Borrowing our Southern parlance, it’s “awful early yet” in the Hog coaching career of Eric Musselman, but while he’s helming an almost impossibly small, basically six-deep roster (more on that shortly — no pun intended!), he’s also accomplishing things in his first year that most of his predecessors couldn’t fathom doing.
At a healthy 13-2 overall, 2-1 in the SEC, and still not deemed worthy of a Top 25 ranking by either press pundits or coaches — 28th in both polls — the Hogs seem frankly comfortable with this dearth of respect. It stems from very modest preseason expectations, but as the Razorbacks moved through a largely pedestrian nonconference schedule, and stubbed toes on the road at Western Kentucky and LSU by a combined nine points, it’s a credit to Coach Muss that the squad is even situated near the rankings at all. The real credit to him, however, comes by way of comparison and inference.
Mike Anderson’s nice but entirely underwhelming eight-season run was marked by the coach’s rather defiant insistence on trying to bring a sense of style back to the program rather than any kind of substantive approach. Anderson’s 91-38 out-of-league record, to be honest, reflected that his squads here were simply decent, but not all that inspiring.
The importance of a strong start, irrespective of the opponents’ aggregate quality, cannot be understated. Often, Anderson’s teams had feeble efforts even in victory in November and December, but worse, it seemed those inconsistent moments never abated once SEC play began. Sure, it’s a reasonably strong league most years, but the losing spells cost the venerated man his job ultimately, and Musselman accordingly came into his position with an unspoken edict: Win the games you are supposed to win, and stay within shouting distance on the road, and you’ll thrive.
There’s much basketball left on the slate for 2019-20 but can you help but be elated at the way Arkansas’s seven-deep has learned so much, so quickly? The loss to WKU was followed by an emphatic beating of a pretty salty Tulsa team, a pair of competitive games around Christmas against Valpo and Indiana that ended up as wins simply because there’s no semblance of panic in this team, and then a quality SEC-opening effort against Buzz Williams’ rookie-year Texas A&M.
Then, when the Hogs battled their tails off despite being thoroughly outworked by LSU, they still managed to have a final possession that afforded them a shot at a tie or win. But it was a hard defeat to take, and in some ways seemed a karmic offset to the Georgia Tech game the Hogs escaped from victorious thanks to a miraculous Mason Jones heave. All told, thanks to being blasted in the paint and on the glass the entire game, Arkansas was a little more than fortunate to even carve out some late leads against the Tigers. And as a result, it felt like the ensuing road trip to Oxford to square off with Ole Miss was the first must-win scenario this team has faced.
For a good 30-plus minutes, the Hogs were uncharacteristically flat with the ball in their hands, and the defense that had been linchpin of the early successes appeared to be faltering as the Rebels’ experienced guard Breein Tyree was exploiting 1-on-1 matchups and the frontcourt guys were simply making shots they needed to make against Arkansas’s four-guard rotation. Ole Miss led by double digits on a couple of occasions and save for outstanding sophomore guard Isaiah Joe, not many on the court seemed capable of redirecting the flagging offense for the Razorbacks.
Joe just kept firing, though, and as he dropped in his career-best 34, the supporting cast took its cues appropriately. Jones, having a rough shooting night for a change, found ways to make huge contributions, hitting some free throws and dishing out a season-best nine assists. Adrio Bailey and Desi Sills made plays at critical moments. And Jimmy Whitt’s steady hand at the line and his shadowing of Tyree late keyed the turnaround as the Hogs snatched away the win, 76-72, in a fashion similar to the one they employed against Indiana. By staying in striking distance and settling in defensively, Arkansas was able to get a moribund offense going in the late stages, and hitting 18 straight free throws after starting 4-9 didn’t hurt one bit, either.
With a perfectly acceptable 1-1 road swing over, the Hogs draw a rebuilding Vandy at home for the midweek game, and if that one turns out alright (Vandy is 8-7 under first-time head coach Jerry Stackhouse, and its stalwart guard Aaron Nesmith is now shelved with a foot injury), the long-anticipated Saturday afternoon showdown with No. 10 Kentucky at Bud Walton Arena beckons. Even in friendly confines, this squad’s natural luck of a genuine, commanding interior presence is a season-long hindrance that teams like the Wildcats will typically be able to capitalize upon.
But Bailey, Jones and Joe all make use of their long limbs nicely, and it still feels like one confidence-boosting game for Reggie Chaney will change the talented sophomore’s trajectory. If that happens, or if Jeantal Cylla and Ethan Henderson end up getting more work, it will at least keep the opposition honest. Sills continues to shake his way out of a rather hideous perimeter effort early on, too, and Whitt constantly finds ways to pitch in that odd but effective midrange jumper.
It’s not quite the role player-oriented system that Nolan Richardson employed to great effect in the 1990s. But the old coach would absolutely admire and respect the tactical work Musselman is doing with such a limited roster. Nolan always prided himself on finding pieces that would fit, and in his own way, Musselman is working on an unconventional puzzle similarly. Everyone who sees the court is doing valuable things, and if that continues through this week, the Hogs won’t quite be flying beneath the radar much longer.