MUSSELMAN: With his family and University of Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek (far right).
As is common when a “coaching search” gets underway at the University of Arkansas —at this rate, it’s been about an average of every two or three years during my lifetime that either the basketball or football head coaching position has changed — the rumor mill churns at a feverish pace and almost always ends up being discredited for one reason or another. One, we’ve got some adults playing around online behind catchy monikers on a message board, stoking fires about God-knows-who being the next coach, under the guise of having “inside information.” It’s comically predictable at this point.
Second, even when the media itself seems to be latching onto something, it falls victim to the dupe, too. Remember Arkansas’s hot pursuit of Gus Malzahn? Remember how everyone was pretty nonplussed because it was such an obvious ploy by agents behind the scenes to coax more money out of the present institution. Malzahn fleeced Auburn good this last year in
particular, basically earning $1 million for every win (and yeah, Chad Morris got paid even more handsomely per victory, I get that, but the Arkansas program wasn’t expected to go anywhere in 2018).
Arkansas fans were treated to the usual array of candidates ranging from utter pipe dream (Chris Beard, Texas Tech’s fast-rising wunderkind who spent a whopping 10 months in Little Rock coaching a great Trojans team to the second round of the NCAA Tournament) to bizarre castoffs or outright disgraces (I mean, the name Rick Pitino came up more than once in a few places!). But ultimately, it was clear that one of the top targets from the get-go was Nevada coach Eric Musselman, a guy with a genetic coaching pedigree and, evidently, a savant-like gameplanner
In four seasons with the Wolfpack after serving a brief stint as an LSU assistant back in 2014-15, Musselman launched Nevada from a Mountain West also-ran to a program to be reckoned with in mid-March. Mark Fox had briefly propelled Nevada into the mid-major limelight in the 2000s with a couple of nice tourney wins and the popular, smooth-shooting Nick Fazekas, but after he went to Georgia and assistant David Carter took over, the Wolf Pack gradually faded from the scene. By the time Carter’s 2014-15 team went 9-22 overall, he was gone, and Musselman was something of an unknown selection as successor.
After all, Musselman, whose late father Bill coached for a while in the pro game as well, had been all over the map as a coach, everywhere from the Continental Basketball Association to the NBA and stints in college sprinkled in. He had two solid years as head coach of the Golden State Warriors prior to Stephen Curry and the gang arriving to turn that once-downtrodden franchise into an absolute powerhouse, but he didn’t figure in the longterm plans.
Musselman proved more than adept at taking over a college program and restoring some luster to it. His first team at Nevada was such a surprise (24-14, 10-8 in conference play, and champs of the CBI postseason tourney) that he was named Conference Coach of the Year by some publications,
and that 15-win improvement was one of the biggest surprises nationally.
As an immediate dividend, recruiting improved dramatically, and so did the results. The Pack won the MWC title and postseason championship in 2016-17, winning 28 games and getting back to the NCAA Tournament.
Musselman’s highest-achieving team, though, was the 2017-18 squad, which not only cracked the Top 25 but won the MWC again, set a school record for wins in a season, and played two of the most thrilling games of the entire 2018 NCAA tournament by knocking off Texas and then second-seeded Cincinnati, with that win coming after the Pack had trailed by as many as 20 in the second half.
Season tickets were selling out and Nevada jumped into the preseason Top 10 for 2018-19. With returnees
Caleb Martin and his twin brother Cody back in the lineup along with the gifted post player Jordan Caroline, the Pack rolled to another conference title behind a starting lineup consisting entirely of seniors. Some distractions and issues arose late in the year and Nevada bowed out of the tourney in the opening game but still finished 29-5 and ranked in the Top 20.
Musselman steered his program quickly and authoritatively toward success with two philosophies: (1) Don’t be afraid to go after coveted, talented players who seek to transfer in, and (2) Make practices labors of love. There was a bit of private and public concern that Mike Anderson’s practice methodology wasn’t quite sound, but that seems to not be the case with Musselman. He expects a fast-moving, matchup-oriented offense with crisp ball movement and wing players who can shoot and penetrate as nimbly as guards. The Martin twins were well-versed in using their brawn as well as their range: They left North Carolina State for a seemingly smaller program and matured quickly, with Caleb winning MWC Player of the Year twice based on his unique ability to score (19 points per game over his two-years in Reno) and defend using the full length of the court. Cody Martin was an exceptional complementary player and Caroline was a three-year starter and heavy contributor after leaving Southern Illinois following a promising freshman year there.
There’s some measure of lingering concern as to whether Musselman’s success at Nevada will translate well to the SEC. Fox left Nevada in tremendous shape in the late 2000s to try to resurrect Georgia basketball, and he had some excellent moments in charge of the Bulldogs, but ultimately was excused from his duties after never getting Georgia past the first game of the NCAA tourney and never cresting the 21-win mark. But Musselman brings a more electric personality and style to the table: He wears his emotions on his sleeve, but not seemingly in a problematic way. Arkansas needs passion back in the program, from the administrative level on down, and at the very least, this seems like the sort of coach who can deliver on that.