California Columnist Fans the Flames, Trumpets Eric Musselman as Arizona Basketball Savior

Eric Musselman

Far too many people around the nation confuse Arizona with Arkansas when it comes to postal codes. 

Over and over, “AR” is taken to mean “Arizona” when it really stands for “Arkansas.” Since both states begin with “Ar,” however, the mix up is understandable.

Far less understandable is why there’s so much confusion about the states’ premier college basketball programs as the Wildcats try to land their next head basketball coach in the wake of Sean Miller’s firing.  

As candidates are discussed in the national media, there’s a perception that Arizona basketball is a tier above Arkansas’ program — and that this could theoretically help the program coach a great coach like Arkansas’ Eric Musselman

College basketball analyst Aaron Torres, for instance, thinks Arizona basketball is a Top 5 program nationally only behind Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Duke.

“Arizona is the closest thing that the West coast has to a fan base that resembles Kentucky, that resembles Kansas, that resembles North Carolina,” Torres recently said on his podcast. 

“It’s a big state school. It’s easy to recruit to the whole West coast. Kids grew up on the West coast wanting to play at Arizona. Most importantly, I think you have a passionate fan base.”

Torres then goes to describe how to well Arizona basketball fans travel, how they turn the annual Pac-12 Tournament into the “Arizona’ Invitational” and pack neutral courts in the NCAA Tournament on behalf of their team.

This sounds an awful lot like the Arkansas basketball fans who historically turned Reunion Arena in Dallas in “Barnhill South” and more recently turned Indianapolis’ Hinkle Fieldhouse into “Bud Walton North.”

Yes, Arizona was a better program than Arkansas from 1997 to 2015, but on the whole the programs are on par with each other — Arizona has Four Final appearances while Arkansas has six Final Four appearances. Both programs also boast a single national title and one national runner-up finish. 

But Arkansas, crucially, is on the upswing in the last couple years, especially after coming off an Elite Eight appearance in 2021.

Arizona, meanwhile, hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2017 and is still mired in a tarpit of ongoing NCAA issues flowing from an FBI probe into college basketball corruption. 

Yet the ways in which Arkansas program is equal to or superior to Arizona’s is lost on those beating the drum most loudly for the Wildcats to hire Musselman as their next head coach.

Below is an example of one such pundit, by way of NevadaSports.com (Musselman coached at Nevada, where one of his players was Jordan Brown): 

Chris Murray’s confusion here about how much more attractive Arizona is than Arkansas may pale in comparison to that of the Jon Wilner, a columnist for The Mercury News out of San Jose, California. 

Wilner decided that Musselman needed to return to the West, where he spent some of his youth, so he penned a head-scratcher with this headline: 

Arizona basketball

Wilner first sings Musselman’s praises, calling Musselman among the “best of the best” college basketball coaches and “on the same level as Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Villanova’s Jay Wright.”

And that Musselman is “a shrewd evaluator of talent, a proven developer of personnel and a first-class tactician. In six seasons as a college head coach, he has averaged 26 wins per year:”

24-14 (Nevada)
28-7 (Nevada)
29-8 (Nevada)
29-5 (Nevada)
20-12 (Arkansas)
25-7 (Arkansas)

Wilner’s argument is similar to that of the Hoosiers and Longhorns fans who wanted to see Musselman gets poached by Indiana or Texas: Simply pay Musselman more.

Problem is, that’s not going to be easy. 

Even if pure, hard cash was Musselman’s sole deciding factor when it came to Arizona basketball, the Wildcats aren’t in a position to throw extra millions around. 

They just fired Kevin Sumlin in football. Sumlin had a buyout of $7.29 million. 

Sean Miller, meanwhile, is due a buyout of just under $1.5 million without the responsibility to offset that cost through future employment.

And it’s doubtful that Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek is going to try to lowball Musselman in the contract raise and extension talks they are currently having.  

Another argument by the pie-in-the-skiers is that Musselman would feel more at home in charge of Arizona basketball. 

