NCAA Tournament Report: Shirtless Muss not planned

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman (right) hugs forward Kamani Johnson following a 72-71 victory over Kansas at the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, March 18, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

LAS VEGAS — Eric Musselman’s polo shirt — him taking it off to be precise — has been a hot topic of conversation on radio and television shows and podcasts discussing the NCAA Tournament.

Taking off his shirt is something Musselman began doing after big victories at Nevada when he coached the Wolf Pack, and it’s a habit he’s continued in his four seasons as the University of Arkansas coach.

The latest example of Musselman, 58, going shirtless was after the Razorbacks beat No. 1 seed Kansas 72-71 last Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Musselman was asked about taking off his shirt during his news conference Wednesday to preview tonight’s Arkansas-Connecticut game in the West Region semifinals at T-Mobile Arena.

“It happened at Nevada,” Musselman said. “I don’t know how or why.

“I was not planning on doing it the other night [after beating Kansas]. But one of our hosts [in Des Moines] was kind of begging me, even after the first game. He was one of the guys that walked us around.

“I mean, I guess my emotions got the best of me. My wife [Danyelle] is not always happy about that.

“But it’s not something that we plan on doing all the time. It just kind of … emotions run through you, and I guess you to get a certain age and you just kind of do it just because.”

Arkansas senior forward Kamani Johnson was asked his thoughts on Musselman taking his shirt off to celebrate big victories.

“I always say a happy Muss is a happy us,” Johnson said. “More shirt off is good for us.”

Extra prep

Teams led by Eric Musselman at Arkansas and Nevada have been a challenge to beat with several days to gear up for a game.

The No. 8 seed Razorbacks last Thursday defeated No. 9 Illinois 73-63 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Des Moines, Iowa. The win improved Musselman’s record in games after four-plus days off to 52-10 overall and 26-4 at Arkansas.

The Razorbacks, who will play No. 4 seed Connecticut tonight after four days off, are 8-1 this season in that scenario. Their lone loss came Dec. 28 at LSU in the SEC opener.

Musselman’s teams have won eight consecutive postseason games and five straight NCAA Tournament games, including No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga in last year’s Sweet 16, coming off four or more days of rest.

The Huskies are 8-0 this season after four-plus days of rest.

Sharing is caring

Few teams in college basketball have shared the ball like Connecticut this season.

The Huskies are averaging 17.4 assists per game. Xavier, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region, is the only team remaining in the NCAA Tournament that averages more (19.2).

According to KenPom, a college basketball analytics website, the Huskies have assisted on 64.1% of their made field goals. It is the fourth-highest mark among teams in the Sweet 16.

Connecticut has recorded 20 or more assists 13 times, and it is 12-1 in those games. The Huskies had a season-high 29 assists in a 114-61 victory over Long Island University in December.

The Huskies averaged 9.5 assists in their first- and second-round wins over Iona and Saint Mary’s last week.

Tough schedules

Arkansas and Connecticut play in the SEC and Big East, which each have three teams left in the NCAA Tournament to lead all conferences.

Alabama and Tennessee are SEC teams along with Arkansas in the Sweet 16 and Connecticut is joined by fellow Big East members Creighton and Xavier.

The strength of the SEC and Big East are reflected in the NCAA Tournament teams the Razorbacks and Huskies have played this season.

Tonight will be Arkansas’ 20th game against an NCAA Tournament team, including first- and second-round victories over Illinois and Kansas last week.

The Razorbacks are 8-11 against NCAA Tournament teams, including 6-11 in the SEC.

Connecticut is 7-6 against NCAA Tournament teams, including first- and second-round victories over Iona and Saint Mary’s last week. The Huskies are 4-6 against Big East teams that made the NCAA Tournament.

Family ties

Arkansas senior forward Jalen Graham is thrilled to be playing close to home.

Graham, who is from Phoenix, transferred to Arkansas after playing the previous three seasons in his hometown at Arizona State.

Phoenix is less than a five-hour drive from Las Vegas.

Graham’s mother, brother, twin sister and some former roommates at Arizona State will be in attendance for the Razorbacks’ game against Connecticut tonight.

It will be the first time this season his family will watch him in person.

“Having them able to come to this game and be a part of this is amazing,” Graham said. “This is a big deal for me and I’m happy that they’re able to come out. They’re just some really close people around me that have been in my life for years, and they’re coming out to support me.”

Graham is also no stranger to T-Mobile Arena, where the Pac-12 Tournament has been played since 2017. He played three games in the arena with the Sun Devils.

“I’ve played in this arena a lot. I’m used to this,” Graham said. “It’s fun. It’s a great atmosphere.”

Common foes

Arkansas and Connecticut had three common opponents this season: Alabama, Florida and Creighton.

The Razorbacks went 0-2 against the Crimson Tide, losing 84-69 at home and 86-83 on the road. They lost to Creighton 90-87 at the Maui Invitational and beat Florida 84-65 at home.

The Huskies beat Alabama 82-67 in Portland, Ore., beat 75-54 at Florida and went 1-1 against Creighton, beating the Bluejays 69-60 at home and losing 56-53 on the road.