On Sunday evening, Eric Musselman became the first Arkansas coach since Nolan Richardson to take the Razorbacks to three straight NCAA Tournaments. He’s only the third coach in school history to have achieved the feat. It’s a wild thought considering Arkansas basketball records date back to 1923-24 and it’s something about which Musselman and the program should feel accomplished.
Unfortunately, it also feels somewhat hollow. In getting a first-round date with Illinois on Thursday, Arkansas has its postseason berth in the Big Dance via an underachieving season that ended with the whimper of Arkansas losing four of its last five games. An 8-10 SEC record in the regular season makes the Razorbacks only the fifth team in the last two decades to make the NCAA Tournament with a losing record in Southeastern Conference play.
Expectations for March Madness are therefore mixed. Arkansas was a Top-10 team at points this year. Granted, that was back in December when Trevon Brazile had yet to be lost for the season. Still, with Nick Smith Jr.’s knee now healthy, the talent remaining on the playable roster suggests a third straight Elite Eight run – unheard of in school history – wouldn’t go down as the biggest shock (although still a moderate one considering the team’s stretch run).
But a loss in the first round, before the Hogs even get a shot at likely second-round opponent No. 1 seed Kansas, would be far less surprising.
In many ways, Arkansas’ 2022-23 season felt awfully familiar. No, not the three losses in which the Hogs held a double-digit lead. No, not blowing the largest halftime lead in more than a decade. But a good-not-great overall record alongside a .500ish SEC season was Mike Anderson-esque. The same Mike Anderson, by the way, who was let go by St. John’s over the weekend after four mediocre seasons with the Red Storm.
Mike Anderson and Eric Musselman
Anderson’s issues in New York City were not totally the same as Musselman’s in Fayetteville, though they were the same as the ones the former had when he was running the Hogs program from 2011-19. St. John’s was far too often disorganized offensively, the same complaint leveled at the Razorbacks when Anderson was at the UA. Arkansas actually suffered such issues at various points throughout this season, too. The Razorbacks’ scoring sputtered: sometimes they looked unstoppable, sometimes they were unscorable.
Mike Anderson’s teams were never bad enough to be really bad, as he’s famously never had a losing season in 21 years as a head coach. He also never had have nearly the talent of Musselman’s team. Certainly Bobby Portis, perhaps the best Arkansas NBA player since Joe Johnson, was a dynamic player. But Nick Smith Jr. is a likely lottery pick. Anthony Black might be, too. Trevon Brazile and Jordan Walsh could be first-round selections when they are expected to enter the draft after next season. Moses Moody was a first-rounder. Mason Jones was the SEC Player of the Year with Muss, though he was recruited by Anderson. But with a team more talented than any Musselman or Anderson have had in college before, the disappointment Arkansas faithful may feel heading into the Big Dance is understandable.
It’s a drag for Musselman, too, who doesn’t deserve some of the criticism levied his way this year. The man took Arkansas to the Elite Eight the last two seasons, for crying out loud. Even had he not lost Brazile for the whole season and Smith for most of it, he’d have earned a pass with a .500 SEC record.
That being said, Saturday’s phone incident from the SEC Tournament was a bad look for the program (admittedly not for Musselman himself; though the adage holds that a program is supposed to be reflective of the coaching leading it). Musselman has been an easy target for fans of Arkansas’ opponents given his irascible nature on the court and occasional prickliness off it. The man simply does not like answering questions after losses. It’s all earned him votes for Most Disliked in the SEC after John Calipari at Kentucky.
Anderson was never getting those votes. Missouri fans aside, he was well-liked by opponents and moderately liked by his program’s fans, too. But he also never took the Razorbacks to Eric Musselman’s highs. Nor he never took St. John’s even to the same heights he had Arkansas, 68-56 there in four seasons including a 18-15 record this season (but an 8-14 finish to the season).
With winning comes jealousy from the outside. Undoubtedly Musselman suffers from that and now that Arkansas is struggling, he’s easy pickings for those who hold grudges.
The Future of Arkansas Basketball
Whatever happens with Arkansas in the Big Dance is likely moot when it comes to Muss’ return to Arkansas. He’s the son of a longtime NBA coach and he’s been there before, too, as a head man. If the professional ranks were to come knocking again, odds are, he’d listen. The Razorbacks making another deep run could be NBA teams’ reason for approach.
Or perhaps, if this season was, in fact, as frustrating as he has said in numerous post-game press conferences that it had been, maybe the jump comes sooner rather than later. The transfer portal and NILs make things more complicated, not easier, after all, when it comes to coaches.
That isn’t to say Muss is going anywhere. A contract worth more than $4 million a year is one big reason he probably is not. But the possibility will always be hovering overhead. That’s the price. Arkansas has made itself into a dominant program with Eric Musselman at the helm, more dominant than they were under Mike Anderson or John Pelphrey or Stan Heath. Or, going back to pre Eddie Sutton times, better than they were under Lanny Van Eman, Duddy Waller or anybody before.
The cost of winning are questions like these. And the moment things go funky, like they have this year, do fans really want to kick him to the curb? They better not because history has shown, with two legends in 100 years, and Eric Musselman a clear No. 3, the odds are that the best the program could do is get another Mike Anderson.
Not half-bad. But not what Arkansas wants.
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