FAYETTEVILLE — Among 17 basketball players to get preseason All-SEC recognition from the conference coaches, Desi Sills was the lone University of Arkansas representative.
Sills, a 6-1 junior guard from Jonesboro, made the nine-man second team.
“I think it’s awesome that he got recognized by our league,” Razorbacks coach Eric Musselman said. “Anytime a player gets a preseason honor, you want to celebrate it.
“But it is just that — a preseason honor. It’s well deserved based on what he did last year and who’s returning in our league.”
Sills averaged 10.6 points last season when he started 24 of the first 26 games, but he was at his best coming off the bench down the stretch.
The final six games Sills averaged 14.7 points and shot 59.0% percent from the field (29 of 50), including 56.7% on 3-pointers (17 of 30).
Sills began the run with 17 points against Missouri, scored a career-high 21 at Georgia and capped the season with 20 points in 25 minutes in the Razorbacks’ 86-73 victory over Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament before sports were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s no doubt that he was really effective coming off the bench,” Musselman said. “I thought he got to observe the flow of the game and came in and gave us some instant punch.”
Sills said he was blessed and honored to be voted to the All-SEC second team.
“But that’s based off of what I did last year,” he said. “And now, starting Wednesday, I have to live up to the expectations.”
Arkansas opens the season against Mississippi Valley State at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Walton Arena.
Musselman said Monday he still wasn’t ready to name a starting lineup, but he plans to let the players know after today’s practice who will be the first five to take the court.
Sills is the only one who has started more than six games for the Razorbacks — the team includes several transfers with numerous starts at other schools — but will he be in the opening night lineup?
“I know Desi wants to start,” Musselman said. “I know he likes to start — as do the other 11 guys in uniform on Wednesday.
“They all think they should start, and you could probably make an argument for [more than] five guys to start. That’s a tough decision when you have added depth.”
Sills said his mindset is the same no matter when he first gets into the game.
“To be honest, whether I come off the bench or whether I start, I just want to win,” he said. “I really believe individual stats are going to come with team success.
“If I come off the bench, I want to be Sixth Man of the Year and still get all-conference in this league. If I start, I have bigger goals — try to get SEC Player of the Year or get first-team, second-team [All-SEC].
“But it’s not all about me. It’s all about winning — winning games to get to the NCAA Tournament and try to win the SEC Tournament as well.”
The Razorbacks have three senior graduate transfers in Vance Jackson from New Mexico, Justin Smith from Indiana and Jalen Tate from Northern Kentucky, but Sills has emerged as a team leader.
“Desi’s been doing a great job of showing us the Razorback way,” Tate said. “The work ethic that we put forward. Going hard on every single possession.
“Being that vocal leader and bringing guys together. Just trying to help the coaching staff out with all the new guys that we have. Continuing to be a voice in the guys’ ears.”
Musselman said that when the Razorbacks began summer workouts in July after players were allowed to return to campus with strict safety protocols for the coronavirus, Sills became a player-coach in leading his teammates in drills and explaining terminology.
“He’s been paving the way for us,” freshman guard Khalen Robinson said. “He’s been there and played on that level we’re about to play on. So he’s showing us we can’t take off right here, because if we do that in a game, it’ll cost us.”
Sills said his experience in the SEC makes it natural for him to be a leader.
“I’m one of the oldest guys in the league, so it’s my responsibility to lead by example, use my voice,” he said. “I have to be more vocal and be there for the other guys, the older guys and the younger guys.”
Musselman said Sills continues to be a good scorer in practice and has improved his ball-handling.
“We need him to be a better off-ball defender,” Musselman said. ‘That was an area that we talked about last year for him to get better and still it’s an area defensively that we need him to have focus the entire time he’s on the floor.”
Sills said he’s looking forward to showcasing his improved game.
“I’ve been an underdog my whole life,” Sills said. “Just have an underdog mentality.
“You’re going to have people that knock you and criticize you each and every day, but you have to better yourself. Even if you have an off day, you still have to wake up the next day and go attack it.”
Sills started 2 of 30 on three-pointers last season in the first seven games, then was 45 of 113 (39.8%) the rest of the season.
“I’m probably crazy to keep shooting the way I did,” Sills said. “But i know I’m a good shooter, so I kept on going with it, staying in the gym.
“I don’t want to go 0-fer like I did the first couple games, but if I’m a shooter, I’m going to keep on shooting.”