Tournament ready: New UA basketball coach Musselman insists talent already here

By: Bob Holt
Published: Tuesday, April 9, 2019
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman speaks at his introduction Monday, April 8, 2019, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by David Gottschalk
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman speaks at his introduction Monday, April 8, 2019, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Eric Musselman believes the University of Arkansas basketball team he is taking over has more talent than the Nevada squad he led to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in 2018.

That's what Musselman told the Razorbacks' returning players when he met with them Sunday night after being hired as Arkansas' coach.

"You guys have more talent than that team, I'm telling you," Musselman said in a video posted on Arkansas' website. "Now, I don't know how hard you're going to play. But if we play hard, we can do real special things. I want you guys to know that. We have enough right here to make the NCAA Tournament, and that's got to be our goal."

Musselman didn't back down from that statement when he met with the media Monday after being formally introduced in Walton Arena as the Razorbacks' 13th head coach.

"I believe that Coach [Mike] Anderson has done a great job of accumulating talent," said Musselman, referring to his predecessor at Arkansas. "So many great, young pieces.

"A lot of the guys just finished up their freshman year, and usually players make great leaps after their freshman year going into their sophomore season."

The Razorbacks' entire team from this season -- minus Daniel Gafford and Keyshawn Embery-Simpson -- attended the Sunday meeting at Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek's house and Monday's announcement.

Gafford, an All-SEC sophomore forward, has declared for the NBA Draft. Embery-Simpson, a freshman guard who played off the bench, has announced he's transferring to Tulsa.

"I don't anticipate anybody [else] leaving," Musselman said. "I think we have guys that are happy."

[WALLY HALL: Yurachek flexes to secure his Musselman]

If no other players leave, Arkansas will return seven of its top nine scorers from a team that went 18-16 last season and made the second round of the NIT. Freshman guard Isaiah Joe (13.9 points), sophomore guards Mason Jones (13.3) and Jalen Harris (7.6), junior forward Adrio Bailey (5.6), freshman forward Reggie Chaney (5.4), freshman guard Desi Sills (5.3), and sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien (3.1) are the Razorbacks slated to return who played significant minutes last season.

"We feel we have to set high goals," Musselman said of stating on the video the Razorbacks have the team -- even without adding any other players -- to play in the NCAA Tournament next season. "We knew it was going to get out. There was a camera there, so it wasn't anything that I wouldn't say today.

"I mean, our goal is to make the [NCAA] Tournament next season. That should be our goal every single season. That's really how I feel -- and I think that's how our players feel.

"They didn't flinch when we talked about it, and then later on I got to eat with them and we talked more and more about how that can happen and what we have to do as a group between now and November."

[RECRUITING: Musselman's NBA pedigree a boost]

Yurachek applauded Musselman, saying the Razorbacks are good enough with the talent they have right now to be an NCAA Tournament team next season

"As an athletic director, I love that," Yurachek said. "What he talked about during the interview process was setting goals for your team and talking about those goals.

"Simple things like his code to the locker room is [NCAA Tournament] Selection Sunday -- the date of that -- so the guys are always constantly thinking about what that goal is. I've got no problem with a coach setting a goal like that and in his first day on the job really putting that goal out there."

Musselman estimated that last week he watched about 20 hours of video from the Razorbacks' games this season while he waited for what he hoped would be a job offer from Yurachek. But he added he's heeding the advice he got from Chuck Daly -- a Naismith Hall of Fame coach who led the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990 -- before determining how well the players will fit the style he would prefer to use.

"I think that for us -- or for any coach -- you've got to get to know your players," Musselman said. "I remember Chuck Daly saying that you never know a player until you actually coach him.

"So we've watched all this film, but I've got to kind of figure out how the pieces fit together."

Musselman said being new to the Razorbacks means the offseason takes on extra importance.

"So many colleges just do individual work in the summer," he said. "We're going to have to do a lot of team stuff to try to get to know each other.

"Everything's obviously new, and because of that, we're going to have to be in team environments and team settings. It's going to be a work in progress."

Musselman told the Razorbacks in their Sunday night meeting that he's going to love them, but push them.

"I've got a lot of energy, a lot of intensity," Musselman said on the UA video. "I'm going to come back at you. But what I can promise each of you guys ... is that I will help you become the best player that you can become.

[MORE: Yurachek says vision of program led to Anderson firing]

"If you give me effort, our staff is going to squeeze out whatever ability you have in that body of yours."

Musselman said he also understands the players need time to get to know him.

"I can't stand up here and say, 'Hey, trust me,' " he said. "Anybody can do that. I've got to earn your trust. I know that.

"I have to earn your trust through how we practice, how we bond, just how we live our daily lives. That's how you're going to end up trusting me. I can't get your trust today, I'm not going to get your trust tomorrow. It's going to come through time.

"But if you guys give me and our staff a chance, great things are going to happen. I came here because I think we can do really special things. I mean that. I mean next year. Not two years or three years. But you guys have got to believe it."

Musselman, who led Nevada to a 110-34 record in four seasons with NCAA Tournament appearances the past three seasons, told the Razorbacks he wants to play fast.

"I want to give you guys a lot of freedom on offense," he said. "We play fast, and we shoot a lot of threes, and we try to get to the basket. We try to get a lot of free throws.

"That's how we've played offensively, and I really don't want to change. Defensively, I want us to gamble, but with discipline and intelligence."

Sports on 04/09/2019

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