Yes, Musselman has some Arizona connections beyond the fact he coached at Arizona State as an assistant. 

He admires Golden State head coach Steve Kerr, the former Arizona Wildcat, and has even blogged about Kerr. He’s also friends with Arizona baseball coach Jay Johnson, who coached at Nevada at the start of Musselman’s time there.

But random connections and going to the highest bidder are not what Musselman says matter most to him when it comes to what he wants out of his coaching career. 

Is Eric Musselman a viable candidate for Arizona basketball? 

“I want to win a national championship,” Musselman said on the Hog Pod with Bo Mattingly.

He added that he considers Arkansa athletic director Hunter Yuracheck as “the best AD in the country” because of Yurachek’s ability to communicate and openness. 

Musselman added that his sons had made him aware of reports tying him to previous job openings.

“And then my wife’s like, ‘We’re not living in that city. We like where we are.’ There’s so much false information out there.”

 

Perhaps the best proof that Musselman intends to stay at Arkansas is that he’s already gone to work building a powerhouse team for 2021-2022

Last week he hit the transfer portal to find new transfers who can pick the slack with the departures of Justin Smith and Jalen Tate, who if they don’t make it in the NBA could play in some of the top European or Chinese leagues listed in basketball best odds.

Already, he’s gotten commitments from two standouts in rangy Pittsburgh wing Au’Diese Toney and Miami guard Chris Lykes.

“Musselman’s history suggests that’s only the start,” CBS Sports’ David Cobb wrote.

“Toney averaged 14.4 points and 5.9 rebounds for the Panthers this season. Lykes missed all but two games this season with an injury, but the 5-foot-7 guard is a great scorer and improving distributor who has shown the ability to control the action against high-level opponents despite his short stature.”

And Musselman is already scheming how they will fit into his plan for returning to the Elite Eight and beyond in 2022.

“There’s a lot of work that goes into that way prior to the season,” he told Mattingly.

“And then it’s a lot of work by the players on the floor. I mean, who’s in here lifting after we’re done playing and who’s trying to gain a little bit of weight? Who’s working on their three ball a little bit more?”

“All those things become such vital factors as you look into the future.”

That sounds like a near-term future that will be spent with Arkansas and not a program like Arizona which could be facing more postseason bans beyond the one it already imposed on itself.

This isn’t to say Musselman will stay at Arkansas for the longest of hauls, even if he signs a new a contract with a buyout in the $10 million plus range.

Things change, after all. Other opportunities arise. 

That’s what happened to the Musselmans at Nevada, where they expected to say for longer than four years.

“We were happy there and it was a great job and a really good AD,” Musselman said. “And I didn’t know Arkansas and all of a sudden it calls [thanks to Connor Noland’s dad] and it made sense and we’re here and we love it.”

In the end, Arizona isn’t the Pac-12 team Arkansas fans should be worried about. 

UCLA, on the other hand, would be more of a serious threat. That’s the team that Musselman grew up cheering for after moving to San Diego as an older child.

Given how well that program is rolling right now under Mick Cronin, whose contract was just extended through 2027, Hog fans shouldn’t worry about the UCLA job re-opening any time soon.

Who will be the next Arizona basketball coach? 

Early on, it looks like the frontrunners are former Arizona Wildcats Damon Stoudamire and Miles Simon, as well as Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd. The Stadium’s Jeff Goodman reported Stoudamire and Simon will both be interviewed by the end of Friday.

Aaron Torres breaks down a few candidates after mentioning Musselman is an unrealistic possibility below: 

John Belein – 5:15

Mark Pope – 7:45

Josh Pastner – 9:05

 

Next Arizona Basketball Coach Odds 

Odds via SportLine:

1/1—Damon Stoudamire

5/2—Tommy Floyd

4/1—Josh Pastner

9/1—Miles Simon

12/1—Mark Pope

15/1—Greg McDermott

20/1—Eric Musselman

***

Lest we forget, Arkansas owned Stoudamire’s Arizona squad in the 1994 Final Four:

 

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