Lozenges Becoming Eric Musselman’s Best Friend as Arkansas Basketball Practice Begins

Eric Musselman, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

FAYETTEVILLE — Although he was a little hoarse during Monday’s press conference, Eric Musselman assured reporters he wasn’t sick. His raspy voice’s real cause wasn’t revealed until a few minutes later.

It may have been Day 1 of training camp, but it was far from the first time the Arkansas basketball team was on the Eddie Sutton Practice Gym floor. If the media’s 30-minute viewing window of their first extended practice was any indication, the Razorbacks’ fourth-year coach has likely done quite a bit of yelling in the shorter workouts leading up to Monday’s first official practice of the 2022-23 season.

After all, Musselman admitted that when he leaves the house each day, his wife, Danyelle, reminds him that there will be turnovers at practice and that he must have patience with his team, which features only two returning players from last year’s Elite Eight squad.

“I’ve got to have a little more patience with this group maybe than some other groups,” Musselman said. “With younger players and with a younger group and a newer group, we’re repeating ourselves a lot, more so than any team I’ve ever coached. With that comes a little bit of patience.”

Such is life with six freshmen and five incoming transfers. Even during the short portion of practice open to the media Monday, Musselman had to stop drills several times to get on his team for various things — not talking enough on the court, not getting their hands up on defense, not executing a proper dribble handoff. When he wasn’t yelling, the frustration was obvious on his face.

It’s the youngest team he has ever assembled, a fact CBS Sports analyst and former NBA player/coach Avery Johnson observed in a recent phone call with Musselman, and there have certainly been growing pains despite the signing class ranking No. 2 nationally for 2022 and the portal haul being considered one of the best this offseason.

Luckily for him, Musselman has a staff that is helping him navigate an unprecedented set of challenges for someone who’s been coaching basketball at various levels since 1989. He leans heavily on Keith Smart, whom he described as one of the most patient men he’s ever been around, to put things in “perspective,” while Gus Argenal’s “California, laid-back approach” and Anthony Ruta’s youth also help in that regard.

As the Razorbacks shift from practicing only four hours per week to 20, as allowed by the NCAA, Musselman said he expects to see much quicker growth from the team.

“When something gets taught, we’ve got to take from the chalkboard to the practice to the drills to live action,” Musselman said. “They can’t just go from the chalkboard to drills, then when we go live we fall back into other habits. We’ve got to grow.”

Check out some clips from the first official Arkansas basketball practice of 2022-23:

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Areas of Emphasis for Arkansas Basketball

Unlike his first three seasons at the helm, Eric Musselman actually has a body of work from which to base the upcoming Arkansas basketball practices.

The Razorbacks played four games during a European tour last month and got an additional 10 practices leading up to the trip. They won both games in Spain and both games in Italy, but were far from perfect.

According to unofficial stats compiled by the media and distributed by the UA, Arkansas committed 80 turnovers and shot just 28.6 percent (16 for 56) from 3-point range. Those areas have been major points of emphasis for Musselman and he’s already implemented things in practice to remedy them.

He also said that he’s hopeful the percentage will improve when Arkansas faces zone defenses because it will give the players more time to get their feet set compared to facing man-to-man – but it’s worth noting that teams play more man than zone, including the Razorbacks.

“I think overall from three-point, it’s got to be a group attack on that,” Musselman said. “Hopefully teams don’t defend like we do, which will also help because of the way we defend threes. If teams zone us, I actually think we’ll be a better three-point shooting team.”

With the turnovers, Musselman has been preaching the importance of valuing the ball because of how much each possession matters. To help with that, he’s implemented some situational work to simulate “mojo moments” — such as being down two with 13 seconds left — in practice.

There’s also reason for optimism that the turnovers will dwindle as the team gets more and more comfortable playing with each other.

“Playing overseas was really our first time really playing together with so many different lineups,” Ricky Council IV said. “I feel like that was definitely a big part — just getting the chemistry, knowing what people can and cannot do, knowing where to throw the ball, knowing who to throw it to at the right time.”

From an individual perspective, the trip to Europe provided each player a glimpse of things they need to focus on, too.

Kamani Johnson is an “incredible” offensive rebounder, but Musselman said he needs to get better on the defensive boards. Council needs to finish better at the rim than he did overseas. Trevon Brazile was incredibly efficient in the paint (28 of 30), but could be more aggressive with shooting 3s. The list could go on.

“The good thing is we had that foreign tour in August,” Brazile said. “There’s a lot of time between then and the season to get better, improve our 3-point shooting, getting stronger with the ball.”

Film Don’t Lie

It also doesn’t hurt that Eric Musselman has film from actual games to point to when coaching up individual players or the team as a whole.

“We’ve probably watched every clip a couple of times since we’ve got back,” Brazile said. “It was really good to go over there and see how guys play in an in-game situation. We watch film over that probably every other day in practice, so it’s just good to have that film.”

Some of the mistakes the Razorbacks made were “embarrassing,” Council said, and seeing it on film helps ingrain it in their minds.

“For me a couple of times, I’d be jumping from the free throw line to attempt a layup,” Council said, invoking memories of KJ Jefferson’s disastrous leap from the 3-yard line against Texas A&M. “Like, why am I doing that? So just putting that in my head so I know not to do that anymore.”

Of course, learning from the film requires watching it. In addition to individual film sessions with assistant coaches and group film work, players are expected to do some on their own via their Hudl accounts.

That has led to some Razorbacks constantly texting Musselman about the things they see, while others haven’t. He is hopeful that the extended practices will increase that because it’ll be fresh tape on top of what they got in Europe.

“If you really care about your game, you’re probably logging onto Hudl,” Musselman said. “The cool thing with our Hudl system is we know who logs in and who doesn’t. So there has to be great growth in your own login to Hudl to invest in your career and watch how your game is being played.”

Check out what Ricky Council IV and Trevon Brazile said before the first Arkansas basketball practice:

YouTube video

Arkansas Basketball Moving Forward

When the frustrations of coaching such a young team get too much for Eric Musselman, he heads over to strength coach Dave Richardson and gets updates on how many miles the team has run — something tracked by vests worn by the players.

That helps him get his mind off things. But even he acknowledged that what he’s seeing now is an incomplete picture. The team will look different at the beginning of the season in November or when March Madness arrives a few months after that.

Davonte Davis and Jaylin Williams, for instance, went from fringe contributors to starters by the NCAA Tournament as freshmen two years ago. The story was the same for Trey Wade as a transfer last season.

“I think if you look back at rotations and stuff, where was Trey Wade as far as his rotation, the responsibilities…in November, and then where was he against Gonzaga?” Musselman said. “You’re guarding Chet (Holmgren). You’ve got to make a three in the corner when they don’t want to guard you and (Drew) Timme is standing in the lane and you’re 35 feet wide open and you’ve got to make that shot.”

Who emerges between now and then remains to be seen. For the time being, though, Musselman is simply focused on his team getting better as they enter training camp.

“I don’t really feel any heightened awareness of anything, because we’ve been practicing,” Musselman said. “Now we’re able to go longer…but I don’t really feel any difference — especially because we were in those 10 practices leading up to the European Tour, where we got some good timeframe in.

“That first game is still a ways away. So we’ve just got to get better in all facets, not just one area.”

Watch Eric Musselman’s full press conference here:

YouTube video


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