Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman should be the NCAA Men’s Basketball Coach of the Year. And it really shouldn’t be close.
I know Gonzaga is a juggernaut and has a good chance to be the first team since Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana team to run the table. Zags Coach Mark Few is a tremendous coach with a loaded roster. I also understand that Alabama’s Nate Oats beat out Musselman for the SEC Coach of the Year honors. Like the Hogs, the Crimson Tide is in the Sweet 16 as well. Oats’ instant success at a “football school” is duly noted. And our good friend Porter Moser, who was once the Arkansas-Little Rock Coach, has Loyola poised for another Final Four run with help from Sister Jean. Taking a mid-major on deep runs twice definitely is worthy of individual recognition.
But, I’d contend that none of these coaches, or any others, deserves the award more than Musselman this year. And I say this not knowing how Saturday’s Sweet 16 game with No. 15 seed Oral Roberts will turn out or if the tournament run will end Saturday or go all the way to the Final Four. Even with a loss to the Golden Eagles, I stand firm. Dare I say a National Championship, and then I’d probably have plenty of others standing in agreement.
But I’ll just base my judgment on the current situation and what we know as Arkansans that others don’t. First, Musselman inherited a program that was idling in neutral. Mike Anderson wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t great either. He advertised a high-octane brand of basketball that we saw from his UAB and Missouri teams with a frenetic pace and long, athletic players, but we never saw that in Fayetteville. He didn’t land the players that fit his system and couldn’t get some high-profile in-state recruits to stay.
The sad fact is that even with Anderson’s frustrating tenure of OK but not good, he was the best option Arkansas had had since his boss, the legendary Nolan Richardson, was fired in 2002. Stan Heath, John Pelphrey and Anderson. All of them contributed to the once-proud Razorbacks program being considered an afterthought in the college basketball world.
Most pundits had completely written Arkansas off, never to return again. But, those critics didn’t consider the big picture. The fact that Bud Walton Arena is still one of the great arenas in college basketball and that across the street from there is a state-of-the-art practice facility. Also, that the state is producing the kind of basketball talent that could jumpstart a program and keep it rolling if only there was the right coach in place to lure them to Fayetteville. UA football coaches have complained for years that there isn’t enough in-state prep football talent and that they must be adept at landing prospects from neighboring states in the region and nationwide. Not so with basketball. The talent is rich, and it is never ending, especially in the Little Rock area.
So, UA athletic director Hunter Yurachek took a flier on Musselman, the former NBA coach who reinvented himself as a college coach first as an assistant and then taking the University of Nevada to new heights.
It wasn’t a splashy hire. I remember a bit of skepticism about how Musselman may translate to the SEC but then realized he had been an assistant at LSU. I liked his enthusiasm and his ability to recruit talented players to Nevada, especially by using the transfer portal.
In his first year at Arkansas, we immediately saw two impactful developments. First, he landed talented in-state recruits. Moses Moody, Davonte Davis, Jaylin Williams, who have made major impacts as freshman and K.K. Robinson, were major gets that probably wouldn’t have come to the UA in the past.
It was also encouraging to see Musselman win with a roster that wasn’t extremely talented and see every player improve immensely. Under his tutelage, Mason Jones became the SEC Co-Player of the Year and Isaiah Joe a bona fide NBA prospect. Others such as Adrio Bailey blossomed into roles that allowed them to make an impact on the team they hadn’t before.
In his first year, Musselman showed a knack for preparation and adjustments like we hadn’t seen, maybe even when Richardson had Arkansas in the national spotlight.
Arkansas wasn’t likely to make the NCAA Tournament had it not been canceled a year ago but gains had been made. However, he was essentially starting over as Jones and Joe headed to the NBA Draft.
I still predicted a Sweet 16 run. You know why? Because if Musselman could make such a big impact with Anderson’s players, what would he do with even more talent, albeit young. I also knew Cal transfer Connor Vanover could help. What I didn’t know that along with the talented home-grown freshman Moody, Davis and Williams that transfers Jalen Tate, Justin Smith and J.D. Notae would be so good. Musselman brings so many of his NBA skills to the college game such as advanced scouting and the Xs and Os but also talent evaluation. The transfer portal is very similar to adding players on the free agent market and waiver wire. It helped him greatly at Nevada and again this year.
But, he still had to pull all the right strings at the right times to get this team to jell. Even with a January slump, which drew plenty of critics, Musselman formed a high-level team and has now guided the Hogs to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 years. Gonzaga, Loyola, Baylor and others have veteran talent and systems that have been in place for years.
Musselman has barely been in Fayetteville long enough to put his stamp on things and lost two of his best players and still has taken Arkansas to a level that fans have been dreaming of for a long time. His ability to take inexperienced and discarded pieces and turn them into a contender in one year is amazing. The national media is slow to react. Musselman should be getting more praise than he is, but if the Hogs are still dancing after this weekend, they will be saying the same things I am here.
The best part for Hogs fans is this is merely the beginning. The program will only get better and Sweet 16 runs will be routine. And don’t fret about the openings at Indiana, Minnesota and now Texas. With Musselman at the helm, Arkansas is as a premier program again. Indiana, Texas and for sure Minnesota (even though it’s home for him in a sense) are steps back.
If you want to worry, look at what NBA jobs are open at the end of the year. That’s where Musselman would go from here. But, don’t fret about it now. Relax and enjoy what will hopefully be an exhilarating weekend of Hogs basketball.