davis, thought of as perhaps the best transfer in the portal this spring and a legitimate potential NBA player. Davis led the FAU Owls to the Final Four in 2023 and averaged over 18 points per game a season ago, shooting 41% from three. He is capable of creating his own shot in ball screens, scored 25 or more points six times last season and seems like the early favorite to lead this team in scoring.

Then there’s Knox, a bruising freshman wing out of the Overtime Elite program who’s a natural three-level scorer. Being consistent from beyond the arc and on the defensive end will be a must for him, but he has a chance to be a highly efficient slasher for the Hogs. 

The other Kentucky transfer on the roster, Thiero, could be classified either as a wing or a forward, a jack-of-all-trades type whose biggest strength is on the defensive end. While not a floor-spacer, Thiero provides a good deal of utility with his ability to guard multiple positions, handle the ball and push the pace in transition. 

Bigs: Jonas Aidoo, Trevon Brazile, Zvonimir Ivisic

The talent within this frontcourt unit is immense. Arkansas’s rim protection should be elite, with Aidoo, Brazile and Ivisic all posting well above average block rates at their positions last season. They each possess the ability to stretch the defense some, with Brazile and Ivisic being traditional “stretch bigs” and Aidoo continuing to expand his range after flashing that part of his game some with the Tennessee Volunteers. This group could allow Calipari to deploy more of the four- and five-out lineups he used with great success offensively early a year ago. 

The primary concern here: physicality. The Hogs seriously lack an interior “enforcer” who can deal with more physically dominant players down low. Aidoo really struggled with those types of bigs at Tennessee, but had cover in backup Tobe Awaka, a bruising force down low. Brazile and Ivisic won’t provide that same relief. If there’s one glaring hole on this Arkansas team, it’s a sturdy backup center, though even backup big men are hard to come by at this point in the transfer portal cycle. 

The Outlook

With the resources committed to make the Calipari hire a reality, expectations in Fayetteville, Ark., will be high … especially given that his predecessor made the NCAA tournament’s second weekend three times in the same five-year stretch that saw Calipari win only one tournament game and soil his good favor in Lexington, Ky. Given the challenges of essentially starting from scratch, it’s hard to argue with the roster Calipari built, one that has the talent to push for a spot near the top of the SEC and a trip to the second weekend. In some ways, though, having to build from nothing had its benefits, forcing Calipari to be more transfer heavy and embrace some of the modern roster-building concepts he had been resistant to adopt at Kentucky. 

But is this group a title contender? In my estimation, no. Meshing together a completely new group has its challenges, and the talent, while strong, isn’t going to blow away anyone at the top of the sport. Plus, Calipari has a lot to prove after two embarrassing early NCAA tournament exits in three years and no trips to the second weekend, let alone the Final Four, since pre-pandemic. 

Kevin Sweeney