After his first season in the SEC, former Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino was asked what he learned from the season where his Razorbacks finished 5-7.
To paraphrase, he said something to the effect that you weren’t going to out-coach anyone in the SEC.
He didn’t mean that game by game coaching staffs didn’t do a better job than others in preparing their team. Clearly, coaching staffs out-coach each other on a weekly basis in the SEC.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Tennessee
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 11
Where: Knoxville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 16-7 (SEC 4-6)
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
What he meant is that a coach — no matter how ingenious he may be — can’t just rely only his coaching ability to lift inferior talent to win in a league with as many good coaches and players as the SEC. The Razorbacks needed better players to be successful in the SEC.
It seems first-year Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman might be coming to a similar realization with his Razorbacks as the Hogs struggle through a series of games where they have lost five of six SEC contests.
Now, clearly Musselman is an excellent coach. At 16-7 overall, his Razorbacks have already won as many games as most figured they would all season, and Arkansas has eight regular-season games and at least one game in the SEC Tournament left to play.
Musselman has proven his mettle as a coach time and again in his career, and certainly he’s worked in other situations where he’s had a short stick, if you will, like he is working with in terms of his roster this year at Arkansas.
Now, the Razorbacks aren’t untalented, but they are short with no regular contributor over 6-foot-8 in height and a regular rotation of seven players when everyone is healthy with two more who see eight or less minutes a game.
The Razorbacks have been without one of their best players Isaiah Joe through much of their recent struggles, and he is still considered to be out indefinitely after having knee surgery around two weeks ago.
Arkansas is hopeful he could return at the end of the month or in early March, but until Joe does return, it’s hard to say. Everyone heals differently.
The Razorbacks also came into the season with four scholarship players sitting out because of transfer rules.
You don’t have to be a coach or a “basketball analyst” to understand the issues this Razorback team is facing. The Razorbacks lack height and depth.
I only mention this upon reflecting on some statements Musselman made just after the Razorbacks began SEC play, when he was questioned about whether this team might wear down with the extended minutes guys like Joe, Mason Jones, and Jimmy Whitt were playing.
Musselman said he preferred working with a seven-man rotation because it allowed the Razorbacks to play through their mistakes and improve rather than looking over their shoulder for their back-up to come in the game.
He said the players were young and that they could handle playing 35 to 40 minutes a night over the course of a 30-plus game schedule. Musselman added that their conditioning from the summer along with him not working them to death in practice would keep them fresh.
Musselman added that he found during his four seasons at Nevada, he was better able to control locker room dynamics if he had four players redshirting. So, a nine-man roster was optimal for his coaching style.
In a sense, what he was saying other than the Razorbacks’ lack of height, he was working with an ideal situation or one that he preferred with the Hogs. While flying in the face of conventional wisdom, it was working for Arkansas up to that point.
However, it seemed to be motivational speak to me at the time, and a way of framing his team’s situation so that the players and coaching staff would not have an easy excuse for not to playing well or winning because of short numbers.
Coaches say what they think they need to say to get the results they are aiming for all the time. As a fan, I would much prefer to hear Musselman rationalize in that fashion than to constantly use the Razorbacks’ roster circumstances as an excuse.
That said, I certainly look forward to seeing the infusion of talent that will enter the program next season, and what Musselman will do with a full roster. He may opt to just play seven guys, but at least it will be an option and not his only resort.
However, the frustrating thing about the Hogs’ five most recent losses is that the Razorbacks have been oh so close to winning three of those games. Last week’s losses to No. 10 Auburn and Missouri were in overtime.
South Carolina escaped Walton Arena with a one-point victory. Even though Mississippi State manhandled the Hogs on the boards, the Razorbacks were in striking distance until late in the game. In fact, all seven of Arkansas’ losses have been by no more than seven points.
The Hogs Jan. 18 loss to Kentucky at Walton Arena, where this spiral started, is the only game where there never really was any light at the end of the tunnel.
Last week was truly a roller-coaster ride in which the Razorbacks showed how good they can be and how poorly they can play all in the matter of five days.
On Tuesday, the Hogs had Auburn (21-2, 8-2 SEC) on the ropes at Walton Arena, but lost a highly competitive game 79-76 in overtime. Then on Saturday, the Razorbacks played perhaps their worst game of the season at Missouri (11-17, 3-7) to fall, 83-79, also in overtime.
Now, the Razorbacks sit in 10th place in the SEC at 4-6. That’s bad news for a team that still aspires to make the NCAA Tournament.
The good news is that only two games separate them from Mississippi State, Florida and South Carolina who are in a three-way tie for fourth with 6-4 records, and are just one game behind Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas A&M who are in a three-way time for seventh at 5-5.
If the Hogs can pull themselves out of their spiral, they still have a shot of making postseason play, but the return to their winning ways really needs to begin at 6 p.m. against Tennessee (13-10, 5-5) in their SEC Network-televised game.
No doubt, this will be a tough game, but despite last Saturday’s loss to Missouri, the Razorbacks have played well on the road this season. The Vols struggle with turnovers, which plays into the Razorbacks’ hands. There are no sure things on the road in the SEC, but this is a game the Razorbacks should have a chance to win.
A victory over the Vols would allow the Razorbacks to regain their equilibrium for before the bully boys of Mississippi State visit Walton Arena for a game in which the Hogs should be looking for some payback.