Razorbacks far less than elite squad
Never expected to say this, but … Alexa, asking your help for Razorback basketball, while there’s still time.
A college friend strove for clarity when he described the ongoing efforts of Eric Musselman’s team, comparing these Hogs with that of another former Arkansas head coach.
“Well, that was a Mike Anderson season at best,” the Clarksville man texted with stiletto sharpness after Kentucky handed Arkansas yet another home defeat at Walton Arena, Saturday’s 88-79 dousing optimism like rain on a parade to already saturated ground.
Anderson, a good man, now coaching at St. John’s and at last check without a losing season, got fired, you may remember, for not winning enough at Arkansas. Anderson was to Nolan Richardson what Roy Williams was to North Carolina — an ex-player, later become assistant (as Williams to Dean Smith), and a confidant. Anderson came to Richardson’s aid more than once at Arkansas, succeeding the angry head coach upon Nolan’s firing in 2002 after taking over during the coach’s early years at the school, during which Nolan and his wife lost daughter Yvonne while critics yapped for his job.
The quintessential Anderson season at Arkansas may have been 2015-16, when the Hogs finished 16-16, on its face the measure of mediocrity. Mike could not keep top in-state players Malik Monk and KeVaughn Allen from going to Kentucky and Florida, respectively. And in the best of times for Anderson, they kept drawing North Carolina, then reaching a peak under Williams, in the NCAA tournament, not once advancing to the Sweet 16.
Much like under Eddie Sutton and then Richardson, Arkansas men’s basketball became relevant again under Musselman, a basketball lifer with NBA coaching experience. Back-to-back Elite Eight appearances further inflamed fans, never mind season-ending losses to NCAA champion Baylor and, in the last game for Mike Krzyzewski, Duke. Musselman’s 2021-22 team knocked off two No. 1s, Auburn (at home) in the regular season and Gonzaga (at San Francisco) in the NCAA round-of-16.
With two prized new players, billed as one-and-done prospects, on an overhauled roster, Arkansas started the current season with as much glitter attached as any Razorback group since Richardson’s Final Four squads of the 1990s. A Fayetteville man who mostly keeps tabs on UA football but also monitors the basketball team told a friend last fall, “There’s something wrong if this team doesn’t go to the Final Four.”
Fast forward to March, when one senses madness in the air regarding the Razorbacks but little passion that a long postseason run is imminent during March Madness.
A season that Arkansas fans dutifully penciled in 20 wins finds the Razorbacks 19-12 after an 8-10 Southeastern Conference showing. Even when 1-5 in the conference, one relied that Musselman’s teams tended to finish strongly and that Arkansas’ best basketball lay ahead. Another college buddy holds dreams of grandeur that Arkansas might scratch out a couple of SEC-tournament wins this week in Nashville, Tenn. And, at the risk of assuming facts not in evidence, that the Razorbacks might keep it going in the Big Dance.
In truth, this has been an ugly (at times) Arkansas season from opening night in the SEC, a 6057 road loss at LSU to a team the Hogs held to 40 points and beat by 20 in the return match at Bud Walton Arena.
The SEC became the basketball hotbed that few expected with Alabama and Tennessee rising in the polls and Kentucky, a blue chip stock, sagging. Arkansas no longer could find soThe
lace on its home court, trailing Missouri by 17 in the first 2023 game before winning and then losing to Alabama, Mississippi State and Kentucky.
Arkansas has been stuck on 19 wins since Feb. 21 and a home court blowout of Georgia, one place football still drives the athletic train. Then came consecutive losses at Alabama and Tennessee before the rematch with Kentucky, the Hogs putting up a good fight (86-83) in Tuscaloosa against a team dealing with issues to star player Brandon Miller but generally outplayed in Knoxville.
Though this is perhaps not a Kentucky team destined for history, Saturday’s loss was galling for Arkansas, which whipped the Wildcats Feb. 7 at Rupp Arena. The Razorbacks were slight favorites at home with UK coming off a loss to Vanderbilt on Senior Night at Rupp and outrage against coach John Calipari building.
Chicago native Antonio Reaves, with 37 points, had a Brandon Miller-like game in BWA and Oscar Tschiebwe, reigning Wooden Award winner as player of the year, made up for a quiet first game against the Hogs. Arkansas came out flat, freshman Nick Davis Jr. coming alive late to lead in scoring while older hand Davonte Davis got himself ejected in the second half. Per usual, the Hogs shot poorly, especially on free throws with no hand in their faces.
Before anyone blames an injury to Smith, who lost 19 games because of an ankle injury and is only now regaining form, for this team’s failures, think again. On any given night, Musselman doesn’t have enough players he can trust, something a coach should settle on before March. Razorback Nation has mined injuries to Smith and sophomore Trevon Brazile to a nauseating level.
Arkansas, it says here, would have been equally lacking in another conference, beating a subpar Oklahoma at a neutral site and losing a close one at Baylor. Does anyone really think this team could beat Houston or Kansas or Purdue? A chance NCAA date against Memphis might be tricky.
The question now is whether it can get past Auburn, which beat Arkansas 72-59 in January, in the SEC tournament Thursday. For that to happen, these Razorbacks — including Musselman, who seems beset with berating officials — need to grow up, in all ways, lest this season end for what has been less than an elite team.