Just as all Razorback fans are traversing new ground in this age of the COVID-19 virus so are Arkansas’ coaches and players.
Spring is usually the busiest time of year for college athletics with nearly every team either competing or going through pivotal spring conditioning and workouts for the forthcoming season.
At the forefront of all of that, of course, would be the NCAA Tournament. In a less virulent world, we’d be in the throes of March Madness today (March 20). Sixteen of the first round games would have been played Thursday (March 19), with 16 more on tap for this afternoon and evening. The second round would then play out Saturday and Sunday.
My guess is the Razorbacks would likely be playing in the NIT rather than the NCAA Tournament, but that’s just my opinion.
The Hogs were scheduled to play South Carolina in the second round of the SEC Tournament last Thursday when play was suspended by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey that morning, and later the NCAA suspended play of all athletic championships for the spring semester in accordance with recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. government. Certainly, those moves were shocking but necessary for competitors and fans alike.
Earlier this week, Arkansas released an emotional partial video of Musselman speaking to his team last Thursday in Nashville, the site of the SEC Tournament, on Arkansas basketball’s various social media platforms. Though just a minute or so long, the video is worth seeking out.
It not only contains Musselman breaking the news to the players that their season had ended abruptly, but it also contains Musselman’s opinion that if the Razorbacks had defeated South Carolina in their upcoming game, that they would have made the NCAA Tournament field.
Musselman, an analytics junkie, made that declaration based on crunching numbers with Anthony Ruta, Arkansas director of basketball operations.
While at this time, the point is moot for the Hogs or their fans, it is heartening to know that if things were different the Razorbacks might have pulled off an upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament or at least gotten their feet wet in post-season play.
As it stands, though, the Hog finished the season 20-12 with an easier than expected 86-73 victory over Vanderbilt in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
It’s only the third time in 40 plus years of following Razorback basketball that the Hogs ended the season with a victory. In 1978, Arkansas beat Notre Dame, 71-69, in the Final Four consolation game after falling to eventual national champion Kentucky, 64-59, in the semifinals. Though Sidney Moncrief returned for his senior year in 1978-79, that game was the final one for The Triplets since Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph were seniors. The next year, the NCAA dropped the consolation game.
The other time the Hogs finished the season with a victory was, of course, in 1994 when the Razorbacks, led by Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman, and Corey Beck, captured Arkansas’ lone national title with a victory over Duke, 76-72.
While the 2019-20 Razorbacks weren’t nearly as strong as either of those teams, this was a solid start to the Musselman era. Despite being short on height and depth, this Razorback squad had plenty of heart. It did not back down from any opponent.
The five-game losing streak when Isaiah Joe was out with a knee injury was gut-turning, not because of poor play, but because the Hogs were ever so close to winning in four of the five games. The Hogs closed the year, winning four of their last six games, and what I will remember most about this team is their scrappy and resilient nature.
Of course, the elephant in the room — whether co-SEC player of the year Mason Jones and Joe return for their senior season — can’t really be answered right now.
So much is up in the air with the NBA season being suspended and the site of the June 25 draft, Brooklyn, N.Y., being very near the most intensive break-out of the coronavirus in the United States.
Currently the deadline for declaring for the draft is April 26 with the deadline for withdrawal being June 15. All that could change, though.
One suspects, the NBA will hold the draft if at all possible, but the timing is uncertain.
Musselman said in his media teleconference Thursday that neither Jones nor Joe has informed him of their decision, but that they know he is there to help with the process in any way he can.
Musselman, who served as head coach at Sacramento and Golden State as well as an assistant for number other NBA teams, is as connected to the NBA as any coach in college basketball. No doubt his counsel will be very useful to both players.
If the draft were held today, published NBA Draft projections show Joe as a mid to late second-round pick in the two-round, 60-selection draft.
Despite posting a truly fantastic season where he scored 30 or more points nine times as well as leading Arkansas in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals for the season, Jones isn’t projected to be drafted.
Analysts say it’s questionable whether Jones’ speed, ball-handling skills, and defense are up to NBA standards. While I’m no expert, I think some team would take a chance and draft him, but I’m biased.
In a world without the coronavirus, there definitely would be options for Jones and Joe to play for pay overseas, but who knows how the pandemic will affect those opportunities for the upcoming season?
And that’s the thing, right now no one really knows much. We all hope things will be back to normal by the time August rolls around, but we don’t know that they actually will.
There’s too much money to be made for team athletics not to rebound on the professional and college level, but just when it will happen is up to debate.