Mike Anderson’s Latest Flame Out Shows Musselman’s Value to Arkansas

Eric Musselman, Mike Anderson, Arkansas Basketball
Photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / St. John’s Athletics

As of Sunday night, Eric Musselman became the first Arkansas coach since Nolan Richardson to lead the Razorbacks to three straight NCAA tournaments. He is only the third coach in school history to achieve this feat. It’s a wild thought, considering Arkansas’ basketball records date back to 1923-24, and it’s something that should make Musselman and the program feel accomplished.

Unfortunately, it also feels a bit hollow. By getting a first-round date with Illinois on Thursday, Arkansas secured its postseason spot in the Big Dance over an underperforming season that ended with whimpers from Arkansas, which lost four of its last five games. With an 8-10 SEC regular-season record, the Razorbacks become only the fifth team in the past two decades to reach the NCAA tournament with a Southeastern Conference loss record.

The expectations of March Madness are therefore mixed. Arkansas has been a top 10 team on select points this year. Granted, that was in December when Trevon Brazile was still losing for the season. With Nick Smith Jr.’s knee now healthy, the talent that remains on the playable list suggests a third straight Elite Eight heat — which it’s never heard of in school history — might not be considered the biggest shock would apply (although still a moderate one considering the team’s distance running).

But a first-round loss before the Hogs even get a shot at likely second-round opponents Kansas would be far less surprising.

In many ways, the 2022-23 season in Arkansas felt awfully familiar. No, not the three losses where the Hogs held a double-digit lead. No, I haven’t lost the biggest halftime lead in over a decade. But a good, not great, overall record alongside a .500 SEC season was Mike Anderson-esque. Incidentally, the same Mike Anderson who was sacked by St. John’s over the weekend after four mediocre seasons with the Red Storm.

Mike Anderson and Eric Musselman

Anderson’s problems in New York City weren’t quite the same as Musselman’s in Fayetteville, although they were the same as those he had while running the Hogs program from 2011 to 2019. St. John’s was regularly offensively disorganized, the same complaint was made to the Razorbacks when Anderson was at UA. Arkansas has had problems like this at various points this season as well. The Razorbacks’ rating stuttered: sometimes they looked unstoppable, sometimes they were unbeatable.

Mike Anderson’s teams had nowhere near Musselman’s talent. Certainly Bobby Portis, perhaps the best Arkansas NBA player since Joe Johnson, was a dynamic player. But Nick Smith Jr. is a likely lottery pick. It could also be Anthony Black. Trevon Brazile and Jordan Walsh could be first-round picks if they are expected to enter the draft after next season. Moses Moody was a first rounder. Mason Jones was the must-have SEC Player of the Year despite being recruited by Anderson. But with a team more talented than any Musselman or Anderson in college before, the disappointment Arkansas believers feel on the road to big dancing is understandable.

It’s also a drain on Musselman, who doesn’t deserve some of the criticism his way has been drawing this year. The man has guided Arkansas into the Elite Eight for the last two seasons by shouting out loud. Even if he hadn’t lost Brazile for the whole season and Smith for most of it, he still deserved a pass with a .500 second record.

That being said, Saturday’s phone incident at the SEC tournament was a bad sight for the program (admittedly not for Musselman himself; although the adage goes that a program should reflect the coach who runs it). Musselman was an easy target for fans of Arkansas’ opponents, his short-tempered nature on court and his occasional quip off it, as the man doesn’t like answering questions after losses. It all earned him votes for the most dislikes in the SEC after John Calipari in Kentucky.

Anderson never got those votes. Aside from the Missouri fans, he was very popular with opponents and also moderately popular with fans of his program. But he also never took the Razorbacks to Eric Musselman’s heights. With winning comes jealousy from the outside. No doubt Musselman suffers, and now that Arkansas is struggling, he’s easy prey for those holding grudges.

The Future of Arkansas Basketball

Whatever happens to Arkansas in the big dance is likely moot when it comes to Muss’s return to Arkansas. He is the son of a longtime NBA coach and has also been there once as a leader. If the professional ranks came knocking again, he’d probably be listening. The Razorbacks making another deep run could be the reason NBA teams are closing in.

Or maybe, if this season has indeed been as frustrating as he has said in numerous post-game press conferences, the leap may come sooner rather than later. The transfer portal and the NILs don’t make things easier with the trainers, they make them more complicated.

That’s not to say that Must is going anywhere. A contract worth more than $4 million a year is a big reason he probably isn’t. But possibility will always hover over us. That’s the price. Arkansas has emerged as a dominant program with Eric Musselman at the helm, more dominant than under Mike Anderson, John Pelphrey, or Stan Heath. Or, going back to before Eddie Sutton, better than the era of Lanny Van Eman, Duddy Waller, or anyone before that.

The cost of winning is questions like this. And the moment things get crazy like they’ve done this year, do fans really want to kick him to the side of the road? You better not, because history has shown that with two legends in 100 years and Eric Musselman a clear No. 3, chances are the program is the best at getting another Mike Anderson.

Not half bad. But not what Arkansas wants.


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