When Arkansas basketball fans watch this year’s team, they’re being treated to an aggressive, high-flying and uber-exciting style of play.
Ricky Council IV throwing down reverse alley-oop dunks, Trevon Brazile leaving hall of famer Vince Carter speechless after a disrespectful tomahawk slam and guys like Anthony Black or Devo Davis harassing opposing guards from sideline-to-sideline are all signature moments for this season’s team and conference play hasn’t even started.
These moments are also microcosms of where the Arkansas basketball program has been trending for three seasons now.
Eric Musselman took the job at Arkansas knowing there would be many challenges ahead of him. He has things rolling in Fayetteville right now, but it’s easy to forget that the program was in a tough spot when he took over.
It had been almost 25 years since the Razorbacks had made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and it had been almost 14 years since an Arkansas player was a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. Arkansas basketball was longing for the national spotlight that had escaped it for nearly three decades.
To young recruits who never experienced Nolan Richardson’s ‘40 Minutes of Hell’ teams in the 1990s, Arkansas wasn’t a sleeping giant waiting to be returned to its former glory. Instead, Arkansas was just another average basketball program.
This issue became clear to Eric Musselman following a conversation with Kareem Moody, the father of Moses Moody, the Little Rock native and leading scorer for the 2020-21 Elite Eight Arkansas team.
Kareem Moody’s Question for Eric Musselman
In a recent appearance on The Hog Pod with Bo Mattingly, Eric Musselman opened up about how Kareem Moody posed a question that would change how Arkansas basketball operated.
“We had a lot of really challenging conversations,” Musselman said. “In one of them, he flat-out said it, to my memory, just like this: ‘How are you going to make Arkansas basketball cool?’ He said, ‘Arkansas basketball isn’t cool right now, how are you going to make it cool?’
“We had so many meetings after that conversation with Kareem Moody, it kind of slapped us in the face, so to speak, on ‘Hey, we’ve got to do some things a little bit different and a little bit outside the box.’”
To Kareem Moody’s credit, it’s a really great question. Moody spoke to Best of Arkansas Sports about why he asked that question and why it was important at that time.
“For me, I’m asking all sorts of questions, trying to get (Musselman’s) approach and what he thought about it, what he saw,” Moody said. “For one thing, him being a guy from outside of Arkansas, I knew he had a lot of California excitement. But the reality was that we (Arkansas basketball) were hemorrhaging for several years. People weren’t excited about the program.”
At that point in time, it was a very fair question. Why would an elite high school player choose Arkansas over Kentucky or Duke?
In their minds, choosing Arkansas over Kentucky or Duke was like choosing a Toyota Camry over a Ferrari or Lamborghini. Sure, a Camry is a solid and reliable vehicle, but it’s not the flashy or sexy option compared to Ferrari or Lamborghini.
Archie Goodwin (2012) and Malik Monk (2016) are perfect examples of this. Both were highly-coveted high school prospects and program-changing talents who spurned the Hogs to play for Kentucky.
“(Moses’) buddies were going on recruiting trips to Kentucky and Duke, and they got Midnight Madness where people take off work and plan their whole day around it,” Moody said. “Back in the day, that’s what you did here, you scheduled your day to prepare for Razorback basketball. That just wasn’t the case anymore. Although we wanted it to be, that’s not where it was when we were making that decision.”
Eventually, Moody decided to go to Arkansas and helped lead the team to its first Elite Eight since 1995. After his one season at Arkansas, Moody became the first lottery pick from the program in 14 years.
Is it a coincidence that Musselman and his staff are having this much success on the court and in recruiting after this “slap in the face” wake-up call? Probably not.
Musselman approaches things much differently than other high-level college coaches, and it’s obvious that the majority of his players – and young recruits – connect with it.
It can really be boiled down to three things that have gone a long way in making Arkansas basketball cool under Eric Musselman.
Arkansas Basketball’s Social Media Presence
One of the most significant ways that Eric Musselman has changed Arkansas basketball is through his social media presence.
SkullSparks, a company based in Tulsa that partners with college sports brands across the country on digital strategy, often posts analytics showing how many interactions college teams or coaches are getting on social media.
The company will usually tweet out updates on which college basketball coach is getting the most interactions and engagements on Twitter and, to the surprise of no one, Musselman is at the top.
“You look at the kids coming in and I think they like the attention and social media part of it,” Moody said. “You want to be on social media, you want to be talked about and (Musselman) does that. He’s going to get you media attention.”
