Success for new Arkansas coaches can be gauged by 2021

By: Harry King
Published: Wednesday, April 10, 2019
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman talks about his new team during the State of the Hog event on Wednesday, April 10, 2019, at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.
Photo by Thomas Metthe
Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman talks about his new team during the State of the Hog event on Wednesday, April 10, 2019, at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock.

LITTLE ROCK — Assessing coaches based primarily on postseason participation and acknowledging the difference between the time needed to achieve in football and basketball, circle March 6, 2021, to begin simultaneous judgment of Eric Musselman and Chad Morris.

On that date, both will be 36 deep into games of significance.

For Musselman, that is two seasons of SEC play; for Morris, three regular seasons will be in the books. That said, the path to six wins and a bowl game justifies including non-conference games in football while the SEC has become such a power in basketball that anything above .500 in conference play pretty much guarantees a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

At his introduction and follow-up news conference this week, Musselman’s comments were strictly positive — something that is almost mandatory these days when a new coach is hired — but might have been a bit too enthusiastic about winning with only returning talent.

He said in a video that Arkansas has the players to earn an NCAA Tournament bid next year and followed up in person with the same message.

The goal is to make the NCAA Tournament next season, adding, “That should be our goal every single season.”

He’s right about that, but improving the 8-10 SEC record by at least two Ws seems a tall order without Daniel Gafford, expected to be an NBA first-round draft choice.

Maybe, Musselman’s “pace and space” approach to offense — playing fast, shooting 3s and getting to the basket — and gambling on defense with “discipline and intelligence” will make the difference.

Certainly, success was easier to come by in the SEC before then-SEC Commissioner Mike Slive began a concerted effort to improve basketball throughout the league in 2014 and followed up in 2016 by hiring former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese as special advisor to the commissioner for men’s basketball.

“Mike’s knowledge and experience will be an asset for me, our staff and the athletics programs of the SEC as we accelerate our men’s basketball enhancement efforts,” Slive said shortly after the conference placed only three teams in the NCAA.

Last year, the league had a record eight representatives, including an Alabama team that was 8-10 in the conference. This year, a 9-9 Florida was invited and Alabama would have received an invitation if it had reached 9-9 by beating Arkansas in the season finale.

Still, 25 percent of the teams in the Sweet Sixteen were from the SEC, including schools seeded 2, 2, 3 and 5. Fifth-seeded Auburn made the Final Four.

The SEC’s reputation has reached the point that Rick Barnes turned down UCLA’s offer of $5 million a year to remain at Tennessee — unthinkable only a few years ago.

In retrospect, Arkansas’ failure to make much noise when the league was down is one of the things that doomed Mike Anderson.

As difficult as it has become to consistently win league games in basketball, Morris’ task with the football program is more formidable.

For example, the Razorbacks must sweep non-conference foes Portland State, Colorado State, San Jose State and Western Kentucky this fall just to threaten the six victories needed to become bowl eligible. The following year, with Notre Dame on the schedule, beating Kent State and the other two lesser opponents is a must to qualify for the postseason.

Paid to promote SEC football, it is interesting that the announcers doing the telecast of Arkansas’ spring game talked more than once about the Razorbacks getting off to a fast start this fall and about how they could record their first SEC victory against one of the Mississippi schools or Missouri, which would be their first since October 2017.

However, they waffled between 4 1/2 and 5 as the number they would establish for Arkansas’ win total in 2019.

They also lauded the No. 23 ranking of Arkansas’ recruiting class while pointing out that Alabama (1), Texas A&M (3), LSU (7), Auburn (12) and Ole Miss (21) are in the same division as the Razorbacks.

Only when measured against reasonable expectations can Morris and Musselman be judged fairly this upcoming season and the next.

For Morris, success in 2019 would include 4-0 in non-conference games, and at least one SEC victory. A bowl game would be a bonus. In 2020, the acceptable bar is raised to a couple of SEC victories and a bowl game.

Playing the current athletes plus a graduate transfer or two, Musselman will get a thumbs-up for 9-9 in the SEC in his first year and a top 15 recruiting class. If he has Arkansas on the right track, the regular-season finale in 2021 will help determine the Razorbacks’ seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Nothing they do will come close to the combined success of Arkansas football and basketball early in 1978 when Lou Holtz’s first Razorback team was No. 3 in the final UPI Coaches Poll and, barely 80 days later, Eddie Sutton’s fourth Razorback team finished third in the NCAA Tournament.

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