I don’t even think it’s particularly close anymore.

Eric Musselman is the best basketball coach in the SEC, and that argument has never been more obvious.

To be clear, I’m only going on the men’s side. If we’re including women’s basketball coaches, obviously it starts with Dawn Staley and Kim Mulkey.

But yeah, give me the Arkansas coach as the top SEC coach in his sport.

He could’ve pulled his team off the court 3 minutes into that Sweet 16 matchup against UConn and I still would’ve banged that drum.

(Some would say there wouldn’t have been much difference. I say that Anthony Black and others absolutely didn’t treat that like a blowout loss.)

For the third consecutive year, Musselman led his team to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The only coaches who can make that claim nationally were:

  • Eric Musselman, Arkansas
  • Kelvin Sampson, Houston
  • Mark Few, Gonzaga
  • Mick Cronin, UCLA

(It’s crazy to think that even Bill Self isn’t on that list.)

That’s pretty good company. Even Mr. March himself, Tom Izzo, hasn’t had a streak of 3 consecutive second weekend appearances since 2013-15. He’s had 3 such streaks in his illustrious career, and to be fair, 2 of them actually lasted 4 years instead of 3.

Izzo made it further than any Big Ten team in the field. For the third consecutive year, nobody in the SEC went further in the NCAA Tournament than Musselman. In fact, nobody in the SEC besides Arkansas has even won an NCAA Tournament game in each of the last 3 seasons.

That includes Nate Oats, who has yet to get over the Sweet 16 hump despite the fact that for the second time in 3 years, he swept the SEC by winning the regular season and conference tournament title. That’s all well and good. It put Oats on the fast track to being perhaps a top-10 coach in the sport.

But be honest. Doesn’t a deep run in March carry more weight than winning the conference tournament title? Like, if last year’s Tennessee squad could’ve traded its SEC Tournament title for a run to the Elite Eight instead of getting bounced in the Round of 32 by 11-seed Michigan, it would’ve done so in a heartbeat.

March matters. A lot. Musselman, with basically an entirely different team from the one he had 2 years ago that went to the Elite Eight (Devo Davis was the only constant on all 3 teams), made sure his team was playing its best ball down the stretch.

Sure, it was a rocky regular season with injuries and inconsistent play that yielded a 10-seed in the SEC Tournament. It’s fair to say that was disappointing for a team who started ranked inside the top 10 with a historic freshman class that included 3 McDonald’s All-Americans. Had Arkansas been bounced by Illinois in that 8-9 matchup, his stock would’ve taken a hit. We would’ve said, “man, they never quite figured it out despite having all that talent.”

I’d argue beating that talented Illinois team pretty handily and fighting back to knock off No. 1 seed and defending champ Kansas changed that conversation.

Think about this. Including last year when Arkansas took down top overall seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, Musselman is responsible for 2 of the SEC’s 10 victories against No. 1 seeds in the 21st century:

  • 2023 Arkansas — beats No. 1 seed Kansas in Round of 32
  • 2022 Arkansas — beats No. 1 seed Gonzaga in Sweet 16
  • 2019 Auburn — beats No. 1 seed UNC in Sweet 16
  • 2014 Kentucky — beats No. 1 seed Wichita State in Round of 32
  • 2011 Kentucky — beats No. 1 seed Ohio State in Sweet 16
  • 2007 Florida — beats No. 1 seed Ohio State in national championship
  • 2006 LSU — beats No. 1 seed Duke in Sweet 16
  • 2006 Florida — beats No. 1 seed Villanova in Elite Eight
  • 2004 Alabama — beats No. 1 seed Stanford in Round of 32
  • 2000 Florida — beats No. 1 seed Duke in Sweet 16

I mean, even the great Billy Donovan only has 3 career NCAA Tournament victories over a 1-seed, and he’s easily on any sort of SEC hoops coach Mt. Rushmore. John Calipari also did it 3 times in his career, though only 2 of those came at Kentucky, and they were both in the front half of the 2010s. So far in the 2020s, Calipari has 1 NCAA Tournament victory to speak of compared to 8 for Musselman.

Here’s the breakdown of NCAA Tournament victories by SEC coaches in the 2020s (including any at previous stops in 2020s)

  • Eric Musselman, 8
  • Nate Oats, 4
  • Rick Barnes, 3
  • Bruce Pearl, 2
  • Chris Beard, 2 (1 at Texas Tech, 1 at Texas)
  • John Calipari, 1
  • Dennis Gates, 1
  • Chris Jans, 1 (at New Mexico State)
  • Mike White, 1 (at Florida)
  • Matt McMahon, 1 (at Murray State)
  • Buzz Williams, 0
  • Lamont Paris, 0
  • Jerry Stackhouse, 0
  • Todd Golden, 0

Musselman now has as many NCAA Tournament victories in the 2020s as Oats, Barnes and Calipari combined.

You can argue that’s a small sample size because we’re only talking about 3 NCAA Tournaments. Perhaps I should also add that Musselman, prior to his arrival at Arkansas, led Nevada to 1 of its 2 Sweet 16 berths in program history. He led the Wolfpack to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade, and he’s responsible for 5 if their 16 total NCAA Tournament games played. Not bad for someone who was only there for 4 seasons.

To recap, Musselman has 4 trips to the second weekend in the last 5 NCAA Tournaments. Here’s the list of active coaches nationally who are in that club (Jay Wright would’ve made this list but he’s not active):

  • Eric Musselman, Nevada and Arkansas
  • Kelvin Sampson, Houston
  • Mark Few, Gonzaga
  • Tom Izzo, Michigan State

It’s almost the same exact list as the “3 consecutive trips to the second weekend” club. Again, that’s elite company.

Musselman, by any measure, is elite.

Obviously, the next question is what he needs to do in order to take the next step to get to a national championship. When you achieve this kind of March success, of course that’s next up. Donovan got to a title game in Year 4 at Florida. Izzo made his first Final Four in Year 4, and he won his first ring (and only) in Year 5 in East Lansing.

Given how well Musselman recruited both at the high school level and in the transfer portal, it doesn’t look like a lack of talent will ever be a crutch for him. His March performances suggest that he’s capable of coaching his team up on a quick turnaround, and he already showed that he could slay a giant with a little extra time to prepare.

The counterpoint is that soon, Arkansas will be the giant that others are looking to slay. It’s inevitable that Musselman will get upset by someone because no great coach avoids March landmines forever.

For now, though, we can safely say that among SEC coaches, this March only added to the growing notion.

It’s Muss or bust.