Hogs had 'must-win' mentality against Duke

Arkansas forward Trevon Brazile (2) tips off against Duke center Kyle Filipowski (30), Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, during the first half at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — It was the eighth game of the season, but Coach Eric Musselman didn’t minimize the importance for his Arkansas men’s basketball team to beat Duke on Wednesday night.

The Razorbacks came into the ACC/SEC Challenge matchup with a 1-3 record in their previous four games, including a 78-72 home loss to North Carolina-Greensboro.

It was the first non-conference home game a Musselman-coached team had lost after being 58-0 at Nevada and Arkansas.

Instead of turning things around at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas last week, Arkansas needed double overtime to beat Stanford 77-74, then lost to Memphis 84-79 and No. 17 North Carolina 87-72.

The Razorbacks had opened the season ranked No. 14 in The Associated Press poll, fell to No. 20 after the UNCG loss, then dropped out completely after the Battle 4 Atlantis.

So Musselman made sure his players knew what was at stake against the No. 7 Blue Devils.

“It was discussed that it was a must-win for us,” Musselman said.

The Razorbacks (5-3) delivered an 80-75 victory over Duke (5-2) with a Walton Arena record crowd of 20,344 in attendance.

“For them to have internal pressure, external pressure, crowd pressure, and then to be able to get a win is huge,” Musselman said. “For all the coaches and their families, and the players and their families.

“I had a lot of people fly in a lot of different parts of the country. It meant something nationally as well.

“We don’t have the record that we were hopeful to have. You lose [Wednesday night’s] game, now all of a sudden you’re .500, and then you’re wondering what you have to do to get some signature wins.”

The Razorbacks led the entire second half and by as many as 15 points.

“Going in off the two losses in the Bahamas, we knew we had to win,” said Arkansas sophomore forward Trevon Brazile, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds. “There was no option. We had to win this game.

“That was the vibe in the locker room before the game. Everybody was just locked in and everybody was excited to play.

“I mean, how can you not get excited? It’s a sold-out crowd.

“So it was a great bounce-back game and it was one we had to have.”

Adding to the Razorbacks’ degree of difficulty Wednesday night was playing without junior guard Tramon Mark, who missed the game as he continued to recover from injuries he suffered the previous Friday when he scored a career-high 34 points against North Carolina.

Mark is averaging a team-high 18.4 points per game.

“T-Mark is a big part of our team,” Arkansas senior guard El Ellis said. “He had an amazing game that last game in the Bahamas. He’s really been able to show that he can score the ball at will, defend and rebound.

“But I feel like being without him showed how deep we were, how together we were. When a man’s down, we wanted to get that win for him.”

Musselman has been an NBA head coach for Golden State and Sacramento and an assistant with four teams, including Orlando when Chuck Daly was the Magic’s coach.

“No one feels sorry for you,” Musselman said of missing a key player because of an injury. “If you don’t win that game, no one is saying, ‘Well T-Mark didn’t play.’ Nobody cares.

“It was a great lesson [from] Chuck Daly. I heard him say it 100 times, ‘Nobody gives a — whatever word you want to use — when you’ve got a guy out. They just say if you won or lost.’

“I thought our guys, they responded.”

Some coaches wouldn’t put additional pressure on their players by labeling an early-season game as “must win,” but that’s not Musselman’s style.

“It’s just trying to be truthful with them,” he said. “Our fans knew that it was a must win.”

Musselman’s wife, Danyelle, and daughter, Mariah, also made it clear to him the Razorbacks had to win

“You know, it’s really comforting when you’re making a protein shake in the morning getting ready to go to work and your wife tells you it’s a must-win [game] and your daughter’s sitting there,” Musselman said. “I don’t know if Mariah said, 'It’s a must-win.' It’s, 'Dad, you’ve got to win tonight.'

“We all knew it.”

But teams don’t always win must-win games.

“If you tell your team it’s a must-win and you don’t win, then you’ve got to figure out how to regroup and regain confidence and set new goals moving forward, because there is risk of doing it,” Musselman said. “You’ve got to understand when you do put pressure on a group, and you’ve got to make sure that a group can handle it.

“We certainly felt like we could handle it mentally.”

Arkansas plays defending Southern Conference champion and preseason favorite Furman (4-4) on Monday night at Walton Arena. The Paladins lost 70-69 on Saturday at Princeton, which improved to 8-0.

“I don’t think we should be satisfied at all,” Musselman said of beating Duke. “Obviously, that’s a huge win. I mean, you saw all the players celebrating.

“They had fun, which you want. But when they came in the locker room, Furman’s depth chart was already up on our dry erase board.

“So you’ve got to turn the page as quickly as possible.”