The disappointment was real. The fear, too. So much so, in fact, the alarm verged on panic. Eric Musselman, the man who has defined the word ‘upbeat’ in during most of the last two Arkansas seasons, was downtrodden to the point of dejection.
It was early January. Arkansas had lost five of six games, including defeats at the hands of Oklahoma by 20-plus points, Hofstra in North Little Rock and three straight to open SEC play. Even the most optimistic of Arkansas basketball fans began to wonder where the season would lead their favorite college basketball team.
Tuesday night, following the Razorbacks’ 82-74 win over Florida in Gainesville, Musselman was back to his usual self. He interrupted an on-air postgame interview with a primal “Woo Pig Soooie! and made quips. In the press conference, he dropped out-of-nowhere NHL references to Southwest Times Record reporter Christina Long, prompting, naturally, a follow-up question about his hockey fandom from veteran Hogs sportswriter Bob Holt.
In other words, things were back to normal.
The gloom was long gone at that point. Arkansas had beaten the Gators in the O’Connell Center for the first time since 1995. In what Razorbacks fans hope is serendipity, Arkansas went on to play for the national championship that season. In fact, Tuesday night’s win was only the second in Razorbacks history over the Gators in the central Florida town. They had lost 14 straight to the blue-and-orange in the Sunshine State.
Musselman made a point, as coaches tend to do when teams snap lengthy losing streaks, that none of his players or staff were around for that last win. Coachspeak. The whole “one game at a time” mentality is partially legitimate as coaches don’t tend to look beyond the game that comes next when they speak to their players. Part of it, though, is a facade. They’re fully aware – especially someone like Muss, who is so keen on using reference and providing context for every point he makes – of the significance of such wins and the history behind them.
“We talked about it (the streak being snapped) after the game,” Musselman said. “We didn’t really talk about it before the game. Right now we’re a really confident team on the road. I think that everybody can see that. We got on the plane with the thought process of winning this game and not being satisfied with how we’d played.”
What’s Next for Arkansas Basketball
Thus his giddiness. Arkansas is officially a force with which to be reckoned in the sport. The Hogs have 12 of their last 13 games and own wins over three ranked opponents in the stretch. They’ve gone from outside of the projected NCAA Tournament field after the miserable December-January stretch to a potential top-5-seed come March. Wins over No. 6 Kentucky (Saturday at Bud Walton Arena), LSU (Wednesday at BWA) and Tennessee (March 5 in Knoxville) would almost certainly put the Hogs in the conversation of a 2- or 3-seed. Nevermind the SEC Tournament, where Arkansas, with its five SEC road wins, would likely enter a favorite.
What was most impressive on Tuesday wasn’t the 22-year-old streak snapping. It was how it was snapped. By no stretch did the Razorbacks play their most impressive game. Only five players logged more than 15 minutes and only seven played in the game. They trailed by six points with 7:57 left after Jaylin Williams picked up his fourth foul swiping at Florida big man Colin Castleton, who converted a three-point play.
Muss went with his gut. Williams stayed in the game. The coach shifted him away from guarding Florida’s best player, who finished with a career high 29 points, every possession and put swingman Stanley Umude, with occasional help from Au’Diese Toney on Castleton, instead. Musselman decided he was going to force Florida to beat Arkansas with the 3-ball and put his faith in his own group that their offensive capability could overcome.
A couple possessions after that fourth foul, Williams canned a 3-pointer to put Arkansas ahead by one with 5:26 to play. Castleton followed with a pair of free throws before Umude buried a 3 of his own. The Razorbacks never trailed again.
Jaylin Willams Continues to Put in Work
Williams, who had his fifth straight double-double in scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, has become arguably Arkansas’ most important player during the winning stretch over the last month-plus. Which is saying something considering he plays alongside an SEC Player of the Year frontrunner in JD Notae. Muss wasn’t going to take Williams out.
“Obviously I trusted him to have him still in there. We moved Stan over to Castleton and moved Jaylin over to guard a perimeter play. We were willing to live with the ball going inside,” Musselman said. “Once we got the lead, we thought we’d still have the ability to score the ball. But if they started hitting 3s that might be too much to overcome.”
Florida made just a single 3-pointer in the second half after making seven in the opening 20 minutes. Such a first-half stat might have destroyed the Razorbacks’ confidence had Tuesday been in early January. This time around, though, the players bought into the plan and responded with the quality that’s been anticipated since they cracked the Top 10 nationally before the winter break losing stretch.
Razorbacks in the NCAA Tournament
The game served as a lock for Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament hopes. The Razorbacks could lose all three of their remaining games – an unlikely, but possible, scenario given their opponents’ quality as all three are likely members of the Big Dance come March, too – and still be in. But is anyone betting that’s going to happen at this point? Arkansas’ one loss since Jan. 8 came Feb. 12 at Alabama. They lost by a single point to perhaps the nation’s most Jekyll and Hyde team.
That level of mental toughness is a 180-degree turn from cold, cold Christmastime.
“I think that this is a group that really believes that they can win. They certainly have great defensive toughness. It’s as tough as any team I’ve been around,” Musselman said. “I think maybe more so than anything is the way that we’ve improved and kind of flipped the switch, much like last year. Both years, if you don’t have high character, it could spin the wrong way when you’ve lost five out of six.”
Character they have. Toughness, too. And talent? Given. Arkansas appears to be in the midst of another magical season and they can thank their new attitude for it.
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