Report: UA Players’ Apparent Disrespect in Hotel Lobby Cuts to Core of Disappointing Season

Arkansas basketball
Craven Whitlow

Even till the bitter end, the 2023-24 Arkansas basketball team Dr. Jekyll and Hyded it. 

The last two games of the season perfectly encapsulated the maddening up and down cycles of the last few months. In back-to-back games, Arkansas played back-to-back strong halves. The problem was the other two halves.

In the first one, the SEC Tournament opener vs Vanderbilt, the Razorbacks responded well enough to a putrid first half in which they fell down by 14 points. On the brink of ending their season with a loss, Arkansas basketball players rallied together in the locker room for a players-only meeting at halftime for a much-needed wake-up call and to regroup. 

After trailing by double digits for a long stretch, the Razorbacks came all the way back to defeat the Vanderbilt Commodores 90-85 in overtime to survive and advance. 

“It was definitely a fired-up locker room, especially after the coaches left,” Tramon Mark said on “SEC Now” afterward. “We had a players-only meeting and we just called each other out. Everybody had something to say and it was good, because we came out there in the second half with a chip on our shoulder.”

Arkansas vs South Carolina Frustrations

With the exception of a late second-half meltdown, that chip sort of carried over into much of the first half in the following game against South Carolina. 

Arkansas went into halftime of Thursday afternoon’s second-round game down a respectable three points. The Razorbacks kept it close for a while, but a play with about 9:15 left lowlighted an issue with effort and defensive IQ that the Hogs simply could never overcome all season long.

In this particular instance, when Arkansas was down by only 6 points, South Carolina sprayed the ball around the perimeter following a Trevon Brazile double team near the arc. 

Brazile began jogging over to the other side of the perimeter but lost track of the man to whom he was supposed to switch and cover. By the time he realized where it was B.J. Mack, it was too late. Mack swished home an uncontested three-pointer for a 56-47 lead. 

Never mind Mack had barely shot more than 30% from the arc this season. Naturally, with the sort of wide open looks Arkansas often gave opponents during their more lackadaisical stretches, he nailed three of four attempts from the outside.

Not long afterward, the bottom dropped out from the Razorbacks’ defensive effort level as the Hogs started allowing straight-line layups and easy baskets. Things went right back to where they had been in Arkansas’ 13-point loss at home to South Carolina in January:

On Thursday, the No. 15 Gamecocks’ lead ballooned to 20 points en route to an eventual 80-66 win.

This time around, there were no heroics from Mark, who the day before had gone scoreless in the first half only to catch fire in the closing stretch and finish with 18 points. 

Report from Hotel on Arkansas Basketball

One of the big reasons the once-touted Razorbacks finished the season with a 16-17 record was the failure to string together consecutive strong, focused end-to-end efforts in the last two and a half months. A better understanding of why this happened came to the fore in a couple episodes related to Best of Arkansas Sports.

The first came in the Nashville hotel after a team meeting earlier on Wednesday. A source reported that multiple Razorback players were overheard apparently mocking the coaching staff in the lobby. 

“It’s do or die…40 minutes of hell,” one player sarcastically said to his teammate, who burst out laughing.

“Do or die, guys…do or die,” said yet another player in a mimicking tone.

A different Razorback appeared to be late to the team bus departing for the arena, showing up to the hotel in street clothes and slippers just minutes before the team was slated to leave. A staff member checked his watch and raised an eyebrow after seeing this.

Sitting right at .500 without any hope of an at-large invite to March Madness, it appeared that some Hogs were not entirely dialed, to say the least, on this trip. No team has ever won the SEC Tournament as a double-digit seed, and while Arkansas was more dangerous than most double-digit seeds, these episodes help explain how such a talented and deep team could have performed so poorly in a 7-loss stretch from January 6 through February 4th.

That dismal month dug Arkansas itself into a hole that largely defined the season.

Musselman, Battle on Arkansas vs South Carolina Loss

For too much of the year, the Razorbacks could never fully lock in and stay locked in for extended periods of time, especially on defense. Some of that came down to just plain old bad team chemistry.

Senior Devo Davis gave a glimpse into that dysfunction to Natty State Sports’ Scottie Bordelon: “I feel that as a team [Wednesday] we pulled together and got it done. We could have did it today, but we didn’t,” Davis said. “Just difficult knowing that whatever is next, hopefully everyone takes this and knows that, like, when things are on the line, you shouldn’t just put yourself first, you know what I mean?”

“You should do it for the team. And not everybody did that.”

Khalif Battle emphasized a similar point after the game when he contrasted the Gamecocks with the Razorbacks afterward: “They play together. That was the difference in the game. I think we’re just as talented as anybody in the country, but they just play together.”

Eric Musselman, for his part, has never experienced anything as bad as this season as a head coach. It’s his first to finish below .500 in 23 years of being a head man at multiple levels of the sport. “This is new territory. Right now the season ending stings. I have not been in this position,” he said after the South Carolina loss. “In the future, hopefully we’re playing deeper in this tournament, but more importantly hopefully we’re playing in NCAA tournaments.”

After the loss, Khalif Battle didn’t try to make any excuses. 

He said that the Arkansas basketball staff doesn’t deserve blame for how the season turned so aggravatingly inconsistent: “They spend overtime working on the game plan, watching film, doing a lot of detail-oriented stuff.”

“At the end of the day, [the season] is on the players,” he added.

It would have been nice if some of them had taken that responsibility more seriously. 

***

Here’s how strongly Musselman feels about his next step:

Garry Parrish, however, feels like there is a good chance that Musselman could leave for Louisville. He doesn’t think this bad season should be much of a deterrent and that Louisville would be wise to not fall prey to the fool’s gold that led Arkansas to hire Stan Heath and John Pelphrey years go.

In those of those cases, the Razorbacks hired a relatively inexperienced head coach coming off one hot season. Musselman, however, has a put together a body of work that should carry weight despite this year’s hiccup.

A couple of factors that could actually play a hand in swaying Musselman to leave is how tough the competition in the SEC has become with the rise of Lamont Paris at South Carolina and Texas and Oklahoma set to join the league alongside Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Auburn, Florida and others.

“Ultimately, fans cannot avoid the fact that Musselman’s teams have produced a losing record in the SEC in 3 of his 5 seasons at the helm,” Paul Harvey writes. “This year, there will be no NCAA Tournament to help put a bright touch on things, and the SEC isn’t going to get any easier in the future.”

It’s also notable that the Arkansas basketball head man’s buyout is $1 million, a relatively small amount in the high major college basketball. “At a time when other programs are giving extensions to Lamont Paris and Nate Oats, Musselman living on a small buyout will be notable until a firm decision for next season is made,” Harvey continues.

On Monday, a report from the Louisville side noted that Baylor’s Scott Drew is absolutely the Cardinals’ top choice. Florida Atlantic’s Scott May, according to the Louisville news station WDRB, slots in after May among the Cardinals’ most desirable coaches.

After that, though, is a group of “still on call” candidates including Jerome Tang, Jamie Dixon, Josh Schertz and of course Eric Musselman.

“The longer the search goes on, the more I wonder if he won’t drift back into the picture, WDRB’s Eric Crawford wrote. He added “When [Louisville AD] Josh Heird said he wanted a coach who would crawl to Louisville to take the job, I thought of Musselman.”

Ouch. That’s not a fun reference for Arkansas basketball fans at all.

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