Eric Musselman’s fiendish obsession with the nuances of basketball made him a roundly commended hire when Arkansas brought him into town in 2019 to succeed the popular but flawed Mike Anderson. He’s been labeled a lot of things the past two years — taskmaster, student of the game, and the like — and I think those are labels he embraces.
The one he likely does not regard as fondly, though, is the one that starts to gain some traction as the Hogs had some pronounced struggles of late: He’s arguably had no “big” wins just yet. After the Hogs shook off another woefully listless start to defeat Mississippi State in a rare Tuesday night tilt at Bud Walton Arena, they stood at 14-5 overall and 6-4 in SEC play. On the surface, that’s a respectable record that could have reasonably been anticipated after 19 games of the 2020-21 season, and would have likely been met with pleasant if unenthusiastic smiles from Razorback fans if you had told them this would be the state of affairs after the first game of February was in the books.
The win side of the ledger has even been a little costly at times: Justin Smith got hurt in the conference opener and wasn’t around for three of the Hogs’ five losses, and against the Bulldogs, Desi Sills again found himself dazed and sidelined after a hard collision with … the floor. And after dropping behind MSU by 13 points early, falling behind by a whopping 19 before recovering to beat Auburn, and muddling through some extended periods in other games, Arkansas looked like a team that had hardly found a late-season rhythm.
The losses have naturally been more aggravating. Two potentially massive Tier-1 road wins eluded the Hogs at both Knoxville and Stillwater, and in losses to Missouri and at LSU and Alabama, this exceedingly talented group looked entirely unfocused and disjointed. They fell behind to both Tiger squads thanks to incredibly inept close-range shooting, and just got flat-out bombed from start to finish by the suddenly flourishing Crimson Tide. And those games led to a social media groundswell of uncertainty and skepticism about Musselman: What’s up with these personnel decisions, in-game and from contest to contest? Why was Connor Vanover, he of limited speed and utility in transition, allowed to stay on the court for the last critical moments against Oklahoma State? Are some of these players tuning out the coaches, each other, or both?
Musselman is, to be clear, sitting at 34 wins and 18 losses since becoming Hunter Yurachek’s choice to succeed Anderson. It’s just that getting to that point has been a curious ride. If Musselman coaxed a thin, small bunch of Mike’s leftovers to overachieve in ’19-20, it’s possible that this group, so much more robust with scorers and length, has simply been a bit underwhelming. The good news is that the Hogs have eight more league games to show their growth and worth; the unfortunate happening on Thursday was that their potential seventh league win was put off thanks to Saturday’s home tilt against a fairly humdrum Texas A&M team being postponed. The Aggies have found themselves in a COVID-19 predicament, which is certainly plausible justification for tipping off later in the calendar, but boy, did this news take some more wind out of Razorback sails.
Vanover’s been a lightning rod for criticism because, well, he’s 7’3″ and therefore his beautiful and ugly moments stand out. On a team full of lean, slashing guards and wing players, he’s the angular outlier. He shoots decent enough but inconsistently so, and while he definitely challenges shots often, he’s only an average rebounder for his size. But where Hog fans lost some patience with the Little Rock product was when he got outclassed on the defensive end by a single player or, worse yet, an entire lineup geared to prey upon the big guy near the basket.
That’s been tough to watch. Vanover has done some really good things, and he’s not remotely at fault for any given loss: His long three-point try against OSU was clearly not the preferred shot at pushing the Cowboys to overtime, but it was an open, clean look, and he was just a shade off-target. JD Notae has been an electric scorer at times, but he’s also pressed too much at times and launched some ill-advised ones from distance. For all the excellent work Jalen Tate has done as a floor general, he also had some turnover-heavy stretches in recent weeks. Sills has been great at times but detached from the action at key moments, and damn, I worry about the guy’s health because he throws his comparatively diminutive frame into the paint with such fearlessness that there’s bound to be a concussion or a fracture coming.
Moses Moody was the linchpin recruit and advertised star, and he’s been really, really good. Even more encouraging is that the Hogs played quite well in a couple of their victories with Moody’s contributions being relatively modest. But if this team’s postseason aspirations are to materialize, he’s likely going to have to ratchet his production upward. While the Hogs have a bevy of players who can and will take a long-range jumper, there’s not an Isaiah Joe type out there who is going to drop 4-5 threes every single game.
As this team tries to work itself back more comfortably inside the NCAA bubble —some recent projections have the Hogs in one of those decidedly uncomfortable 11-seed play-in games — Moody’s not the only freshman who is going to have to ramp up his production. Fellow Pulaski County product Davonte “Devo” Davis has started to make a more pronounced impact, using his wiry, left-dominant body to create disruption to another team’s backcourt and to push the offensive action. While he doesn’t count himself among the many Hogs who can consistently drop one from outside the arc (he’s only attempted five threes, making two), his quickness and headiness are undeniable.
It’s a year where Kentucky, which now represents the next foe on the Hogs’ schedule with the A&M game set back, is flailing around as a non-tourney team and Tennessee and Auburn aren’t up to the caliber that was expected. Bama’s 10-0 burst under Nate Oats in league play is impressive, and likely enough to give the Tide the SEC regular season title in short order, but it’s conceivable that the Hogs could be a solid second or third seed when the conference tournament arrives in a month. Agonizingly, Arkansas’s defeat at Oklahoma State, coupled with a cancellation of the Kentucky-Texas matchup, kept the league from winning the annual Big 12/SEC Challenge, but it was a good sign that the conference fared well, winning five of the nine scheduled matchups. The Big 12 is the more celebrated conference up and down, but for just the second time in eight years, our mates in the SEC held serve.
What all of this means is that Arkansas remains a solid team in a solid basketball conference. And Eric Musselman is among the most knowledgeable and proven coaches in the mix, but as with any staff, the players have to respond to the coaching being imparted in a favorable way. Despite some cracks in the foundation emerging throughout January, this is still the type of team most of us thought we’d be getting. It’s understandable to want and expect more because of the personnel involved, and I still think they’re capable of delivering the goods to those of us who have pined for some kind of postseason success for the program.
Work is to be done for that to transpire. Fortunately, this team is well-positioned to do it.