What unfolded at Texas came as a surprise to most, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. After all, Eric Musselman has hinted at the issues that came to a head Saturday afternoon.
Every time he’s met with the media, the fourth-year Arkansas basketball coach has sounded like a man whose team was picked in the bottom two of the SEC — not the top two — much less the preseason No. 10 team in the country.
When asked a few days before the exhibition game against Rogers State how close his team was to being game ready, Musselman responded with a laugh before saying the team wasn’t playing defense up to his standard and that some players were in for an “eye-opening experience” early on.
“We need to practice a heck of a lot better than we did yesterday, I can promise you that,” Musselman said Thursday, his frustration still permeating his comments even after a 34-point blowout of the Division II school. “What that was yesterday at times I’m not quite sure, but it was not a good practice. I know that.”
With all the talent on the Razorbacks’ roster, excitement surrounding the program is as high as its been since Nolan Richardson led them to back-to-back national title games. That made it easy to write off the things Musselman was saying as coach-speak.
Turns out, he knew what he was talking about. In its first true test of the season, No. 10 Arkansas traveled to Austin, Texas, and played the role of the Washington Generals in No. 12 Texas’ first game at the Moody Center, suffering an embarrassing 90-60 loss.
Yes, it was a charity exhibition and won’t count in the NET rankings or on their NCAA Tournament resume, but the 30-point loss was still jarring to those aboard the Muss Bus.
“I did say that we were in for an eye-opening experience based on how we’ve been practicing and understanding the veteran essence of (Texas’) roster and understanding how hard they play,” Musselman said afterward, all but saying the I-told-you-so he probably gave his team.
The Issues for Arkansas Basketball
A lot of things went wrong for the Razorbacks on Saturday, but Eric Musselman specifically pointed out a handful of statistics in his 8.5-minute postgame press conference.
Arkansas has a goal of committing no more than nine turnovers, giving up no more than five 3-pointers and allowing no more than nine offensive rebounds. Against Texas, it wasn’t particularly close to any of those numbers.
The Longhorns knocked down 10 of 16 (62.5%) attempts from beyond the arc, grabbed 13 offensive rebounds that they converted into 10 second-chance points and forced 23 turnovers that led to 26 points.
“All of the goals that we’ve talked about for the last three years, none of them were met,” Musselman said. “Hence the 30-point loss.”
The Razorbacks’ Top Problem
Arguably the most concerning of those problems was the turnovers. They were an issue overseas on Arkansas’ four-game European tour and even flared up in the first half against Division II Rogers State.
On Saturday, all but one of the Razorbacks’ 12 players who were on the court for at least 5 minutes committed at least one turnover. Seven of them had multiple turnovers, topped by freshman phenom Nick Smith Jr. with four.
“I mean, we’re young,” Musselman said. “They’re really physical. They thrive on ball pressure. It wasn’t just one position. I mean, it was across the board. It was their bigs getting into our bigs, and our bigs not having the ability to put the ball on the deck even for a dribble handoff.”
Musselman’s Other Frustrations
Musselman hasn’t been shy about the fact that this year’s team is not going to be able to shoot well from beyond the arc. When that’s been the case in the past, he has emphasized defending the 3 — so much so that Arkansas led the country in that category his first season at the helm.
To reach that point, though, the Razorbacks still have a lot of work to do from a consistency standpoint.
“At times, we defend it,” Musselman said. “Other times, we don’t. Again, if we’re going to struggle to shoot it, we have to do a much better job of being able to defend it and guard your guy outside the 3-point line.”
Given a chance to draw some positives from the lackluster performance, Musselman didn’t bite. It was still a three-point game with three minutes left in the first half, but he indicated he didn’t feel very good even 17 minutes in.
Texas ended the half on a 9-2 run to push its lead to double digits. Even though that’s a deficit Arkansas has rallied from in the past, Musselman said he didn’t have much confidence in a comeback Saturday based on what he’d seen behind closed doors.
“When one team gets up, the momentum just keeps going, so that’s something we’ve got to work through, even in practice,” Musselman said. “That’s really uncharacteristic of how we’ve been, not to have competitive stamina when somebody comes at you and goes on a scoring run.”
What it Means for Arkansas Basketball
There are certainly things Arkansas needs to work on between now and the Nov. 7 opener against North Dakota State, much less March.
While the 30-point loss to Texas was definitely disappointing, it’s important to remember that it was just an exhibition and the first true test for a team that features 11 newcomers. No matter how talented they are, it takes time for that many players to gel together.
Heck, even the 1992 Dream Team lost an exhibition game to a squad of top college basketball players before the Olympics. It served as a message to the team from the head coach, Chuck Daly, who just so happens to be one of Musselman’s mentors.
That’s not to say Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black, Trevon Brazile and company are as good as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but rather an example of how such a loss can benefit a team — especially one that doesn’t actually count.
“We have 11 news guys, so obviously we’re going to be a work in progress, and how far that work in progress gets, I don’t know, but this is a great game for us,” Musselman said. “Not that we played great — we played as bad as any 40 minutes of basketball since I’ve been involved in college basketball.”
The fact that it was the Longhorns’ first game in the Moody Center should cause flashbacks to Arkansas’ 120-68 demolition of Missouri on the night it dedicated Bud Walton Arena in 1993. That Missouri team lost only two more games on its way to winning the Big Eight and earning a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, in which it reached the Elite Eight.
For a more recent example, look no further than Musselman’s first Elite Eight team. Back-to-back losses at LSU and Alabama by 16 and 31 points, respectively, dropped the Razorbacks to 2-4 in SEC play before they won their final 11 SEC games.
Last year, Musselman was ejected from an ugly 22-point loss to Oklahoma that was the first of four losses in a five-game stretch. Arkansas followed that up by winning 14 of its final 16 regular-season games on its way to another Elite Eight.
Responding to losses like the one they suffered Saturday at Texas appears to be a hallmark of Musselman’s team — it’s just a matter of how quickly it happens.
This year’s team has three winnable home games to open the year before a trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. Getting things figured out before then, rather than sometime early in SEC play, could be the difference in earning top seed in the NCAA Tournament and the right to play closer to home, and another 3 or 4 seed and being shipped across the country again.
Whether he admits it or not, Musselman’s trip to Texas for an exhibition game might have been a strategic move to do just that.
Check out what Eric Musselman said after Arkansas’ loss to Texas:
More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…