Louisville Basketball Folks Dub Musselman as Lowest-Hanging Fruit among Candidates

Eric Musselman
Credit: Craven Whitlow

For a short while, Arkansas football fans could squint their eyes and, if they looked at the NFL just right, feel like they sort of ruled the roost.

They had not one but two former Razorbacks in the Super Bowl with San Francisco’s Brandon Allen and Dre Greenlaw suiting up for the 49ers on Sunday night. And from the same high school just across the way from the university, no less. And, hey, Greenlaw was actually an impact player as the team’s best linebacker and a big part of the game plan to slow down Patrick Mahomes on the other side of the field.

In the first quarter, Greenlaw got off to a great start as his team held Kansas City to only 2.5 yards per play. And then, early in the 2nd quarter, this happened:

Just like that, an essentially non-impact Achilles rupture proved to the turning point in a Super Bowl that ultimately saw Mahomes get back on track and lead the Chiefs to a 25-22 overtime win. It’s not far-fetched to say Greenlaw’s injury likely cost San Francisco a title. “Dre’s obviously an amazing player,” 49er Arik Armstead said. “He is one of the best players on our team and one of the best linebackers in the NFL, so he’s our enforcer and our tone setter. Not having him is a huge loss.”

That’s clear enough by just looking at what his replacement, Oren Burks, did. After Greenlaw’s departure, Burks was targeted nine times, allowed nine catches including a touchdown on those targets and overall came away from the game with a 32.1 PFF coverage grade.

SEC analyst Carter Bryant, among others, deemed it “the most Arkansas Razorbacks thing I’ve ever seen.”

Well, that title would be short-lived if a certain Arkansas basketball coach decides to fly the coop this spring. Eric Musselman, the program’s most successful coach since Nolan Richardson, is struggling like never before despite a team that’s in a slight rebound by beating two SEC bottom feeders in its last three games. In late November, the prospect losing Musselman after a three straight deep NCAA Tournament runs and big wins over Purdue and Duke would have seemed unthinkable.

But that narrative has changed in season in which the Hogs have sputtered to a 3-7 SEC record. Rumors and reports tying the fifth-year Arkansas coach putting out feelers with multiple schools including Minnesota and Arizona State have surfaced. Among the programs who are good bets to axe their coach at the end of the season, though, the most prestigious is Louisville basketball.

Louisville Basketball Folks and Musselman

Louisville basketball isn’t much better this season than it was last year, when Arkansas crushed its ’22-’23 squad in the early season and then in the spring plucked the Cardinals’ leading scorer El Ellis from the transfer portal.

Kenny Payne’s current group is 3-10 in conference and 8-16 overall. It will be a shocker if he doesn’t get canned at the end of the season.

And so, the Louisville basketball faithful are already concocting lists of their most desirable candidates to replace Payne. Musselman, along with the likes of Ole Miss’ Chris Beard, UCLA’s Mick Cronin and Kansas State’s Jerome Tang, appears near the middle or top of most of them.

Of all the candidate lists, however, none is more interesting than the one compiled by the State of Louisville’s Jake Hook.

Hook is unusually detailed in his breakdown of potential candidates. He goes beyond the normal bona fides by looking at the transfer class rankings that each guy has brought in as well as an examination of each coach’s buyout situation as part of a larger “feasibility” score.

So, in Hook’s master list, guys like Baylor’s Scott Drew, Chris Beard and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson are considered Grade “A” hires but Drew and Sampson are considered fairly unrealistic with “C” feasibility grades as both have been at their respective schools for more than a decade.

Beard is considered a bit more possible, in the “B” feasibility range, but he also has an unknown buyout and is only in the first year of his tenure at Ole Miss. Not to mention some folks in Louisville sports media would openly protest the arrival of a man who was as arrested for third degree felony domestic assault after a fight with his fiancée just 14 months ago.

Given the Arkansas basketball team’s struggles this season in eking out a 12-11 record so far, Musselman sits just below with a “B+” grade if hired away by Louisville. He’s especially attractive at a place that can’t afford to wait even two seasons and needs results almost immediately. Musselman is practically a magician at quick turnarounds.

Where things get especially interesting is Hook’s “A” feasibility score for Musselman. Indeed, the 59-year-old is the only potential candidate in Hook’s top two tiers that gets such a high grade in that department.

“On top of his ability to coach and recruit, Musselman also seems to be the easiest candidate to acquire,” Hook writes. “His buyout sits at a staggeringly low $750,000 after this season is over. You never see that low of a buyout for a candidate of this quality. You typically have to hire from the Sun Belt to pay that little to get a coach.”

Then Hook applies a bit of a burn to Arkansas basketball: “This will be true for almost all of the other hires, but Louisville is a clear upgrade in program, prestige, facilities, and NIL money compared to Arkansas.” Given the way the team has looked bad for much of this SEC slate, despite beating Mizzou and Georgia recently, “this may be the perfect storm for the Muss Buss to make his way up to Louisville.”

Hook adds “If I were a betting man, I’d say this is who Louisville lands at the end of the season.”

Good News for Arkansas Basketball Fans?

By this point in the year, it’s clear this has been Musselman’s least coherent transfer class yet in his college coaching career.

Still, a single subpar season doesn’t change his longstanding reputation as a “portal king” who very much enjoys taking an active, hands-on role in assessing his team’s incoming transfer possibilities year in and year out.

That desire for more control could end up being a saving grace for Arkansas if Musselman ends seriously considering leaving Fayetteville for Louisville.

There are simply a lot more chefs in the kitchen these days when it comes to NIL collectives and which big-time transfers will get how much money. That is definitely the case with Louisville basketball, and it’s a dynamic to which their current coach hasn’t adjusted well, according to Louisville analyst Presley Meyer, the co-host of the Starting Five02 podcast.

“Whoever is hired, they just have to be willing to accept the help from others,” Meyer said on a recent episode. “That’s something that Kenny Payne, from everything that you hear, he’s refused that. He wanted to do things his way and this is the result.”

What Next Louisville Basketball Coach Must Accept

Essentially, the next Louisville basketball coach is going to need to give up some of the control that Payne has so ineffectually been wielding. “They’re going to have to accept what they’re given in the portal” by the folks who control the purse strings and also those who negotiate the deals, Meyer said.

As an example of the kind of highly sought player who would command a large sum if he were to enter the portal, Meyer and his co-host Jake Hook bring up RJ Davis, who racked up 30 points and was perfect on 10 free throw attempts in a win vs Arkansas in November.

In such a situation where Musselman is Louisville’s coach, Musselman needs to be able to accept, ‘Okay. Louisville has made connection with RJ Davis’ handlers. He’s willing to hear this offer. Are you willing to negotiate this?’ Essentially, that’s how things are run now.”

This is the kind of back-and-forth that Musselman’s current boss, Hunter Yurachek, apparently despised when trying to hire Lane Kiffin as the Razorbacks’ head football coach after firing Chad Morris in 2019. Yurahcek was not about to get in a bidding war for Kiffin’s services and just decided to go with the guy who clearly wanted the job more instead.

Perhaps, Yurahcek learned a lesson that time around given the respective current arcs of the Arkansas and Ole Miss football programs.

Remembering that lesson will come in handy if, at the end of this season, Musselman asks for a contract extension despite a record not up to previous years’ standards.

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Hear the entire podcast about next Louisville basketball coach possibilities here:

More on Musselman and Louisville basketball starting at 8:00 below:

More on Arkansas basketball here:

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