Musselman a hardwood MacGyver in his first year with the Razorbacks

More and more it seems when you give Arkansas head basketball coach Eric Musselman a basketball problem, he will MacGyver his way out of it.

If you don’t get the MacGyver reference, congrats for not spending your life watching too much TV. The character from the original 1985 series – and I assume the newer series from 2016 – is a special agent known for his inventiveness.

On a weekly basis, he works himself out of a death trap by using common items like a shoe string, a breath mint, and some pocket lint to create a pseudo scientific device to save the day.

Musselman and his staff are working with more than pocket lint and Mentos with his very versatile and talented Razorback basketball roster, but in a conventional use of the terms, the Hogs lack size and depth as a Power 5 basketball team.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. South Carolina
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 29
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Current Record: 15-4 (SEC 3-3)

Remaining schedule

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

The Hogs’ tallest player is just six-foot-eight, and Reggie Chaney has only started one game this year, last Saturday in a 79-67 defeat of TCU. The Hogs’ regular playing rotation is just seven guys, when SEC opponents usually call on nine to 10 players each game.

But Musselman has excelled at making strengths out of perceived weaknesses this year, and it has created an excitement among Hog hoops fans we haven’t seen in several years.

Musselman’s latest instance of conquering a seemingly debilitating problem was in that very game when Arkansas sophomore sharpshooter Isaiah Joe had to sit out because of sore knee that had been giving him some problems for a couple of weeks.

Joe is the Hogs’ second-leading scorer averaging 16.8 points per game whom many believe would be selected in this summer’s NBA Draft if he makes himself available. Joe arguably has the deepest 3-point range in the nation and is a very good defender. Much of the Razorbacks’ offense is built around his skill set as a shooter, and he is player who is a focal point of every opponent’s game plan.

Taking Joe out of a game spells relief like Rolaids for opponents, and before last Saturday I figured him missing a game would have had Musselman swigging from a bottle of Pepto Bismol on the sideline rather than his customary diet soda pop.

But Musselman had his soda last Saturday, and the Razorbacks not only beat TCU, but also played their most efficient basketball game of the season on offense and defense, according to Musselman, without one of their best players.

My friends, that’s top-shelf coaching and execution, and the Razorbacks’ coaches and players should be saluted for that effort after dropping back-to-back SEC games to No. 14 Kentucky at home and Mississippi State on the road.

Instead of shooting volume 3-pointers as they have most of the season, the Razorbacks looked to get to the basket against TCU and were selective and effective from behind the 3-point line, hitting 6-of-9 treys. Their shot selection was splendid and as always their defensive play was on point.

Senior Jimmy Whitt successfully face-guarded TCU scorer Desmond Bane, limiting him to just six shots and 8 points. Both of Bane’s 3-pointers came off double-screens early in the second half, designed to get him going, but Whitt and his teammates adjusted according and shut off his water before it truly got flowing.

Whitt also scored 20 points as did junior Mason Jones, and sophomore Desi Sills added 18 coming off the bench for the first time in his Arkansas career. Sills didn’t start, but he still played nearly 34 minutes of effective basketball, going 7 of 8 from the field, making all his treys and all 4 free throws.

It’s no secret that Arkansas went from being one of the elite basketball programs in the 1990s to becoming an afterthought under Stan Heath and John Pelphrey. Mike Anderson returned the program to respectability but never got it consistently over the Top 25 hump.

Don’t get me wrong, Musselman hasn’t returned the Hogs to prominence either, but boy does it ever seem like it is on the horizon with the way this team plays and a top 10, maybe top 5 signing class coming in this summer.

The Hogs are 15-4 overall and firmly mired in the parity-filled middle of the SEC basketball doughnut with a 3-3 mark and with 12 regular-season games to play.

The Razorbacks face a tough-nosed South Carolina squad (11-8, 3-3 SEC) that will check your man card like all Frank Martin teams at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Walton Arena On Saturday, the Hogs play at Alabama (12-7, 4-2) at 5 p.m. Both games are televised by the SEC Network.

So it’s another big week for the Hogs, but every week is big in the SEC.

Most predictions point to the Hogs being solidly in the mix for the NCAA Tournament if selections were made now, but all close observers of college basketball know teams that improve in February are the ones that go on to make March Madness great.

While I’ve grown in a very short time to highly respect the coaching prowess of Musselman and his staff, I do wonder how much more can they squeeze out of this team that already plays so hard and so well? I wonder if they have already maxed out?

Successful NCAA Tournament teams usually have two more gears to shift into. One in mid-February when the grind begins to separate contenders from pretenders, and then another in post-season play when it’s win or no tomorrow.

It’s going to be interesting to see what this team has in the tank as we move into February. The Razorbacks have done nothing but surprise me with their effort, skill, and discipline all season, and I don’t have a legitimate reason to believe that will change.

They also have “MacGyver” and his staff sitting over there on the bench, and so far Musselman has only led his team to success.