Well, it was good while it lasted.
For a while, Eric Musselman looked like a sure bet to be the savior of Arkansas basketball, the man who would restore it to its rightful place as a perpetual Top 25 program.
Since arriving in Fayetteville in the spring of 2019 through the first week of 2021, the Musselman story in Arkansas was almost entirely a feel-good one, full of huge wins against the likes of Georgia Tech and Indiana, overachieving despite an overall lack of height, enduring an injury to Isaiah Joe and rampaging through this season’s non-conference like a cupcake-inhaling Godzilla.
Through the first game of the SEC season, an impressive road win at Auburn, it seemed like all the pieces were falling into place. A great X’s and O’s coach by reputation, paired an outstanding class of incoming transfers, mixed with a Top 5 recruiting class – all the ingredients were there for a return to the Top 25 and solid seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Amazingly, nearly 20 months into his Arkansas tenure, Mussmania was still going full bore. In that period, the 56-year-old built up a large reservoir of goodwill among fans.
After these last couple of games, however, that reservoir is rapidly depleting.
In consecutive games LSU and Alabama, two programs not yet in the Top 25, wiped the Hogs off the floor.
Saturday’s 31-point loss to Alabama was especially troubling. Instead of bouncing back from the previous blowout loss to the Tigers, the Razorbacks instead regressed.
Alabama is playing the game we want to play. Pace and space, lots of threes, get to the rim and defend. The Hogs are being outscored 30-9 from the 3 pt line.— Steve Sullivan (@sully7777) January 16, 2021
It’s easy to point fingers at specific players.
There was previously dependable Desi Sills, still missing too many threes and layups. There was Davonte Davis, who in the second half allowed a guard to blow by him on the way to the hoop. Instead of moving his feet, he tried to rely on his quick hands and poke the ball away from behind. Instead, an easy layup for Bama resulted.
There was Vance Jackson, who walked while trying to make a move to the basket off a pump fake, and Connor Vanover, the 7’3” transfer who outside of Tennessee just can’t seem to find an SEC opponent he can stay on the court against.
But the players aren’t the ones who should be held accountable for the overall performance of the team and direction of the program as a whole.
That falls on Musselman. And, right now, Musselman deserves blame.
Some of the issue involves anticipating and adjusting to opponents’ defensive schemes. Arkansas had done well here until this past week, but the Tigers and Crimson Tide put on clinics on how to gunk up Musselman’s “pace and space” schemes.
“I thought we sat on, guarded, and then we weren’t distracted with all the motion away from the ball,” Alabama head coach Nate Oats told the SEC Network after the win. “I thought our help side got pulled over where it needed to be, and when we did get beat on blow-bys, we had guys ready to help and they weren’t being distracted with all the motion and distraction stuff going on on the backside.”
Another part of the issue, it seems, comes down to talent evaluation.
To start, Musselman and staff deserve credit for developing Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones into NBA players, and recruiting Moses Moody, the only positive in the Alabama loss and perhaps a future NBA lottery pick. Last year, Musselman also scored a win by getting Jimmy Whitt to transfer in. Most of his other transfers, however, don’t look so hot against SEC competition.
Last year, Jeantal Cylla was a bust.
Outside of a breakout game against Tennessee, Vance Jackson is veering toward “bust” status this year.
JD Notae and Jalen Tate looked like great additions in non-conference, but they are hot and cold against SEC competition. Tate, the point guard, has especially struggled to penetrate the lane against quicker, bigger defenders.
“We’ve got to have good point guard play. Most of our scoring tonight was in half court sets,” Musselman said after the Alabama loss. “We have become a team that’s better executing half-court plays and playing out of the flow. Last year our team was great playing out of the flow. Poor decision and poor shot selection makes that near impossible right now to play out of the flow.”
Musselman did appear to land a great fit among incoming transfers in power forward Justin Smith. Unfortunately, there’s no depth around Smith, whose absence from injury has played a role in Arkansas losing four of five games. (Although Smith returned against Alabama, he’s not yet 100%.)
If Vanover were a better fit for the hyper-athletic SEC, then perhaps he could have helped pick up the slack for Smith’s absence. Instead, Musselman has had to give more minutes to Ethan Henderson, who has regressed from last year, and true freshman Jaylin Williams, who has a bright future but isn’t yet ready to take a leading role.
Reggie Chaney, the often criticized but hyper-athletic forward who left the program last summer, at least would have given the Hogs a good 15 minutes against each of its last two opponents.
In the aftermath of the team’s recent struggles, an increasing number of fans and followers of the program are noting overall issues in Musselman’s most recent teams at Nevada and Arkansas.
They include ineffective fast breaking, too many whiffs in talent evaluation of incoming transfers and getting too emotional on the sidelines.
Calling Musselman “too emotional” feels off since the reason Hunter Yurachek brought him aboard in the first place is because he wanted to breathe life back into the program. Yes, Musselman is emotional, but so was Nolan Richardson.
Yes, that looks bad in a game like Alabama when a couple of times Musselman was too angry to even coach during timeouts (David Patrick did instead). But fans also ate up the positive side of his emotion when things were going better.
The main problem with being “too” emotional is when anger or frustration prevents you from mending bonds that have been frayed because of stress. Last year, Musselman and Mason Jones openly got on each other’s nerves, but always resolved things and in the end everything ended lovey-dovey with Jones getting SEC Player of the Year honors and landing in the NBA.
Based solely on sideline behavior, it appears a similar dynamic may be playing out with some players on this year’s team. Plus, after the Alabama game, Moses Moody essentially said a few players aren’t yet fully bought into what Musselman and his staff are trying to do.
“We’ve just got to fully buy in,” Moody said. “Listen to the guys putting in hours studying the game film.”
Musselman sounded frustrated in the press conference. “All the drills that we’ve done on defending the three, we’ve done those drills — obviously my message and my coaching is not getting through on defending the three ball,” he said.
“Because we saw last year us leading the nation in it. And a lot of that is we have a lot of guys that are reluctant to guard the three point line because they’re worried about getting blown by off the dribble because of lack of lateral quickness.”
The end of a honeymoon isn’t the end of the world. It could be the start of a more real, clear-eyed relationship between coach and fans.
Things should get better in the coming weeks. Arkansas is 10-15 in SEC play in Musselman’s two seasons so far but that should improve soon. Arkansas returns home against Auburn, then plays weaker SEC competition in Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
In the same way the state of Mississippi restored confidence to the Razorback football team in the 2020 season, it may just do the same for Hogs basketball.
In the short term, the task for Musselman isn’t to return Arkansas to the Top 25. It’s simply to get it back to a place where its players look confident and like they are having fun on the court again.
Arkansas-Alabama post-game comments:
Musselman on Razorback basketball confidence:
“I don’t think there’s any doubt when you’re losing, like we are that we definitely have some players that have lost some confidence and probably the team as a whole. So you just… The only thing I know is continue to teach, try to build them up, and I think that’s the only thing you can do.”
On Desi Sills’ slump:
“I mean, he went through it last year. We had really hot streaks and then some slumps and he’s definitely struggling right now. Our missed layups at the rim is very concerning as well.”
On calling time-outs and trying to find leadership on the court:
“I’ve gone back to back games where I didn’t have enough time outs. You go back, whether it was prior to me coming to Arkansas last year. I usually like guys to kind of play through the flow and we have some quick hitters that we like to do when another team goes on a run, but certainly our leadership on the floor is something that’s very concerning.”
On Jalen Tate and his increasing turnovers:
“Some of them tonight, there’s some guys on our stat sheet that have zero turnovers and guys dropped passes and stuff. I already know without going back through the film that two of those turnovers are not his, but it’s really when he’s not on the floor, not having a point guard has really been the biggest issue.”
“We just haven’t had point guard play the last two games. I mean, we can’t have six turnovers …But this is our team. We got to continue to work but certainly direction wise as a point guard we’ve got to get better.
On Moses Moody, who had a career-high 28 point:
“Just played well and he was aggressive, he did a good job coming off some screens on some of our set plays. We were much better running set plays than we were in our transition game today. But, we just got to get back to teaching some of the things that we’ve taught. Obviously this group is struggling much more than last year’s group on defending the three and scoring the ball. And so we’ve got to just continue to address them and try to get better.”
“Clearly we got to get a lot better in a lot of different areas. We got a lot of work ahead of us between now and our next game and between now and the end of the season. And then we got a lot of work ahead of us when the season’s up as well. We just got to continue to try to get these guys believing in themselves as best we can.”