Arkansas led by less than two minutes in its one-point ejection of top-seeded Kansas in the second round of Saturday’s NCAA Tournament.
“This has been as busy and an up-and-down season as I’ve ever been a part of,” said Razorbacks head coach Eric Musselman.
As usual under Musselman, however, Arkansas knows how to time the treble. The eighth-seeded Razorbacks (22-13) are headed to a third straight Sweet 16 under Musselman and will reach a third straight Elite Eight with a win Thursday night over fourth-seeded Connecticut (27-8) in West Las Vegas .
“Coach Muss is amazing,” Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts said. “He’s an attack-mode guy—everyone knows that—and he’s a passionate guy.”
That passion was on full display Saturday following Arkansas’ upset against the Jayhawks. Musselman, who remains in solid physical shape despite the coach’s penalties and trips, took off his jersey for the mostly receptive crowd at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.
“I’d like to lie and say I felt composed,” Musselman said of those ecstatic few moments before putting his shirt back on for a postgame interview.
Around the same time, a poster on a fan website of an Arkansas SEC West rival wrote that a man in his 40s shouldn’t take his shirt off at a basketball game, regardless of the celebration. Another poster quickly replied that the youthful-looking Musselman is 58 years old.
Musselman, son of former NBA head coach Bill Musselman, once explained on the “Dan Patrick Show” why he takes off his shirt for big games, a tradition that dates back to his days as the Nevada coach.
“The first year I was at Nevada (in 2016), we won a CBI championship (tournament), and I was taking my shirt off to put on a championship shirt, and they (players) grabbed me and picked me up,” said Musselman. ‘I was halfway through wearing the shirt, and it became kind of a tradition.’
He also acknowledged that it’s not exactly people who point and giggle at a man in his 50s when the shirt flies off.
“I guess because my wife is really, really good looking, I have to try to keep myself in the best shape possible,” Musselman said of living up to her last name.
Arkansans wouldn’t care if Musselman was built as a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man as long as he continues to take Arkansas to unexpected heights still early in his tenure as the Razorbacks. His secret—and it’s actually no secret—is heavy recruiting, including diving in Texas for high-level competitors.
“You can’t win at any level… elementary school, high school, college, pro, G League, national team, unless you have really good players,” Musselman said. “And we have really good players.”
So good that true freshman starters Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Black, the latter of Duncanville, are projected into the top 10 picks in this summer’s NBA draft. And sixth man Jordan Walsh, who comes from DeSoto, played more than three starters in the Razorbacks’ 72-71 win over Kansas.
Based in part on Musselman’s reliance on three freshmen in his top six players, the Razorbacks have had their fair share of stumbles this season, also losing more Southeastern Conference regular-season games than they won (8- 10).
But Arkansas beat ninth-seeded Illinois by double figures (73-63) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, then defeated a Jayhawks team that had won by 30 (98-68) in its tournament opener against Howard.
Musselman is somewhat familiar with slow starts coupled with high expectations, considering he was head coach of the Golden State Warriors for two seasons in the late 1930s and early 1940s and the Sacramento Kings for one season in the early 1930s. 1940s and failed to make the NBA playoffs in any of the three years prior to his layoffs.
Musselman, pride aside, then coached in the NBA’s D-League before serving as an assistant at Arizona State and LSU. He returned to coaching with Nevada eight years ago and since then his career has been on an upward arc.
The Razorbacks are looking to make three consecutive Elite Eights for the first time in program history and make their first Final Four since 1995 under iconic coach Nolan Richardson, who also led them to the program’s only national title in the 1994. Now Arkansas is two wins away from a Final Four visit to NRG Stadium, about 570 miles from Fayetteville, Ark.
“The beginning of conference play hasn’t looked good for us, and we kind of stuck around and won some big games and lost some really tough games to some really good competition,” Musselman said.
The SEC started with eight teams in the NCAA Tournament but dropped to three, including the Razorbacks, who finished ninth in the league in the regular season. Top seed Alabama and fourth seed Tennessee are also in the Sweet 16.
“We told everyone, don’t listen to the noise,” Musselman said of the Razorbacks’ on-season racket. “Concern about what’s going on internally in this dressing room and let’s keep improving.”