The Arkansas Razorbacks experienced their first taste of losing last Saturday in the Eric Musselman era of basketball, and the Hogs’ head coach hopes that bitter taste stuck with his squad long enough to prompt better play in future late-game situations.
The Razorbacks (8-1) held a five-point lead on Western Kentucky late in regulation, but a series of mistakes by the Hogs allowed the Hilltoppers to tie the game and then ride their momentum to a 69-61 overtime victory over Arkansas.
A quirk of scheduling left the Razorbacks with a week between games, and Musselman hopes his Hogs have retained the hurt of falling from the ranks of the unbeaten going into their 12:30 p.m. Saturday contest against Tulsa in Bud Walton Arena. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. Tulsa
When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14
Where: Bud Walton Arena
Dec. 21 – Valparaiso
Dec. 29 – at Indiana
Jan. 4 – Texas A&M
Jan. 8 – at LSU
Jan. 11 – at Ole Miss
Jan. 15 – Vanderbilt
Jan. 18 – Kentucky
Jan. 22 – at Mississippi State
Jan. 25 – TCU
Jan. 29 – South Carolina
Feb. 1 – at Alabama
Feb. 4 – Auburn
Feb. 8 – at Missouri
Feb. 11 – at Tennessee
Feb. 15 – Mississippi State
Feb. 18 – at Florida
Feb. 22 – Missouri
Feb. 26 – Tennessee
Feb. 29 – at Georgia
March 4 – LSU
March 7 – at Texas A&M
“We lost on Saturday; I wish we would have played Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, but we had a week of practice between games,” Musselman said Thursday during a recorded interview on YouTube. “I hope we still have that bad taste in our mouth even though it’s been a week since we lost.”
Asked by a reporter if he would have coached any differently down the stretch, Musselman at first slipped into a bit of “coach speech” when he said “not really,” but he quickly corrected himself.
“Yeah, we’d do a lot differently because we lost,” Musselman said. “So to say that we would do everything the same would not be truthful.”
One loss, though, isn’t going to change Musselman’s philosophy on calling late-game timeouts. He doesn’t like to do it because it gives the opponent the ability to adjust. In a sense, he’s gambling that his players are better prepared for late-game situations than his opponents are.
One instance of that not happening in his first year with the Razorbacks on the road against a veteran Western Kentucky squad isn’t going to have a coach of Musselman’s caliber or confidence second-guessing himself.
However, Musselman has addressed all the late-game details and the mistakes the Razorbacks committed in hopes that those poor decisions don’t trip them up again. As he continued to answer the question, Musselman reeled off a litany of late-game Arkansas missteps that allowed the Hilltoppers back in the game that he feels the Razorbacks clearly let slip out of their grasp.
“You know Isaiah [Joe] had the ball in his hands and we had a charge,” Musselman pointed out. “Mason [Jones] had the ball in his hands, and we got fouled. You know we missed a couple of free throws that were crucial.”
More egregious was Jones’ late-game shot selection. Yes, he sank a long, 3-point game-winner in desperation to help the Hogs upend Georgia Tech in their previous road victory, but Musselman pointed out such dramatics weren’t necessary against the Hilltoppers.
“We’ve talked to Mason about, you know, a 30-foot shot with a tie game, and [instead] trying to use his creativity off the bounce to try to create for others or for himself to try and put a little bit more pressure on the defense,” Musselman said. “He understands that now. It’s a good learning experience. You know, he’s now had the ball in his hands twice [in late-game situations]. He’s a guy that creates as well as anyone on our team.”
The hard-luck of basketball also came into play with senior Jimmy Whitt, who has been the Razorbacks’ most consistent performer through the early third of the season. At 6-5, Whitt battled inside for a putback that just didn’t go down. Scoring over bigger opponents is something Musselman’s smallish Hogs are going to have to deal with all season.
“Jimmy had an offensive rebound that he just couldn’t get over the lip of the rim,” Musselman lamented. “We lost a game that we feel we should have won. We didn’t. Now all we can do is try to improve and try to learn and grow from some of our mistakes.”
That’s what a week’s worth of practices since the loss have been about as Arkansas prepares for a hard-nosed Tulsa squad with a long bench and a propensity for playing zone, although they usually open games in man-to-man defense, according to Musselman. The Golden Hurricane have beaten Vanderbilt, 67-58, at Nashville, but have lost Arkansas State, 66-63, at home.
Musselman is using the loss to correct his Hogs’ play, but if he had his druthers, the Razorbacks would still be undefeated along with Auburn, the only SEC team remaining with a spotless record.
“No, I wish [we had won],” Musselman said when asked if taking a first loss reduced some pressure. “We’re a basket away from being one of seven teams left with an undefeated record.
“It’s true you can grab your team’s attention a little more after a loss. Certainly we as a group wish we would have closed that game out the other night, but we didn’t. It’s painful to watch video of some of the mistakes we made.”
However, Musselman stressed that it wasn’t just the mistakes made a crunch time that did in the Hogs.
“You know everyone always points to a last shot or this or that, but in reality, we did some things that we haven’t done all year,” Musselman pointed out. “Our baseline, out-of-bounds defense was really bad, and it’s been really, really great all year. But for whatever reason that game we were really poor defending baseline out of bounds. So we grab our guys attention and hopefully we’re a little bit better in those type of instances than we were last Saturday.”
After listening to former Razorback football coach Chad Morris try to gloss over his team’s poor play with slogans, meaningless buzz words, and coach speech for the bulk of the last two seasons, it was great to hear Musselman be real and transparent about the process of correction that every improving team goes through.
While the Razorbacks won’t be immune from making their share of mistakes the rest of the season, my bet is that Musselman has this squad improving throughout the season instead of wallowing in their lost opportunities.
Lunney Jr. to UTSA
Speaking of football, it was a bit disappointing for this old Hog fan to hear that Barry Lunney Jr. will be moving on from the Razorbacks after coaching tight ends for seven seasons.
Lunney Jr., who led the Razorbacks to the first of just three SEC Western Division titles in the school’s history as a senior in 1995, is joining former Hog running back coach and new Texas San Antonio head coach Jeff Traylor as his offensive coordinator.
Lunney Jr. had the option of remaining on Sam Pittman’s Arkansas staff, but the man who performed the thankless task of serving as the Razorbacks’ interim coach for the final three weeks of the season after Morris was dismissed with two games remaining on the schedule probably made the decision that was best for his career.
Remaining at Arkansas certainly would have helped the Razorbacks during a time of transition, but it would not have progressed Lunney Jr.’s career as a college football coach.
Some might see being the offensive coordinator as UTSA as a step down from being a position coach at Arkansas, but if Lunney Jr, wants to be a head coach some day, he needs to prove what he can do as a play-caller and strategist, and that’s what the UTSA job offers him.
Hopefully the job will be the right stepping stone to propelling him to where he wants his career to go.
While I’m hoping Pittman every bit of success that a coach can have at Arkansas, as a fan, I’d still like to see the day, maybe 10 years down the line, when Lunney Jr. gets his shot at being the head coach of the Razorbacks without the interim tag included.