State of the Hogs: Musselman has work to do

By: Clay Henry
Published: Wednesday, April 10, 2019
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman (left) and Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek hold up a jersey prior to a news conference Monday, April 8, 2019, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by David Gottschalk
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman (left) and Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek hold up a jersey prior to a news conference Monday, April 8, 2019, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

Eric Musselman should get a thumbs up for his first time in front of the Arkansas fans. The new basketball coach did well Monday in a pair of chances to talk about his players.

Musselman didn’t back away from the great expectations of what the Razorback basketball program was under Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson: Go to the NCAA Tournament almost every year and win some games.

But it’s going to take a coach-of-the-year job in Year 1 for Musselman to pull that off.

I took a good look at the basketball players who entered the gym to a large ovation. Unless Musselman adds some key parts in the coming weeks, that’s the team he’ll have to coach to the NCAA Tournament.

I don’t think it’s likely. Someone with a great eye for the basketball talent left by Mike Anderson spoke with me after the press conference to ask if I thought Musselman was serious. After watching the Hogs all season, this guy didn’t think it possible for the Hogs to be dancing next season.

Remember, two of the best players on the team aren’t coming back. Forward Daniel Gafford will be on an NBA roster next season. Guard Keyshawn Embery-Simpson is transferring to Tulsa. He’s gone, athletics director Hunter Yurachek confirmed to me Monday after the interviews were complete.

I don’t have a problem with a coach offering encouragement to fans and his new players. Setting goals is a major part of athletics. The NCAA Tournament should be the goal.

I just don’t think it’s going to happen next season. There is nothing wrong with that, either. A new coach should get some time to rebuild.

Some of the best coaches I’ve ever watched were quick to set lofty goals. Richardson never backed away from goals, even when it looked like a rebuilding process was underway. He talked up his players to the media, even sometimes when I thought the talent lacked what it took to play at the level Richardson regularly hit.

Musselman explained his system to the delight of fans. His “space and pace” description of his style of offense makes a lot of sense. Shoot threes and attack, with a goal of getting to the foul line. When you get to the foul line, two things happen: You can score from an unguarded position and the other team picks up a foul.

Defensively, it’s pressure and some risk taking, but not to the point of giving up easy buckets. I think that suits most fans, probably tired of gambling too much under Anderson.

There is some talent returning. There are few shooters better in college basketball than Isaiah Joe. I like guards Desi Sills and Mason Jones a lot, too. Reggie Chaney will be a beast in Musselman’s system that always develops front court players.

But overall, it’s going to be a rebuild. It’s not a lot different than what Richardson inherited from Sutton, although it’s a better cut of people off the court. There were some problems behind the scenes in that group left by Sutton.

I can recall the end-of-year banquet that Sutton attended even after he’d taken the Kentucky job. How did anyone let that happen? Sutton spoke, too. Among the things he said, and I’ll paraphrase: I’m leaving Nolan a Final Four team.

There is no way in knowing if that bunch – commonly referred to as the Bad Hands Hogs – would have done well in Sutton’s system. But it was clear they couldn’t play Richardson’s faster pace. I’m betting Sutton would have struggled with them, too.

I think Richardson figured it out pretty quickly, but he never dogged that team, just worked and talked them up. And, he went to work to find some real basketball talent. I can recall when he told me about Ron Huery from Memphis, perhaps the key signee of the Richardson era.

Nolan was beaming as he explained Huery’s talents. He said, simply, he could have started for his first Tulsa team, that kind of talent. Huery might not be Paul Pressey, Nolan said, but they would have been fun to watch playing together.

The scouting report on Musselman is top shelf. He demands toughness. His teams always play hard. That’s what Yurachek, a former college basketball player, talked about to the media Monday, how hard Musselman’s teams at Nevada played.

Corey Beck said the same thing about Musselman’s teams in the CBA at West Palm Beach, Florida. Beck thinks he may have played against those teams 10 to 15 times. The games were always hotly contested.

I don’t know how long it will take Musselman to have the Hogs back in the NCAA tournament on a regular basis, but it’s not going to be as easy as just adding his coaching magic to this team. He’s going to have to find him some more players, with an emphasis on toughness.

The SEC is not a cake walk. Arkansas funds basketball at a proper level, ever since Sutton was hired by Frank Broyles and Barnhill Fieldhouse was rebuilt to become Barnhill Arena.

But with the big dollars provided by the SEC Network, almost everyone else in the SEC funds basketball at a high level, too. There was a time - in the SWC and then the SEC - that Arkansas basketball was well above all but Kentucky in the way they spent money on basketball.

It’s not that way now. There is nothing wrong with the Arkansas fan base that winning won’t fix, but there are others around the SEC that have an energized basketball fan base, too. There are lots of good coaches in the league.

I’ve got a good feeling about where Musselman will take the Razorbacks in basketball. But, fans should try hard to enjoy the journey as their new coach heads out into what is a tough and brutal basketball league right now.

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