Now that’s how you put a program back on track.
Just weeks after Razorback basketball looked like it was going off the rails, Eric Musselman’s squad is now the hottest team in the SEC with six straight conference wins. The most impressive of the lot, so far, came Saturday night when Arkansas beat No. 10 Missouri in an 86-81 overtime victory.
Not long after the final buzzer, Arkansas’ head coach ripped off his shirt and stormed into the locker room. “That’s what’s up!,” he yelled as he gathered his players into a scrum and led the chant: “Family on three! 1-2-3!”
Arkansas’ first road win over a top 10 team in 15 years is all the more impressive because it came after Missouri scorched the nets by hitting 13 of 32 three-pointers, the second game in a row an opponent has shot lights out but failed to beat the Hogs.
Missouri relied on the three because it missed its star center Jeremiah Tillman due to a death in the family. In the team’s first meeting, Tillman scored 25 points and 11 rebounds in a resounding Mizzou win in which Razorback center Connor Vanover missed layup after layup. “I was really looking forward to this game,” Vanover said after Saturday night’s game. “Not only was it a Top 10 team, but it was redemption.”
Arkansas’ 81-68 loss to Missouri on January 2 tipped off Musselman’s worst stretch as a Razorback coach to date. His four losses in five games had many fans openly wondering if he had lost some of his players and if his talent evaluation of incoming graduate transfers had too often missed the mark.
Nearly one month later, and most of the transfers who under-performed against Mizzou, LSU and Alabama — especially Jalen Tate, JD Notae and Connor Vanover — are now playing much better.
On top of that, freshmen Devo Davis and Jaylin Williams have emerged as critical pieces alongside standout Moses Moody.
The biggest difference, however, has been the health of Justin Smith, the graduate transfer who is Arkansas’ best big man. Smith had ankle surgery the day before the first Missouri game. When he returned in the Alabama game, he was a shell of his former self.
Since then, though, he’s gotten progressively better. On Saturday night, Smith delivered the best game of the season in making 6 of 10 field goal attempts, grabbing six rebounds and dishing three assists.
Oh, and he also flushed down an alley oop pass to open overtime in which used his 45-inch vertical to essentially look down at the rim while dunking.
“He came back with vengeance this time,” Moody said. “He had a different look in his eye.”
Musselman added: “Obviously, Justin Smith was just absolutely incredible denying on both sides of the basketball — passing the ball, defensively, rebounding the ball, scoring it. I thought the baseline out of bounds lob play was crucial for us to get a basket at that juncture of the game and a kind of a momentum-swinging play.”
After the Alabama loss, I argued the Eric Musselman honeymoon was over. I also argued that there was great potential to turn it around because of Smith’s imminent return to full health and an upcoming stretch of relatively weak competition.
Well, that stretch is over.
Three of Arkansas’ next five opponents, starting with Florida on Tuesday, will play in the NCAA Tournament. Two other upcoming foes, Alabama and LSU, beat Arkansas so badly earlier in the season they sparked that that brief wave Musselman doubters in the first place.
SEC Basketball Standings
Razorback basketball schedule
|Tue, Feb 16||vs Florida||7:00 PM ET||ESPN2|
|Sat, Feb 20||@ Texas A&M||8:30 PM ET||SEC NETWORK|
|Wed, Feb 24||vs (11) Alabama||9:00 PM ET|
|Sat, Feb 27||vs LSU||2:00 PM ET|
|Tue, Mar 2||@ South Carolina||6:30 PM ET||SEC NETWORK|
By leading Arkansas to No. 2 in the SEC and beating his first Top 25 team as an Arkansas coach, Musselman has silenced a lot of doubters. But, in the big picture, he’s not yet surpassed the accomplishments of predecessors like Stan Heath and Mike Anderson.
Heath beat a top 10 team on the road (Tennessee) on the road in 2006, while for a couple of seasons Anderson regularly had the Hogs at No. 2 in the SEC.
In order for Musselman to reach his potential as the coach who returns Razorback basketball to true national prominence, he must avoid the in-season inconsistencies that plagued the teams of Heath and especially Anderson. Anderson’s teams could reel off four or five SEC wins, but couldn’t sustain that success long enough to finish seasons strong in the NCAA Tournament like the late 1980s-mid 1990s teams of Nolan Richardson so often did.
By finishing this SEC season strong, Musselman can prove he’s cut more from the cloth of Richardson and Eddie Sutton.
Arkansas vs Missouri
“They put a guard on him so that they could take away his pick and pops,” Musselman said. “And we haven’t posted Connor at all. So we ran our five down plan. I hadn’t run five down since I coached Erick Dampier with the Warriors. So we threw it down there in the post and he made some great moves. He made a couple of great passes out of the post.”
“For a guard to go up there and block that shot [against Mark Smith to seal the win], and he had another huge offensive rebound tonight,” Musselman said. “That and the offensive rebound he had in Kentucky. All those little intangible winning plays is what he’s all about.”
After the blocking Mark Smith, “when came over, I was trying to give the guy some direction on what we wanted to do, depending on whether it would count or not. And he kept saying, like, ‘I blocked it clean coach, don’t worry about that. Like, I did not goal-tend that shot.’ That allowed us to try to get semi-organized.”
“We played a defense tonight that we haven’t done all year. We came up with a term called ‘siding’ where we tried to keep the ball on one side of the floor. If it was on the right side, we tried to shade it to the right sideline if it was on the left side.”
“And I thought that really helped us at least semi-control their ball reversals because they’re really good at running a fluff pick and roll on one side and then getting it to the second side, and then running the pick and roll. I thought our guys did a really, really good job defensively because the Missouri team is so well coached. They’re so tough.”
Musselman, it turns out, owes the father of Connor Noland a debt of gratitude for getting the Razorback basketball job. More about that here: