Smart to lead Hogs against LSU in hometown of Baton Rouge

There is a comparison that could be made between Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman to Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski with the third-year Razorback coach stepping away from his team for a period of time to recover from corrective shoulder surgery.

Musselman tore the rotator cuff in his left shoulder in an accidental collision with senior transfer Trey Wade (6-6, 220) during practice in early December. The University of Arkansas announced Thursday that Musselman would miss at least Saturday’s 1 p.m. contest at LSU and Tuesday’s 6 p.m. game against South Carolina at Walton Arena while recovering from the surgery.

Hoop fans with a long memory might recall that Coach K missed a large portion of the 1994-95 basketball season with a back injury and exhaustion he suffered while attempting to fight through the pain. Duke just happened to be in the throes of what would be the school’s first losing record in 56 seasons.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at LSU
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 15
Where: Baton Rouge, LA
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

Jan. 18 – South Carolina, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 22 – Texas A&M, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 22 – at Ole Miss, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 29 – West Virginia, 1 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Feb. 5 – at Georgia, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)

Some smart alecs at the time questioned whether it was his back or the Blue Devils’ play that was bothering Krzyzewski the most. Duke finished 13-11 that season and snapped a streak of 24 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament.

With the Razorbacks headed for a road trip to surging LSU (15-1, 3-1 SEC) some might pose the same questions of Musselman with his Hogs (11-5, 1-3) losing five of their last seven games since Dec. 11.

The players knew their coach was in pain in recent weeks, and not just from the losses.

“We kind of all knew something was up with his shoulder when he was walking around practice with a heating pad or ice pack on his shoulder while just coaching with one arm down and one arm up pointing,” Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams said.

There is no doubt the Razorbacks’ struggles of late are irksome to Musselman. He hates losing, but for a workaholic like him to step away from the game, players, and team he has invested so much of himself into, we have to understand that it was absolutely necessary.

His plan was initially to use physical therapy, treatment and steroid injections to fight through the pain and coach the rest of the season before having the repair that was completed Thursday by Dr. Wesley K. Cox, but delaying the surgery any longer was beginning to risk permanent injury, according to a UA press release. Plus the pain must have been excruciating. Musselman had already spoken about having issues with sleeping in previous press conferences.

In hindsight, it might have been better for Musselman and possibly the team if he had had the surgery earlier, but that type of second-guessing does no one any good.

Of course, history shows that Coach K and the Blue Devils rebounded… with a vengeance. I’m guessing Musselman and his Hogs will, too.

That said, the Hogs play on with assistant coach Keith Smart assuming the role of interim head coach in Musselman’s stead with the dubious task of guiding the Hogs against LSU Saturday in his hometown of Baton Rouge.

Smart, who is in his first year at Arkansas, has known Musselman since 1995-96 when he played for the Head Hog with the CBA’s Florida Beachdogs. Smart was also an assistant for Musselman with the Golden State Warriors in 2003-04.

Eric Musselman / Photo:

“You knew it was wearing on him because when you can’t sleep, that’s when it becomes a problem,” said Smart. “And I think Coach was fighting through it as much as he could. He competes at everything. But this was one competition that he just couldn’t win, and he made a decision to get himself back on the road to a speedy recovery.”

While this is his first year as a college coach, Smart has extensive coaching experience at the NBA level, and is up to the task at hand.

“Coming in from the NBA and then being here in college, basketball is all the same — relatively the same,” Smart said. “You’ve got to coach the game. You’re going to look at different ideas and thoughts on offense and defense.

“That part is going to be the same. The biggest thing I had to adjust to and learn more than anything was the recruiting aspect of everything along with your day-to-day business you have to do preparing for a basketball game, preparing young men to go out and play, all those things there.

“That was one of the things that I had to adjust to and learn as I got into it. I came in here with no ego, just to focus on growing and learning as a college coach.”

The big question is whether the Razorbacks are up to the task or not.

The Tigers have proven to be one of the the SEC’s best squads through the first half of the season with a long, big, and athletic squad that forces turnovers and pushes the tempo at a rapid pace.

Arkansas senior transfer Trey Wade dunks the ball in an 87-43 win over Missouri on Wednesday / Photo:

The Hogs, however, have been scuffling in SEC play until Wednesday night when they blew Missouri out, 87-43, in what might have been the Razorbacks’ best performance of the season.

The Razorbacks opened SEC play with an 81-68 loss at Mississippi State before losing close games 75-74 to Vanderbilt at Walton Arena and 86-81 at Texas A&M.

Now, the Hogs face their toughest SEC contest so far this season on the road and without their head coach.

Williams said the Hogs are going to rely on the coaching they’ve received from Musselman and his staff as they move forward.

“I think we’re going to continue to do what we’ve been taught, what we’ve learned throughout the months that we’ve been here,” Williams said.

Reaching even further back into the annals of history, one Razorback squad actually rallied a bit under an interim coach.

When Nolan Richardson’s daughter Yvonne passed away from her battle with leukemia, Richardson stepped away from the team during the 1986-87 season for obvious reasons.

Richardson’s longtime protege and assistant head coach Andy Stoglin coached the Hogs for five games during the Southwest Conference schedule. The Hogs actually played a bit better during that period for Stoglin and to honor their mourning head coach. The Hogs played in the NIT that season and beat Arkansas State in an historic opening round game in which they fell behind by as much as 24 points before pulling off an overtime win, 67-64.

Maybe this bunch of Hogs will rally for Smart and their head coach who is on the mend. However, expecting the Hogs to come back from Baton Rouge with a victory is probably too much.