Arkansas Basketball Has a Legit Excuse. Ole Miss, In Hiring Chris Beard, Does Not.

Chris Beard, Ole Miss basketball, Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball

Desperate times call for desperate measures, as the old saying goes. Heckuva coach with tarnished reputation apparently was no big deal for the Ole Miss basketball team, as it announced the polarizing Chris Beard as its head basketball coach this week.

The largely irrelevant basketball program at the University of Mississippi has joined the likes of Auburn (Hugh Freeze) and Texas A&M (Bobby Petrino) by recently hiring a coach with a severely damaged reputation in an attempt to win big.

As the quality of SEC basketball has risen in recent years, the Rebels were/are on a backslide that resulted in four straight seasons without a March Madness appearance and the firing of Kermit Davis on Feb. 24. Davis made one NCAA tournament in 2018, his first year, and had struggled ever since, including a 3-15 SEC record this season.

That was a big enough hickey on the resume of current athletic director and former Rebel hooper Keith Carter that he worked with break neck speed to do some level of due diligence on Beard and decide he was A-OK to hire. Beard was fired from the University of Texas Jan. 5 after he was arrested on Dec. 12 for third degree felony domestic assault after a fight with his fiancée. The details that came out of the arrest are pretty damning and disturbing.

Then, after he was canned by UT, the fiancée/accuser Randi Trew backpedaled on her story of the evening’s events and said he bit and choked her in self-defense and didn’t really want him arrested. Those statements forced the district attorney to drop the charges. 

Exonerated legally. 

But something happened that evening between those two that most would deem unacceptable for anyone, much less the leader of young men as a coach.

Texas found Chris Beard to be unfit to lead their program. Ole Miss did not. 

Ole Miss Basketball Gives Quick Second Chance

I’m all for second chances and he likely deserves one. At some point. The difference with Freeze and Petrino is no name-brand school would touch them with a 10-foot pole when they were fired from Ole Miss and Arkansas, respectively. They had to pay their penance and rebuild their personal brand at the lower levels of college football. And by all accounts from the last few months, they have gotten their proverbial trains back on the track.

But not Chris Beard. 

No toiling at some directional school. No sitting out a year. No anger management or domestic violence therapy. 

The Rebels’ administration allowed him to jump straight back into the fray at an SEC school, albeit a bottom of the barrel version of one with five all-time NCAA Tournament wins, within one month of the charges being conveniently dropped. One would think Texas did their due diligence as well before firing Beard and one of the biggest and best brands in college basketball said, “No, thank you.” Texas did right by not falling into the “win at all costs” trap.

As much as we like to despise the Longhorns, they handled the situation correctly. The prospect of big-time winning doesn’t excuse employing someone whose despicable actions make a mockery out of the idea of leading student-athletes into manhood.

Perhaps Ole Miss AD Keith Carter – a Perryville, Ark., native by the way – couldn’t stand to watch his sport struggle as mightily as they have and said “Screw it, let’s get Beard.” And odds are they will not be bottom of the barrel for long because the guy can coach. He proved that at Little Rock, Texas Tech and had the Longhorns set up for a very good season until the fiancée called the cops because Beard bit and, according to the police affidavit, choked her to the point she almost passed out.

On Tuesday, USA Today’s Blake Toppmeyer asked Beard if that happened. Beard declined to say, stating during the press conference that “Randi and I respectfully have agreed not to comment on the details.”

He added: “There was a timeframe of what was reported and then what was proven factual and not factual. Other statements were made and then ultimately the charges were dismissed.”

Things will get interesting once March Madness is over and players start landing at new schools out of the transfer portal. Beard had great success at Texas with the portal in Year 1 and will likely heavily rely on it early at Ole Miss. (It wouldn’t be a surprise if at least one of Arkansas basketball’s talented freshmen who mostly rode the bench this season is on his potential prospects list.)

But Beard’s great success with the Longhorns in the portal and recruiting was at a much more tradition rich, big brand-name school, one not as willing as his new landing spot to be sullied by a lingering domestic violence issue.

Thoughts on Arkansas Basketball

Despite a slight late-season swoon against some high-quality opponents, the Razorbacks get a clean slate starting with Illinois this Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. Arkansas vs Illinois in the NCAA Tournament’s first round should be highly competitive as most 8/9 games are…at least on paper. The Big 10 vs. SEC matchup prevents anybody from sneaking up on the other and should be one of the most anticipated matchups of Day 1.

There is a fair amount of grumbling amongst the fan base that in Year 3 the Muss Bus appears to be in reverse. After two 25-plus win seasons that ended in the Elite Eight, the current Hogs are limping into the NCAA Tournament with only 20 wins and slim odds to get close to 25. But the criticism, at least to me, is completely unfair. Yes, they’ve blown some second-half leads of late and struggled from tip to buzzer in a couple others. There’s no denying that. 

But think about the reality of what’s gone down this season. First of all, the team’s best big man and most productive player, Trevon Brazile, goes down early with a season-ending knee injury in early December. Then the uber-talented Nick Smith Jr. has a bum knee that requires him to spend what equates to nearly half the season in street clothes. We are talking about two highly talented, legit NBA skillset players either not available or hardly available and still playing catch up.

Take the two best players off any team in the SEC, against that schedule, and see if they can muster 20 wins. Go team by team and do that and you will quickly realize there is no way that happens at any other school in the league. That’s how good of a roster Eric Musselman built for this season. Only to have it dashed by key injuries. 

With Nick Smith Jr. now healthy, you can add some degree of difficulty for the Razorbacks having to play three freshmen an extreme amount of minutes. As talented as Anthony Black, Jordan Walsh and Smith are, the SEC is significantly tougher than high school or the summer hoops circuit. There’s grown men in this league and all three have shown signs of struggling with shooting, decision making, turnovers and most of all…physicality.

Those sound like excuses, but they are just the reality of this season’s results up to this point. 

Can the three freshmen play at a high level on Thursday in their NCAA Tournament debut? Rarely, if ever, a winning formula for a long stay in March Madness. Can Ricky Council IV find his stroke and shot selection again? It frankly hasn’t been the same since Smith came back. Can Devo Davis get in lockdown mode again? Recently, he has not been the annoying defensive pest he was a few weeks ago and opposing guards have rung up some points in bunches. 

Winning Round 1 against a decent Big 10 team would be a big accomplishment. Then the Hogs get the luxury of playing a very skilled, very well-coached Kansas team that many have picked to repeat as champions.

Getting bounced in the second round after playing the Jayhawks down to the wire would be a pretty solid effort given all that has happened this season.

Sure wish there was a way this roster, with its full allotment of talent, could run it back next year, but I don’t think that will happen with Smith, Black, Council and possibly Brazile NBA bound.

This was supposed to be the point of the season in which we imagine the possibilities ahead, but I can’t help wondering “Oh, what could have been?”

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