Elite NCAA tournament coaches don’t come around often, but Arkansas may officially have one in Eric Musselman. The high-energy coach put on perhaps his most impressive performance yet, taking down No. 1 Kansas 72–71 as a No. 8 seed Saturday in an upset that further shook up the NCAA tournament field.
Since Nolan Richardson, the Arkansas program had consistently fallen flat in the Big Dance. The Hogs went twice under Stan Heath, once under John Pelphrey and three times under Mike Anderson, but failed to get out of the first weekend in all six appearances. Enter Musselman. After missing the NCAA tournament in his first season, Arkansas has now made the Sweet 16 in three consecutive seasons. It gave eventual national champion Baylor its toughest test of the 2021 tournament, took out overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga last season and now has toppled the defending champion Jayhawks.
This year’s effort might be Musselman’s best coaching job yet. He has earned a reputation as one of the sport’s best shape-shifters, adapting constantly to changing personnel in the transfer portal age. But this year, he’s had to constantly shift his rotation due to injuries. Talented forward Trevon Brazile sustained a season-ending knee injury in early December, while five-star freshman guard Nick Smith missed much of the season due to knee issues before returning in mid-February. Once a small-ball extraordinaire, Musselman instead had to embrace bully-ball, his team ranking among the worst in the nation in three-point shooting but finding ways to win with size and physicality.
That was the story Saturday against the Jayhawks. The Razorbacks simply outworked the defending champs, particularly in the second half, during which Arkansas had to rally from a double-figure deficit. The Hogs racked up 15 offensive rebounds (and topped Kansas 15–2 in second-chance points), got Jayhawk big men K.J. Adams and Ernest Udeh in foul trouble and took 26 free throws.
The story all season at Arkansas was its talented freshmen, Smith and Black both pegged for high picks in the NBA draft this June. But with its season on the line, Musselman instead leaned on his older guys, with Smith sitting much of the second half and Black limited to just four points. Meanwhile, juniors Ricky Council IV and Davonte “Devo” Davis drove to the rim with reckless abandon the entire second half, and the duo combined for 46 of Arkansas’ 72 points.
Musselman also had something one rarely has when taking on Kansas: the coaching advantage. Bill Self, one of two active coaches with multiple national titles to his name, wasn’t on the sideline Saturday as he recovers from heart procedure last week. His replacement, former St. John’s coach Norm Roberts, did an admirable job given the circumstances, but isn’t quite as sharp as his normal boss, and the Jayhawks took too much time in a critical late-game possession down three that really backed them up against it.
Still, it’s hard to see this loss for the Jayhawks as anything more than an illustration of just how hard it is to win a championship in consecutive years in this format. There’s no doubt the Jayhawks will rue the things they could have done differently—a few key missed free throws as Arkansas made its push, the struggles on the glass, even the foul trouble can at least partially be chalked up to poor discipline. Kansas survived tight games against Creighton and Providence on the road to last year’s Final Four, then needed a historic rally to beat North Carolina in the title game. Eventually, the game catches up to you. A player gets in foul trouble, an opposing role player gets hot and you go home. There’s a reason why no team has repeated as champs since Florida under Billy Donovan in 2006 and 2007, and given today’s constant roster movement, it’s hard to envision a repeat champ again anytime soon. Just the fact that Kansas was this good despite the heavy losses it endured to the professional ranks last spring is impressive, but there was just no March magic for this year’s iteration of the Jayhawks.
And how hard it is to consistently win in March is why it’s so impressive that the Razorbacks have now reached the second weekend three years in a row. It’s particularly notable given how much roster turnover the Hogs have had each year. All three years, Musselman’s team has had less than a third of its minutes returning from a season ago, marks near the bottom of the national rankings, but it hasn’t mattered. Musselman’s personality and sideline antics (like jumping on the scorer’s table to “Call the Hogs” postgame) may not be for everyone, but there’s no doubt his players respond to it, especially in this setting.
Now, the real question: Can Musselman take the Hogs to a Final Four? Consistency has been Arkansas’ problem all season long, but it’d be foolish to bet against Musselman in this setting. Tonight is just the latest reminder.