Nate Allen is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Allen is a voter for the Heisman Trophy, has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame, and has authored three books about the Razorbacks.
Musselman, Hogs buzzing for today’s Kentucky matchup
Eric Musselman, Arkansas head coach, reacts in the second half vs Texas A&M Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — College basketball coaches assert in conference play all games count the same.
They are right. And they are wrong. A win is a win and a loss is a loss. All count equally determining conference standings and crowning the conference champion.
But with fans, players, even coaches, some count more.
For Arkansas, the one counting most the Razorbacks play today.
On national ESPN at 3 p.m. at Walton Arena they host the Kentucky Wildcats. They could not play a bigger SEC game.
LSU won last year’s SEC regular season championship.
Auburn won last season’s SEC Tournament, then in the Elite Eight final, beat Kentucky for the Final Four.
Yet, Kentucky was preseason picked to win last season’s SEC and last October SEC preseason picked again to win.
Among Arkansas’ Saturday sellout crowds this season at Walton, the Kentucky game sold out first.
Customarily, the Razorbacks host Kentucky every other basketball season. Arkansas fans anticipate it like Linus anticipating The Great Pumpkin.
The 2014 Michael Qualls dunk as two-tenths of a second remained beating Kentucky, 87-85 at Walton, with Kentucky’s misfired desperation game ending launch lodged atop the Jumbotron, lives on in Arkansas lore.
First-year Arkansas coach Eric Musselman is new to Arkansas but not to Kentucky’s traditional SEC impact. He was a LSU Tigers assistant and still feels both the pregame thrill and postgame pain from the 2015 Wildcats prevailing, 71-69 in Baton Rouge.
“It was my scout that night,” Musselman recalled as the Johnny Jones LSU assistant assigned to pre-dissect Kentucky. “Certainly at LSU that was our best crowd. It was a great game. (Kentucky’s) Karl Anthony-Towns hit a great shot one step inside the three ball. I remember the whole game vividly. I can tell you every possession. When you walked in the building, there’s a buzz. There’s going to be a buzz Saturday. I know it.”
It makes preparing so zealously the same, yet so different.
“I’m not going to coach any different against Vanderbilt or against Kentucky,” Musselman said. “You prepare the same way, then your level of play shouldn’t fluctuate like a yo-yo.”
“I think there’s just hype, you know,” Musselman said. “ I’m sure when the Yankees come to town in Major League Baseball there’s more outside noise.”
Noise he heard even before his Razorbacks vanquished Vanderbilt on Wednesday at Walton.
“There’s going to be a buzz Saturday,” Musselman said. “I know there’s going to be a buzz just as my phone (buzzes) every 10 seconds with people asking for tickets. People I haven’t heard from in a long time.”
From far away.
“I’ve got buddies I grew up playing with at La Jolla Rec in San Diego,” Musselman said. “They’re flying in. Our players are going to have more family members at the game. So yeah, there’s all that. From a mental standpoint, we’ve got to go next to Mississippi State.”
In the SEC, only pregame Kentucky can make a coach fret its postgame effect into next week.
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