There is a lot to like about Eric Musselman, Arkansas’ first-year head basketball coach.
In a short time, he’s knit a group of players into a team that clearly understands its objectives, its limitations and its strengths. The players know and understand their roles and generally execute within them. Cliched as it may be, they’ve bought in to his system.
Musselman and his staff have done an outstanding job of coaching the Razorbacks to an outstanding 12-2 start when all things are considered.
If you’re reading this, you probably feel that there is a “but” coming, and there is.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Ole Miss
When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11
Where: Oxford, MS
TV: SEC Network
Jan. 15 – Vanderbilt
Jan. 18 – Kentucky
Jan. 22 – at Mississippi State
Jan. 25 – TCU
Jan. 29 – South Carolina
Feb. 1 – at Alabama
Feb. 4 – Auburn
Feb. 8 – at Missouri
Feb. 11 – at Tennessee
Feb. 15 – Mississippi State
Feb. 18 – at Florida
Feb. 22 – Missouri
Feb. 26 – Tennessee
Feb. 29 – at Georgia
March 4 – LSU
March 7 – at Texas A&M
But what I like most about Musselman is that he absolutely, unquestionably hates to lose. It absolutely disgusts him.
Some coaches come out and say they hate to lose, but Musselman doesn’t have to. You can just hear it dripping off his tone and attitude in his postgame comments following the Razorbacks’ 79-77 loss at LSU on Wednesday night, and it was still there Thursday in his press conference to preview Saturday’s 5 p.m. game with Ole Miss. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.
If you go back to his post-game press conference after the Hog’s Dec. 8 86-79 overtime loss at Western Kentucky, that same attitude is there. And, I’m guessing whenever the Hogs lose their next game — hopefully not for a while — that same ire will be there.
While I would not want to be an active participant in the practices or meetings leading up to Saturday’s game at Ole Miss, I’m glad Musselman has that attitude toward losing and I’m glad his Razorbacks have bought into his style of coaching. Musselman’s going to do everything he can to get the Hogs back on the left side of the results column, and you can bet if you’ve thought of a way to improve the Hogs, he and his staff has, too.
We already know Musselman is a fantastic motivator. We see that in how hard his Hogs play night in and night out, and how well they execute in most situations. That’s not going to change after the LSU loss, no matter how bad the Tigers beat the Hogs up on the backboard, and it was bad.
The Tigers are an athletic, physical, and long basketball team, and the Hogs felt every bit of that force Wednesday when LSU clubbed them 53-24 on the glass.
By now, you no doubt know that LSU had 23 offensive rebounds, just one less than the Razorbacks had in total rebounds. You also probably know that LSU had 26 second-chance points off those offensive boards, while the Razorbacks had no second-chance points.
The play in the paint by the Tigers looked more like a volleyball match at times than basketball, with the way they camped out in the paint.
Frankly, the mugging on the glass that the Razorbacks suffered Wednesday is what was expected to happen to Arkansas’ small squad most nights going into this season. It’s one of the main reasons the Hogs were picked by the media to finish 11th in the 14-team SEC.
Most teams that get beat up on the boards like Arkansas did on Wednesday get blown out, especially on the road.
However, because the Hogs are so well coached and so good at accentuating what they do well — defense, steals, forcing turnovers, taking care of the basketball — the Razorbacks had a very real chance of knocking off the Tigers on their home floor.
Take away a technical foul here or a couple of back-to-back turnovers at a critical point in the game, and the Razorbacks could have won that game.
Instead of mourning over losing the rebounding battle, everyone would be talking about points off turnovers, steals, and tight defense.
Though he was disgusted by the loss and disappointed in some missed opportunities in the game, Musselman showed support for his players and how he slyly advocated for them with the officials as well.
“But as far as effort, I’ll go with these guys any night into an arena and play, because they are giving us all they’ve got, for sure,” he said.
Musselman knows how hard his players are working, and I love that he acknowledges that even in the face of a tough loss.
Taking a dig at the officiating, Musselman advocated for his players in future games by saying, “We tried to block out. I guess our block outs weren’t good. We’ll have to continue to work on block outs and try to figure out a way to get over-the-back calls by blocking out better.”
The Razorbacks are going to need officials to think about over-the-back calls, and no doubt he and hopefully athletic director Hunter Yurachek are advocating for such through proper channels in the SEC offices.
However, his team is going to have to do a better job of blocking out. Adrio Bailey and Reggie Chaney, who picked up that technical, may have to decide that blocking out is more important than going after so many blocked shots. And while this is a tough, gritty Razorback team, it’s going to have to play through contact better at all five spots.
Certainly, one can say LSU gave a blueprint of how to beat the Razorbacks, but honestly it wasn’t a secret in the first place. The other opponents the Hogs have played just weren’t as athletic and physical as LSU is across the board. The Tigers aren’t a good matchup for a team like Arkansas if the officials let them pound the glass with impunity.
There are other teams in the SEC with similar athletic ability and physicality to LSU’s, and those teams are going to be tough matchups for the Razorbacks.
In fact, every matchup is tough for a squad with just two players over 6-foot-7, but just like Musselman and his staff found answers for their team in the pre-conference schedule, they will find them during SEC play, as well.
Musselman hates losing, and he gets his players to work so hard and execute so well, I’m convinced he will find a way to guide the Razorbacks to finish in the top five of the league, which should allow them to make the NCAA Tournament. And that was what the stated goal for this season.