Hayes: Sure, it took forever to find home, but Eric Musselman and Arkansas are the perfect fit
That shirt’s not coming off in the NBA. And forget about Calling the Hogs.
You’re not seeing that raw emotion in the CBA or the D-League or the United States Basketball League or coaching Team China.
“The state of Arkansas is on fire,” Hogs coach Eric Musselman says.
Why would anyone want to be anywhere else — especially a coach who has spent his career in nearly every penthouse and outhouse imaginable.
Through 14 previous professional and college coaching jobs in America, and 4 more internationally, this is as real as it gets.
A 58-year-old man — who’s in damn good shape — ripping off his cardinal polo after his team beat No. 1-seed Kansas, and then Calling the Hogs on national television.
“I’ve been coaching a long time,” Musselman said last weekend during his press availability. “That’s as great a win as I’ve ever been a part of.”
What a road it has been.
Head coach of the NBA’s Warriors and Kings, to the Reno Bighorns, to the Los Angeles D-Fenders, to something called the Florida Beach Dogs, for love of all things Naismith.
From Tempe to Baton Rouge to Reno (again) and finally, fatefully, to the sweet, bucolic Hill in Fayetteville.
You better believe this is real, and there’s staying power — and the very last thing Musselman wants is a repeat of how this ride ended the past 2 seasons with losses to Duke and Baylor in the Region final.
“We are a team that continues to get better,” Musselman said. “That just doesn’t happen this time of year.”
But is it enough to get No. 8-seed Arkansas past No. 4-seed UConn in Thursday night’s West Region semifinal, and bring the Hogs back to yet another Elite 8? Another opportunity to push the storied program into the Final Four for the first time since 1995.
That was 40 Minutes of Hell with Nolan Richardson, and there was a time in the 1990s when the Hogs were on top of college basketball — and the whole state of Arkansas was on fire then, too.
Lee Mayberry. Oliver Miller. Corliss Williamson. Scotty Thurman.
Arkansas loved Richardson, and he loved them back with a fury of 40 minutes and a passion that overflowed every time the Hogs hit the floor at legendary Barnhill Arena.
Arkansas fans, Richardson once said, were so loyal and committed, that you could slice open their arm, “And 100 little Hogs will coming running out.”
It’s still 40 minutes these days, a nod from Musselman to the glory years and the legendary former coach, who still sits in the stands at the palace (Bud Walton Arena) that replaced Barnhill to watch his Hogs. Only this time, Musselman says, it’s, “Play hard for 40 minutes, and give us an opportunity to play 40 again.”
So here we are again, another Sweet 16, and for the 2nd straight season, another year where Arkansas knocked off a No. 1-seed to get here. Last year, it was No. 1 overall Gonzaga.
They’re back in position to reach the Final Four again, despite a backcourt that really doesn’t shoot well on the perimeter, and without a dominant scoring presence in the front court. They’re a team Richardson would love: a core of 6-4 to 6-6 players who are long and active, and can play defense.
They extend and defend on the perimeter, and they force quick decisions and deflect passes with long wingspans. They turn you over and get run outs, and those lead to open looks and a better opportunity to score — and, eventually, a team that shoots better than it would if they’re forced into a half-court grinder.
It’s no surprise that Arkansas plays its best when 5 guards are on the floor: Devo Davis, Ricky Council IV, Nick Smith, Jr., Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh. The Mitchell brothers (Makhi and Makhel) are good for about 10-12 rebounds and 4 blocks a game and an occasional key few baskets.
But make no mistake, this is a guard-fueled team. So, too, is UConn — until, that is, Adama Sanogo comes off the bench and is unguardable. He’s 6-9, 250 pounds, and against Iona and Saint Mary’s, he had 52 points and 21 rebounds.
He’s the reason UConn is favored to not only reach the West Region final but advance to the Final Four and do more damage.
Meanwhile, there is Arkansas, which struggled from late December to early March despite playing with 3 legitimate NBA prospects (Black, Council, Smith). They lost 12 games in those 10 weeks, then got serious about playing defense in the SEC Tournament.
Here we are, 2 weeks later, and the Hogs have won twice as the underdog and are as confident as any of the 16 teams remaining. If you’re not the most proficient shooting team, Musselman says, you better play sticky defense and make free throws.
Illinois shot 38% from the field in Round 1, and Arkansas hit 22-of-29 free throws. Kansas shot 48% in Round 2, and Arkansas hit 21-of-26 free throws.
“You can’t win at any level — CYO, grade school, high school, college, pro, G-League, national team, unless you have really good players,” Musselman said. “We have really good players. We have guys that have insane buy-in.”
That was Arkansas practicing full strength during last week’s off day between the first 2 rounds in Des Moines, Iowa. The day is typically slated for walk-throughs so winning teams can keep fresh legs for the quick turnaround to Round 2.
Arkansas was running sets and presses and defenses. And there was no walking anywhere on the court.
Last week, before and after each win, professional golfer John Daly — the unofficial greatest Hogs fan — texted Musselman with a simple reminder: “Make your free throws.”
You’re not getting that in the NBA, or the CBA or any other basketball association.
“He’s very happy with our free-throw shooting,” Musselman said. “That’s not a joke.”
Nothing is this time of the season. Every possession, every decision, can be the difference between the ride ending or continuing.
The state of Arkansas is on fire, everyone.
And the only road remaining is through the penthouse.