LITTLE ROCK — For an energetic guy spilling over with enthusiasm and out-of-the-box ideas, a coach who is dialed into his program around the clock, it’s only fitting that Eric Musselman was able to pack an extra 24 hours into a memorable first year as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Musselman — hired on Sunday, April 7, 2019 — just rolled one year on the odometer as Head Hog on Tuesday after spending the first 366 days on the job driving up expectations for an excited Arkansas fanbase. A fanbase thirsty for a Razorback return to national relevance in college basketball that got a lot of new-coach mileage out of Muss, including a little overtime thanks to a bonus 29th day in February during a leap year.
While it’s too early to know how good the Eric Musselman era will be at Arkansas, here are a few observations from year one that ended abruptly with a win in the first round of the SEC tournament in March to cap off an up-and-down 20-12 season …
* Building a brand, a program identity: From day one on the job, Musselman expertly utilized social media to reach out to the Arkansas fanbase while marketing himself and thus his program on a national scale. It was a year of unconventional promotion and savvy use of multiple social-media tools in every endeavor on and off the court. Muss flooded the zone with unique twists to recruiting, hiring, event and game promotion and scheduling, coaching, and more. He banked some branding credibility before wins and losses were ever counted, and in doing so he exceeded what other comparable programs have done with social media and promotion.
A few specific examples of Musselman’s nuance in promotion and recruiting that made big splashes were: 1) playing the annual Red-White game at venerable Barnhill Arena with a 1980s-throwback theme that included a full-sized Pac Man video game giveaway; 2) Upping the ante on the unveiling of Nolan Richardson Court by hosting in-state NCAA D1 Arkansas-Little Rock in an exhibition game — the first time the Hogs matched up against an in-state school since Richardson’s Hogs defeated Arkansas State in the 1987 NIT; and 3) generating a buzz among recruits and national media by re-enacting famous NBA photographed moments with recruits while they were on visits. But even Musselman’s scaled-down moves — i.e. flip-flopping his press conferences from Bud Walton Arena and the practice facility, and visiting fraternities and sororities — were small but constant reminders that Muss’ on-the-fly, moving-target approach would foster intrigue in his program.
* NBA on the brain: The League profile that Musselman unpacked when he got to Fayetteville immediately went on full display and offered tremendous value to players, recruits, and fans. He injected pro-level philosophies in conducting practices, scouting and game-planning, player development, play-calling, in-game adjustments, and personnel packages. His recruiting presentations garnered a lot of positive feedback as recruits raved about his breakdowns of their games and what he could do for their development if they came to Arkansas. Having NBA street cred makes Fayetteville an attractive destination with potential to recruit consistently better than any other time since the mid-90s. It also forges a mindset within the program that much is expected of everyone at all times, because NBA-level attention to detail within the program starts with the head coach and trickles down to everyone else in the organization.
* Staff and hiring: A reflection of what a pro staff looks like, Arkansas boasts its largest men’s basketball staff in the history of the program. In addition to three bench assistants, Musselman brought in a director of basketball operations, a special assistant, two recruiting directors, a digital media staffer, and numerous other staff members. Musselman was the architect of a coaching staff that offers a blend of NBA coaching and playing experience as well as high-major college playing and coaching experience.
* Always learning: By all accounts, Musselman is a sponge who seeks advice and pays attention to all kinds of strategies and leadership attributes crossing over into multiple sports. Some of the greatest leaders openly admit they “stole” great ideas from others and tailored them into their own vision. It suggests Musselman is flexible and open to making adjustments that will maximize the potential of his program.
* Recruiting: So far it’s been an A grade, not an A-plus because I think there were a couple of missed opportunities in terms of strategic moves. Connor Vanover, JD Notae, and Baybe Iyiola were solid pickups in the first few months of his hire. Collectively, I think the redshirt-transfer group will surprise fans. Shoring up the top four 2020 in-state recruits (each is ranked among the top 85 prospects in the nation) for what right now stands as the 7th best recruiting class in the nation exceeded reasonable expectations. Jimmy Whitt, Jr., was a huge win for Muss’ first Arkansas team, but conversely Jeantal Cylla was not a fit for what was the biggest need on the team, which was an infusion of size, length, and athleticism into the mix for SEC battles. Musselman targeted Kerry Blackshear, Jr., who ended up at Florida, and Gabe Osabuohien was a late departure, but perhaps a play for another grad-transfer big that better fit the SEC model would have better served in year one.
