At long last, March Madness is upon us. Other than the Super Bowl, it is probably my favorite time of the year when it comes to sports. It is a time where truly anything can happen. Teams can rise up and shock the world (like Oral Roberts has this season), or they can crumble like a wet cookie (like Ohio State or Texas did in the tournament with their unceremonious first-round exits). Despite having their share of doubters (like Seth Davis) and haters (like Todd Fuhrman, the betting “expert”), the Arkansas Razorbacks are one of those teams that have placed themselves squarely in the championship conversation behind the efforts of second-year coach Eric Musselman. And, boy, is it good to be back.
Let’s jump into a time machine back to the 1990s. In the world of college basketball, Arkansas is one of the most dominant presences out there. Nolan Richardson is the head coach, bringing his “40 Minutes of Hell” style of play that is dominating even the best of teams. The leader of the free world, Bill Clinton, is a die-hard fan, attending their NCAA Tournament games, as well as making trips to Fayetteville every now and then to watch at Bud Walton Arena. While Razorback basketball was extremely dominant during this time, it was, most of all, fun.
Things started to go south for the men’s basketball team around the turn of the century. Richardson’s Hogs lost their steam, and the end result was a messy and bitter divorce in 2002. Richardson’s next two successors, Stan Heath and John Pelphrey, were major flame-outs, as they combined for only one NCAA Tournament win and three appearances in their combined nine seasons at the helm. The Razorbacks reached astounding lows under Pelphrey, as the Hogs went a combined 46-47 (16-32 SEC) in his last three seasons as head coach.
At this point, the Razorbacks were in shambles. Therefore, Mike Anderson (Pelphrey’s successor) deserves a lot of credit for stabilizing the men’s basketball program. Anderson was able to turn the Razorbacks back into a winning program that was able to, every couple of seasons, contend for an NCAA Tournament berth. However, after eight seasons, which ended with an 18-16 record and an NIT appearance in his eighth season, it became apparent that Anderson’s ceiling was never going to be as high as his mentor, Richardson. Therefore, Arkansas made the tough call and dismissed Anderson.
The college basketball community was shocked to see Anderson get fired, especially since he was so well-liked by the Razorbacks’ fanbase and because the Razorbacks were never downright bad or unwatchable with him in charge, like they were at certain points under Stan Heath and John Pelphrey. Because of this, there was a lot of pressure on Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek to nail the hire on Anderson’s replacement. After a search that had several twists and turns, Eric Musselman emerged as the next head coach for the storied program.
The 2019-20 season, Musselman’s first in Fayetteville, felt like a prelude to 2020-21, but, despite dealing with injuries and one of the smallest rotations in the country, with only nine scholarship players on the roster, the team actually improved to 20 wins after winning 18 in Anderson’s last season. Furthering the momentum was the fact that Musselman had put together one of the top recruiting classes in the country, led by Moses Moody, and brought in multiple high-profile transfers, such as Justin Smith, Jalen Tate and JD Notae that would immediately receive sizable roles in the rotation.
The 2020-21 season hasn’t always been smooth sailing in Fayetteville. Probably the best nickname for the Razorbacks would be the “Heart Attack Hogs,” as the Razorbacks have been played close by Oral Roberts and Texas A&M, as well as really bad Central Arkansas and Kentucky teams. The Razorbacks also had their backs against the wall throughout January, suffering four losses over a five-game stretch, highlighted by a 31-point demolishing at the hands of Alabama.
Since that Alabama loss, though, the Razorbacks have kept grinding. For the next month and a half, the Razorbacks did not lose a single SEC game and picked up wins against some of the top teams in the conference, including a revenge game against the Crimson Tide. Their run in February and early March turned them from a team that looked like they were in serious trouble into a legitimate contender to cut down the nets at the end of March Madness. The Hogs got a #3 seed for the NCAA Tournament, and they pieced together wins over two very good teams (Colgate and Texas Tech) to give them their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 1996 (Who was the coach then? Nolan Richardson.)
Simply put, Musselman has made Arkansas basketball fun to watch again. They play at their best when they operate with a small-ball lineup that can hit threes and play bigger on the inside than their size may indicate. They have numerous playmakers that can take the game over at any time. And with someone like Musselman strolling the sidelines, the Razorbacks are tougher than a two-dollar steak.
The fact that this turnaround has happened in only two seasons should just further the point that Muss is one of the best in the country. Under Heath and Pelphrey, the Razorbacks ranged from occasionally decent to mostly laughable. Under Anderson, the Razorbacks were respectable but never legitimate threats to cut down the nets. Under Musselman, the Razorbacks are as dominant as they’ve ever been in the 21st century. Hunter Yurachek better do whatever he can to keep him in Fayetteville because other schools, such as Indiana, are sure to come calling with their checkbooks open.
Eric Musselman has been one of the more well-respected names around the basketball world for a long time. He had short stints as the head coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings. He also was a G-League (basically NBA’s minor league) head coach for a couple of seasons, spent time as an assistant coach for Arizona State and LSU, and won at least 24 games every season he spent as Nevada’s head coach. However, it looks like Muss, barring something drastic, could end up being best known as the man who brought the Arkansas Razorbacks back.
Photo courtesy of Arkansas Athletics