Not only is he using social media more than any other coach, but he’s actually creative and engaging with his tweets. Before games, Musselman will post a tweet showcasing his outfit for that game, including custom-painted Nike shoes. He constantly tags committed prospects and players in tweets that highlight achievements or recognition from national media.
After five-star center Baye Fall announced his commitment to the Razorbacks, Musselman posted a short video with Layden Blocker, the other five-star recruit in Arkansas’ 2023 class, welcoming Fall to the team.
Musselman has recognized how beneficial it can be to have a huge presence on social media, and he does it really well. Having that presence and notoriety gives him a big advantage over coaches that don’t understand or care to even use social media as a tool.
“A lot of coaches aren’t on Twitter, and they roll their eyes,” said Jason Matheson, the director of SkullSparks, told WholeHogSports in a recent interview. “You know, it’s 2022 and you fish where the fish are. That’s our motto. It doesn’t matter what you think, if that’s where the kids and recruits are and where fans are, that’s where you go.”
Arkansas Basketball Alumni in the NBA
Before Eric Musselman took over the program, Arkansas hadn’t had a lottery selection in the NBA Draft since Ronnie Brewer was selected 14th overall by the Utah Jazz in 2006. That was three (four, if you’re counting Dana Altman’s day-long reign) head coaches ago and more than a decade had passed.
Meanwhile, programs like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina were producing multiple lottery-level players on an annual basis. Arkansas was on a similar level with these programs in the 1990s, competing for championships and elite prospects year after year, but that had changed.
Since Brewer was drafted in 2006 to the time Musselman was hired, Bobby Portis (2015) was the only Arkansas player selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Why does the track record of having former players in the NBA matter?
The race to get to the professional level as fast as possible hasn’t always been prevalent, but it is now. That isn’t unique to a single sport, but In college basketball, it’s emphasized more because of the one-and-done rule.
In place since 2005, players under the age of 19 are barred from entering the NBA Draft. After that rule was implemented, top prospects remained focused on getting to the NBA as fast as possible while coaches were having to change the way they approached building their basketball programs.
Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas were able to adapt quickly and reaped the rewards of having alumni who were stars in the NBA. Arkansas didn’t have that luxury in the early days of the one-and-done rule and struggled to successfully build a program the “old-fashioned” way until Eric Musselman arrived.
Not only did Musselman bring an NBA mindset and mentality to how his teams and coaches operate, but he’s also getting players to the next level consistently. He’s had a player drafted every season he’s been at Arkansas, and of the six former Hogs currently in the NBA, three of them were coached by Musselman.
Moses Moody’s lone season with the Razorbacks is a perfect example of how Arkansas basketball’s perception has changed in the eyes of prospects and their parents.
“From a parent’s standpoint, I imagine most are looking more at what happened with us (Moses being a lottery pick), and they’re wanting to see players that are able to come out and go on to the next level,” Moody said. “I feel like that weighs a lot.
“Most of the Arkansas fans want to see players come and stay for four years and be that homegrown program and take that onto the national scene. But you have to have those one-and-done players who get to the next level along with those other guys to add flavor to the program.”
Winning Attracts Talent
The easiest remedy for building a successful program today is winning. Winning games, making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament and competing for championships will make it exponentially easier to attract talent.
Think of the commonly used motto: winning fixes everything. While it’s not always true, it’s no secret that it makes building a successful program a lot easier.
As mentioned earlier, Arkansas lacked success for nearly three decades and that’s more than enough time for borderline mediocrity to become a reputation. For Moody, he agrees that the perception of the Arkansas program was not in a good spot.
“I don’t feel like, on a national level as we came up through AAU and out there on the circuit, people never were taking Arkansas seriously as a program,” Moody said. “I didn’t feel like they had done enough in terms of being a winning program at that point, but now, Muss has done a really good job of helping Arkansas see themselves as a winning program and promote or highlight all of that.”
It will take more time for Arkansas basketball to be considered on the same national level as Arizona and even Villanova, and even longer to sniff the “blueblood” conversation. Time isn’t the only deciding factor either. Championships must be won and banners must be hung for this to happen.
However, back-to-back Elite Eights, high-level recruiting classes and consistently being ranked is a great place to start. Everything Eric Musselman has been able to accomplish over the last three seasons has contributed to Arkansas becoming one of the “coolest” basketball programs in the country right now.
The Razorbacks may not be looked at on the same level as the “Ferrari” or “Lamborghini” schools — Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina — yet, but they’re on their way. If those programs were to look in their rearview mirror, they should heed the warning of: “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear.”
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