Eric Musselman’s Annual Gamble for 8 Years Might Have Finally Gone Bust

Eric Musselman, Arkansas basketball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

Eric Musselman’s frustrated soundbite following Arkansas’ 83-51 loss to Auburn, the worst defeat in Bud Walton Arena history, will be replayed for a while. 

Freelance basketball extraordinaire Kevin McPherson wanted to question the Hogs coach on transition defense after the loss Saturday afternoon, and Musselman went on an animated, but controlled, rant that ended the media session.

Kevin, we struggled everywhere defensively. We’ve struggled on pick-and-rolls. Your shot selection has a lot to do with your transition defense. So, I mean… When you lose by 30, we could go all the way around the room and each of you could pick a different area and you would all be right. We stunk in all areas. I mean, transition defense, what about Johni Broome in the second half — I could go on and on. Yeah, we stunk. We gotta get a lot better to even survive in this league. We’ve got to get a lot better. We’ve got to be a lot more competitive. So, with that, I will say you guys all saw how poorly we played and there’s a million things we could discuss, but we stunk in all those areas.

Kudos to Musselman for answering several questions before ending with the rant, which included some smirks. It was a classic tirade, but he was careful not to be rude. However, it’s easy to see he’s frustrated and puzzled with this team.

History Repeats Itself in Arkansas vs Auburn?

Still, he shouldn’t be too surprised. The past three seasons Musselman has revamped his roster with the transfer portal, starting nearly from scratch each time and even though he has two Elite Eight runs and a Sweet 16 appearance to his credit, each season included at least one stretch that made fans doubt the team’s chances in March and even doubt Musselman. In a show of his brilliance, he’s pushed the right buttons each time and developed cohesion in prime time to orchestrate one of the better runs in recent Razorback basketball history.

But when a team plays as poorly as they did Saturday and embarrasses the holy arena that is the Basketball Palace of Mid-America, that may really signal the point of no return. And maybe an off year had to be expected at some point when each season includes a roster full of newcomers.

But the big question for those Arkansas basketball fans melting down on social media Saturday was, ‘Is this season a wash?’ Many of you have disgustedly buried this team and written them off. Kind of hard to believe after what we’ve witnessed the past three years, but there were more than a few fans on X (formerly known as Twitter) that have canceled their March Madness plans. 

I agree to an extent with some of these naysayers, but not because of the lopsided loss on Saturday. Whether it was by 10 or 20 or 30, a loss today would’ve left me doubting this team. Why? Because they entered conference play with a paltry 9-4 record and a horrible home loss to UNC-Greensboro. Yes, there was that impressive win over perennial power Duke, but the truth is the Hogs’ resume is really lacking. They need to win all of the big games they can. So, while an historic blowout may make some lose their minds, it would be concerning at any margin because anything other than a win over a ranked Auburn team is nothing but an opportunity lost. During other seasons, the Hogs had at least built a decent non-conference record before having difficulties in SEC play. This year, they enter SEC play already behind.

But the lop-sided nature of the loss shows that Musselman may not be able to mold this team. If you can’t shape up for this game when you know how important it is, how do you move forward? This was supposed to be the time you righted the ship, when veteran Devo Davis showed his big-game ways and there were signs on the horizon of it all starting to come together.

In fairness to Musselman, last year’s team swooned early in the SEC season and again in late in the slate before turning it on and upsetting No. 1 seed Kansas to advance to the Sweet 16. There is still a ton of time to orchestrate the kind of run that makes us all forget about Saturday’s loss.

Red Flags for Arkansas Basketball

Still, the red flags on this team may be more concerning than that in past clubs. While it’s talented, the overall basketball IQ and the effort at times seems to be lacking. 

“We talked about how we got to keep fighting,” newly eligible transfer guard Keyon Menifield Jr. said. “It feels like we quit. We didn’t play as a team, and we weren’t together out there. So, when you’re not together and you don’t have fight out there and let people punk you, that’s what happens.”

That lack of effort, so evident late in the game, enabled Auburn to really embarrass the Hogs. It was painful for Menifield, who’s now likely the most electric player on the team, to admit his he and his guys quit.

“I mean, it hurts. Knowing that, when we play as a team, we’re a good team, but tonight was one of them nights,” he said. 

So back to how maybe we should have expected a gamble in the transfer portal to come up craps. It is tough to win ‘em all, although he had been on a heck of run dating back to to his first season at Nevada in 2015-16. As brilliant as Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach is (I think he’s by far the best GM in the NFL), he somehow has three receivers in his arsenal who can’t catch.

Veach has made brilliant moves, but signing Kadarius Toney and Marquez Valdes-Scantling look to be bad moves, as well as drafting Skyy Moore. However, Veach has been brilliant in guiding KC to two Super Bowl championships with QB Patrick Mahomes leading the charge. The Chiefs most likely will bow out early this postseason and Veach will clean house in the receiver room and bring in some big-name free agents and be back to Super Bowl form next year.

And that is what Musselman will do if this team crashes and burns and struggles to even make the NIT. I know Arkansas basketball fans don’t want to hear that, but it is not easy to bring in seven or eight players from different systems and roles and get them to mesh immediately. It just isn’t. Like Veach, Musselman looks like a genius, but even he knew that he may not always strike gold in the portal. 

Ironically, if Arkansas does pull off a miraculous turnaround, it needs to start with someone who’s never entered the portal. Devo Davis is the most veteran player on the team and at times in his career, he’s sparked Arkansas. The Jacksonville, Ark. native has shined during the NCAA Tournament runs, but Musselman needs him to lead now and be the glue that binds this experiment. He did not play well Saturday after having a big impact in the final non-conference game of the season against UNCW.

So many times, this team has gone as Davis goes. He needs to play well starting this week and be the leader Musselman needs him to be – consistent in practice and games. Menifield’s immediate eligibility may help, too. He is a dynamo, but at 6-foot-1, 150 pounds, will he hold up with the rigors of the SEC?

Saturday was a day that will live in infamy in Walton Arena history. Will it be associated with one of Musselman’s worst seasons in his tenure or spark yet another run? This time, fans are more skeptical and for good reason.

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