The recent addition of New Mexico grad-transfer Vance Jackson (6-9, 225) appears to be a step in the right direction as he brings perimeter skill on offense with the size, length, and versatility to defend both inside and out while making a significant contribution on the glass. The transfer portal and Musselman’s playbook recruiting it deserves its own mini-docu-series. His first four months on the job yielded five college transfers, and so far this spring Musselman has picked up where he left off by casting a proactive wide net while vetting each prospect with tireless research. In one year’s time, Musselman has won the pledges of 12 players — 6 college transfers, 1 high school signee (2020 class), 4 more high school commitments (3 for 2020, 1 for 2021), and 1 preferred walk-on commitment (2020).
* Fan excitement translating to butts in seats: An increase in attendance — the average was 15,487 fans for 19 games at Bud Walton Arena, ranking 3rd in the SEC and 12th nationally — was proof that the fanbase was energized, which is usually the case when a new coaching regime comes in. However, five sellouts for Saturday league games, a 1990s-esque feel inside and outside of Bud Walton Arena hours before the 14-2 Hogs hosted Kentucky on a Saturday in January, and a more-lively-than-normal crowd that packed Verizon Arena for the annual game in central Arkansas were all indicators that Mussleman had energized the fanbase beyond the norms of a new coach.
* On-court identity not-predetermined: Look, with pace-and-space offense being a style identified as a Musselman calling card, the fact is Muss molded his first team’s identity based on personnel strengths and weaknesses, predicted matchups, and roster limitations. What came out of the pre-season boot camp fire was a team that would be built on a foundation of strong perimeter defense — the Hogs led all NCAA D1 teams (almost wire-to-wire) in three-point field goal defense (27.2%), and the SEC’s worst rebounding team found ways to create possessions by winning the turnover battled more times than not on its way to finishing in the top 10 nationally in turnover margin (plus-4.5).
* The season: It was really a story of two-and-a-half seasons — pre-Isaiah Joe injury (Hogs were 13-2), Isaiah Joe injury (Hogs were 3-8 as Joe played hurt in 5 games and missed 6 games), and post-Isaiah Joe injury (Hogs were 4-2 before an abrupt stoppage to the season due to the coronavirus pandemic). Signatures wins were the four Quad-1 victories — at Georgia Tech, at Indiana, at Alabama, and home against LSU — plus a come-from-behind road win at Ole Miss and an impressive performance in defeating TCU in the Big 12/SEC Challenge with Joe out of the lineup. Near misses at LSU, home against Kentucky, Auburn, and South Carolina, and at Missouri stood out in a season that teetered on being really, really good had Joe remained healthy.
The aforementioned stingy perimeter defense and injury to Joe; struggling on the glass against SEC size, length, and athleticism; the yo-yo proficiency at the free-throw line (it played a significant role in some critical losses) on a team that finished middle-of-the-pack in the SEC at 73.1%; the pinball-game numbers that junior guard Mason Jones put up (22.0 points per game led the SEC, 9 games of 30 of more points including 2 games of 40 or more) on his way to SEC Co-Player of the Year; the fringe all-league performances by Joe and Whitt who were the team’s best and most dependable defenders; the continued rise of Desi Sills; the spark and leadership that undersized senior Adrio Bailey gave to a thin frontline; and even the late-season surge by Ethan Henderson were the pieces to the puzzle that collectively painted the picture of the 2019-20 season.
* Grades? Not gonna wimp out and give the season an Incomplete just because it stopped prematurely with a lot still at stake in the postseason. If you look at the 20-12 overall record (8-11 in SEC games) and the final NET ranking of No. 43 in a vacuum it would be hard to grade the season better than a B-minus, but then factoring in the social-media mastery, pro feel within the program, and an excited fanbase that responded by coming to games it easily jumps the grade up to a B-plus. In the final analysis, what can’t be ignored is that Arkansas was 17-4 (includes 11-1 in non-conference games and 6-3 in SEC games) with a healthy Isaiah Joe in the lineup, and even counting that 3-8 stretch the team still had a shot at an-large bid with 2, maybe 3, more wins at the SECT — so, those factors alone effect the curve and that moves year one under Eric Musselman to an A-minus in my gradebook.
While we did not ask Musselman to grade himself on the season, we did ask him to sum up his first campaign as Head Hog on the Hill.
“I think one thing with any first-year program or first-year coach is ‘How do you establish an identity with your team, how does a program come up with a style of play?'” Musselman told Hogville.net on the morning of his one-year anniversary at Arkansas. “I thought the guys adapted really well to how we wanted to practice, and they really responded as we implemented offensive and defensive schemes. From a chemistry standpoint, we were able to get to know our players really well as a staff. Our returning guys will know what the expectations look like (moving forward) — expectations in the classroom, expectations all the way around, not just basketball.
“I thought we were an NCAA tournament team even with the (Joe) injury,” Musselman said. “We withstood some stuff, too, because obviously Mason was hurt one game, Isaiah was hurt those six plus he played when he was not fully healthy trying to help the team. So I think when you look at the record of us when we were fully healthy, phenomenal.”