Best yet to come for Musselman’s Razorbacks

The NCAA Tournament is a fickle dance partner. She dances with 68 partners every year, but like the belle of the ball, only one team gets that shining moment, that final dance.

The Arkansas Razorbacks have only been that final dancer once back in 1994. Like all Hog fans following the team at that time, the memory of that national title seems close in my mind, though it grows further from us each passing year.

The good news is that with back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight, Coach Eric Musselman and his staff have the Razorback program back in the hunt for that final dance.

The Hogs are closer than they have been since Corliss Williams, Scotty Thurman, Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel, and Dwight Stewart exited the program in 1995, just short of winning back-to-back national titles.

During the intervening years, there have been many great games, fine seasons, and special Razorbacks, but the Hogs have never been closer to recapturing the glory years of the 1990s than they are right now despite the sting of last Saturday 78-69 loss to Duke in the West Regional final.

Certainly emotions remain raw. I can’t imagine how quickly it all ends for the players. One day you’re the nation’s darling for upsetting the No. 1 ranked team and the No. 1 seed of the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga 74-68, and two days later the season is done. You’re on a charter flight back to Fayetteville.

While the season is over — and oh what a grand season it was — the program moves forward. Musselman promised Hog fans in the postgame press conference that he was already at work, making plans for next season.

Part of that work came to fruition Monday evening when five-star recruit Anthony Black, a 6-7, 198-pound point guard from Duncanville, Texas, announced on ESPN2’s broadcast of the Powerade Jamfest — held in conjunction with the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago — that he would join Musselman’s No. 2-ranked recruiting class.

Black’s skills will be on display with two other Razorback signees in Tuesday’s contest, which airs on ESPN at 8 p.m. They are Nick Smith Jr. (6-5, 185) of North Little Rock, who came in second in the dunk contest Monday, and Jordan Walsh (6-7, 200) of Branson (Mo.) Link Academy.

ESPN ranks Smith as the sixth best player in the nation with Walsh at No. 10 and Black at No. 20. Arkansas has signed three other top-100 players in No. 70 Derrian Ford (6-3, 190) of Magnolia, No. 75 Barry Dunning Jr. (6-6, 205) of Mobile, Ala., and No. 89 Joseph Pinion of Morrilton (6-6, 180). It’s the highest ranked class Arkansas has signed since 1995, which was ranked No. 1 by several sources.

Black gives the Razorbacks three players in the prestigious all-star game along with blue-blood programs Duke and Kansas. That’s certainly a feather in Musselman’s cap. Duke, of course, plays North Carolina in the Final Four on Saturday, while Kansas faces Villanova.

With the class Musselman and his staff have wrangled for this recruiting cycle, Hog fans could be celebrating in the Final Four as soon as next season depending on how the chips fall.

The way Musselman’s Hogs’ overachieved this season after an admittedly rocky period from mid-December through mid-January, it is not out of the question.

After losing five of six games during that span, the Razorbacks exploded to finish 18-4 over the course of the season with a final record of 28-9. The back end of Arkansas’ SEC schedule was as challenging of a run of regular-season games in recent memory.

The Razorbacks became the first team to defeat a No. 1-ranked AP team in Auburn, 80-76 in overtime on Feb. 12, and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament Gonzaga, 74-68, last Thursday in the same season.

Arkansas became the only SEC squad to advance to the Elite Eight the last two seasons, and the only SEC squad to beat the league’s top three teams in the SEC standings — Auburn, Tennessee, and Kentucky – this season.

By all accounts it was a magical year for a gritty band of Razorbacks who backed down from no challenge and generally prevailed. It took an ultra-talented Blue Devil squad playing their best basketball of the year with legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s swan-song season on the line to vanquish the Hogs from the Big Dance.

Guard J.D. Notae had an outstanding season, earning several third-team All-American honors and joining sophomore forward Jaylin Williams on the All-SEC team as well as the All-West Regional squad.

Notae’s development from last year to this year was simply stunning. He was the second-leading scorer in the SEC with 18.3 points per game as well as being one of the best defensive guards and playmakers in the conference, leading the Razorbacks in steals and assists.

Notae transitioned from a sixth-man scorer in his first season with the Hogs into an excellent lead guard. If he chooses, Notae could further develop his point guard skills with the Razorbacks for another season because of the NCAA’s grant of an additional season of eligibility because of COVID-19.

Lock-down defender Au’Diese Toney, who averaged 5.2 rebounds and 10.8 points, also has another year of eligibility for the same reason if he chooses. Toney was a game-changing defender, brining to mind the intensity of defenders like Corey Beck, Alvin Robertson and dare I say the great Sidney Moncrief from Razorback days gone by.

It will be interesting to see what their decisions will be on next season.

Likewise the 6-10 Williams, who averaged a double-double in the NCAA Tournament and set a Razorback single-season rebounding record of 364, could test the professional waters. He might be a second-round pick if he came out this season, but if he improves his outside shot, Williams could vault himself into the first round with a strong junior season.

Stanley Umude, who averaged 11.9 points and 4.6 rebounds, has completed his eligibility, but he vastly improved his pro prospects by becoming a much better defender in his season with the Razorbacks.

Like Umude, starting glue guy Trey Wade, who hit four big 3-pointers in the upset of Gonzaga, has completed his eligibility. So has guard Chris Lykes, who helped close out many games this season with his deft eye at the free-throw line, but their contributions will be remembered by Hog fans for a long time.

Davonte “Devo” Davis had a solid sophomore year as the Hogs’ sixth man. He has a bundle of talent and is an excellent defender when focused. The 6-7 junior Kamani Johnson had his moments during the season with his aggressive inside play.

While the future is bright for the Razorbacks, in this day and age of the transfer portal and with the talent Musselman has signed, there will almost surely be some roster movement before next season. As fans we will just have to wait to see how things shake out, but we should expect some movement, and it could be somewhat surprising.

Musselman might be done in procuring talent for next season, but then again, the Hogs could certainly use a talented big man from the transfer market to aid Williams on the inside. The Hogs’ lack of size inside was costly against Duke and could have been against other teams in the NCAA field if Arkansas’ draw had been different.

Musselman prefers positionless basketball, but the right big man might be just the player that pushes the Razorbacks over the Elite Eight threshold into the Final Four next year.

This is a bold statement coming off back-to-back Elite Eight seasons, but the best seems yet to come for the Razorbacks, Musselman and Arkansas fans.