Give me Eric Musselman over any SEC basketball coach for the next 10 years
Eric Musselman could’ve walked out onto the court on Thursday night and gotten thoroughly outcoached by Mark Few. Arkansas could’ve been a casualty on Gonzaga’s warpath to finally claiming that national title. The rest of the college basketball world would’ve applauded the Hogs for making consecutive Sweet 16 trips for the first time this century, and the national attention would’ve shifted to the title contenders.
Yeah, about that.
Instead, Musselman forced Few’s team into submission and knocked off the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament while reminding the college basketball world that few things have as much momentum as the Muss Bus.
For the second consecutive year, Musselman outlasted the rest of the SEC in March. So far, the only team to take down Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament in 7 games with Musselman was 2021 Baylor, which steamrolled Gonzaga in the title game but was given everything it could handle from the Hogs.
Thursday night was Musselman’s biggest win yet, and in every way, it was his most impressive. Arkansas had never defeated a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before Gonzaga. Not even Nolan Richardson’s teams did that when they dominated the sport in the mid-90s.
But for now, we’re not talking Musselman vs. Richardson. We’re talking Musselman vs. the SEC field.
For the next 10 years, give me Musselman over any SEC coach.
This isn’t about being the “most accomplished,” though it is wild to think that Musselman earned consecutive Elite 8 berths while Rick Barnes hasn’t reached that feat since 2008. And sure, Musselman has a long way to go to reach John Calipari’s March track record, which includes 5 Final Four berths, 3 national title appearances and 1 championship. Still, though. This NCAA Tournament showed why Musselman has the more sustainable path to success.
It would be one thing if Musselman was simply running it back with his 2020-21 squad and they were simply living up to expectations. That isn’t the case at all. Musselman lost 3 of the 4 leading scorers, including the invaluable Indiana transfer Justin Smith and lottery pick Moses Moody.
JD Notae was the only 1 of Arkansas’ 4 leading scorers who returned, and he didn’t even start last year. As usual, Musselman built the roster by dipping into the transfer portal and landing key pieces like Stanley Umude and Chris Lykes, who casually knocked down the biggest free throws of his life Thursday night even though he hadn’t attempted a shot.
And of course, who could forget Au’Diese Toney after he delivered one of the biggest blocks in program history.
AU’DIESE TONEY COMES UP WITH A HUGE BLOCK 😳 #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/hBv75UwEv5
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 25, 2022
All 3 of those guys transferred to Arkansas in early April 2021, barely after the dust settled on Musselman taking the program to a place it hadn’t been to in decades. Musselman turned the No. 85-ranked recruiting class into the backbone of another Elite 8 run.
Shoot, he turned an 0-3 start in SEC play into an Elite 8 run. The scoring emergence of Notae, who seemingly always has a green light, and the Year 2 rise of Jaylin Williams as arguably the nation’s top glue guy helped turn that around.
For the second consecutive year, Musselman found the identity of his team and got it clicking at the perfect time.
Look around the SEC. We’re questioning the long-term styles of all the elite coaches.
Is Calipari’s team ever going to play a modern style of offense and capitalize at the free-throw line in big games? Are Nate Oats and Bruce Pearl too enabling of their guards with the pace they like to play at? And is Barnes always going to be the guy who can’t make the right in-game adjustments to make a deep run in March?
All of those things could hold those coaches back from cutting down the nets. What’s gonna hold Musselman back? It certainly won’t be the way he evaluates talent, the way he adjusts within a season and it sure as heck won’t be the way his teams defend. We know that he’ll have support with Hunter Yurachek at his side (don’t be surprised if another extension is on the way).
This isn’t just some nice 2-year stretch, either. I’d say this is the definition of “trending in the right direction.”
Eric Musselman last five years:
2018: Sweet 16 at *Nevada*
2019: Top 10 team at Nevada all year
2020: Star (Isaiah Joe) gets hurt- still in tourney picture before its cancelled
2021: Elite Eight
2022: Elite Eight and🤔
Dude is one of the 2-3 best coaches in the sport, period 🐗
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) March 25, 2022
Some might look at that and still say it’s premature to buy that much stock in Musselman because he hasn’t won an SEC regular-season title or SEC Tournament crown. Call me crazy, but something tells me that Alabama and Tennessee fans could trade their recent SEC-related crowns for consecutive trips to the Elite 8 after finishing the regular season as a top-15 team in the AP Poll.
Shoot, Kentucky fans haven’t seen their team win an NCAA Tournament game in 3 years. You can bet there’s some jealousy watching what the Hogs are doing. Watching Musselman celebrate the upset win was certainly different than watching their coach step to the postgame podium and admit that he was “trying to coach a team that I coached a month ago, and we had some guys that weren’t playing like they were a month ago.”
Copy and paste that line for Pearl, too. Auburn fans didn’t want to believe that until they saw the season end in anticlimactic fashion against Miami in the Round of 32. Granted, Pearl still led Auburn to its first No. 1 overall ranking in school history, and the Tigers have an SEC regular-season and an SEC Tournament title to speak of in the past 3 years. Just because his team peaked too early doesn’t suddenly make him a bad coach. It just means there are questions about his ability to make the right adjustments. As we know, the NCAA Tournament can be equal parts frustrating and random.
But nothing feels random with what Musselman is going because for the second consecutive year, we saw his team find itself in the latter half of the season.
Players bought in defensively and they’re still comfortable playing at a faster pace like the one Gonzaga came out in. They can get through poor shooting nights. Go figure that Moody last year and Notae this year both struggled to get quality looks all March, yet both teams found a way to reach the national quarterfinals.
That’s coaching. That’s Muss.
His stock has never been higher. Nothing is off the table after he took down the top-seeded Zags to reach another Regional Final.
The Muss Bus is filling up in a hurry. Better find a seat.