Another Troubling Similarity Between Lost Seasons for Arkansas Basketballers, 15 Years Apart

Eric Musselman, John Pelphrey, Arkansas basketball

When Tramon Mark’s final heave clanged away at the buzzer Tuesday night in Bud Walton Arena, Arkansas dropped to a dead-even 14-14 with three potential if not likely losses remaining.

Regime changes often bring about seasons like this. This is obviously not Eric Musselman’s first or second Razorback team, though. He’s cultivated a winner again generally, even if the 2023-24 group will forever be regarded as a failed experiment in, uh, “portalizing.” (Let’s run with this fake word for a moment.)

It’s been such a lost, weird year that it’s made us reflective for the wrong reasons: “When was the last time a Hog basketball team looked this bad, this often?”

The answer, at least for me, is 2008-09. And I hope for Musselman’s sake that he responds to early success way way better than John Pelphrey ever did.

Gone in a Flash: When Arkansas Basketball Bombed in January after Sizzling Start

Pelphrey wasn’t a bad guy by any means, but his four-year term in Fayetteville was defined by a lack of programmatic control. Simply, the former Kentucky Wildcat hadn’t really earned the job, and the performance bore that out.

It wasn’t his fault that he was a desperate hire. Arkansas needed to replace the terminally uninteresting Stan Heath, then had few options after Dana Altman’s kinky one-night stand as coach (see the lurid, standard-def video below). Pelphrey also immediately coaxed the Hogs to their first NCAA tourney win in nine years.

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Arkansas settled on Pelphrey after Dana Altman embarrassingly returned to Creighton within a day.

The sophomore slump set in thereafter, and as with the present-day Hogs, they didn’t look like they were going to falter at first.

Pelphrey’s team of 15 years ago unraveled rapidly after starting well. One distinction between that group and Musselman’s ongoing albatross: expectations. While this Arkansas team started off highly ranked, Pelphrey’s group was remade with young, untested energy, especially when Patrick Beverley’s Hog career ended via academic suspension that summer.

When the Hogs lost at Missouri State in November, those modest expectations seemed right. But Michael Washington and touted backcourt newcomers Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clarke caught fire, and after beating No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 7 Texas within 10 days, Arkansas peaked at 12-1.

Then, SEC play commenced, and the season couldn’t have turned out darker or stranger from there.

The Hogs gagged eight of nine SEC games, mostly by wide margins. Then came the first of two years’ worth of random suspensions of Fortson, and disciplinary issues snuffed out chunks of Jason Henry’s and Brandon Moore’s freshman seasons. By the time a two-month nosedive wrapped up, Arkansas ended up 14-16, 2-15 in SEC games, and looked like an utter mess heading into the offseason.

Eric Musselman’s Rhetoric Seems Too Familiar

When he curiously suspended Fortson in February 2009, Pelphrey notably began a pattern of explaining his actions with generic coachspeak:

“I expect the Razorbacks to get out there and play hard…to have an unbelievable attitude, to encourage teammates, to understand what it’s all about to be part of a team. To do your job and to handle adversity. I think we should act a certain way whether we’re winning or whether we’re losing.”

It’s hard to read that now, of course, but it should’ve been alarming then, too. The coach’s clash with a player became glaringly obvious, and the months after the season turned sordid.

Ultimately, Pelphrey could not recover from that collapse. Fortson’s status continued to be in limbo week to week during another frustrating losing campaign (14-18). An 18-14 year followed, but Jeff Long pulled the string to make a change, leaving Arkansas with one coach (Eddie Sutton) that crawled off to Kentucky and one Kentucky alum who had to be chased off.

John Pelphrey and Courtney Fortson had a tumultuous player-coach relationship from 2008 to 2010. (Photo from YouTube)

Why is all of this relevant? Because it seems to me that Musselman is losing his touch with the media, too, trotting this out after losing to Vanderbilt:

“We’ve got to get ready for Kentucky and then LSU and then Bama,” he said. “Whoever else we play. If we have more than that, I don’t know. We’ve got to get ready for each and every game. Get back to the drawing board. We’ll start working on Kentucky tonight.”

I get it. He can’t say much else at this point. His team stinks, he knows it, and he’s as anxious as the rest of us to start anew in the fall.

But grimly talking about “getting ready” and invoking the “drawing board” over and over simply won’t do. In this fickle era, Muss needs to own his mistakes and promote (or play?!) players who should return.

And as for “portalizing”…

Musselman’s recipe blew up this year. His mad scientist routine of scouring the transfer portal for experienced, polished players isn’t entirely the problem but it’s concededly risky.

It’s hard, and unfair, to blame this season’s misery on even a couple of players. There are some obvious candidates, naturally.

Mark and Khalif Battle have both had more ups than downs, generally, and I’d like to see more of Keyon Menifield and Layden Blocker for sure. Jalen Graham showed progress for a stretch, too.

But the offseason assembly of newcomers seemed hastily executed. It’s going to take a pair of four-star commits time to mature, so this will be Musselman’s hardest overhaul yet, no matter who opts to return.

Fortunately for most Arkansas fans, they know this coach is capable of overseeing a rebound.


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