Eric Musselman might need to break the bubble and sneak off to the mall. Or at the very least swing by the hotel gift shop.
The Arkansas coach packed one bag for his team’s trip to Indiana for the NCAA Tournament and blamed team managers for losing one set of his clothes. Like one of his young players on an extended road trip for the first time, Musselman decided to grab a bottle of shampoo and start scrubbing on the clothes he still has.
“I went old school in my sink,” he said. “I’m not giving the managers any more laundry.”
Given the way the Razorbacks (22-6) played down the stretch in the Southeastern Conference, Musselman might need some new duds. The Razorbacks might stick around a bit.
Arkansas won 12 in a row in league play before losing to LSU 78-71 in the SEC Tournament championship game. The late-season surge helped Musselman’s team land the No. 3 seed in the South Region, the program’s highest since losing to UCLA in the title game in 1995.
Led by Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman and coach Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” pace, Arkansas was the defending national champion and a No. 2 seed when it lost to Ed O’Bannon and the top-seeded Bruins.
For the Razorbacks, it’s been more than 25 years of mediocrity since.
When the Hogs tip off against 14th-seeded Colgate (14-1) in the opening round Friday in Indianapolis, they have a chance to take another step in a potential resurgence of a once-proud and prominent program.
Coaches Stan Heath, John Pelphrey and Mike Anderson failed to make Arkansas anything more than average in the wake of Richardson’s Hall of Fame tenure. In their 17 years in Fayetteville, they combined for nine seasons without a postseason berth, six trips to the NCAA Tournament and two NIT bids. They went 3-6 in those NCAA tourney games, never getting past the opening weekend.
So the 56-year-old Musselman doesn’t have to do much to erase decades of disappointment and get “Woo Pig Sooie” back on the big stage.
Musselman took over before the 2019-20 season, replacing Anderson after leading Nevada to three consecutive Mountain West Conference titles and three NCAA berths that included a Sweet 16 appearance.
The Hogs made significant strides in the former NBA coach’s first season – they would have made the 68-team field with a few more wins in the SEC tournament – but really took a leap in Year 2.
Freshman Moses Moody had a lot to do with it. The 6-foot-6 guard leads the team with 17.4 points a game and has been at his best of late. He finished with a career-high-tying 28 points in three of his last four games while becoming one of the most well-rounded players in the conference.
“It’s just that I’ve gotten going, I’ve got the team looking for me, I’ve gotten going early and been able to sustain that throughout the game,” Moody said. “It’s just when we move the ball the way that we have we’re destined to have high-scoring games.”
Musselman praised Moody for learning to move without the ball as he became the focus of opponents in every outing.
“When that happens, your game has to evolve, and his game has evolved because he’s worked hard,” the coach said. “He’s put in the time. … Why’s he better off the bounce? Because he works. Like, when you walk into our practice site, he’s always in there, so there’s no coincidence why his game has improved. It’s because he invests.”
The Razorbacks are invested in getting past this weekend, even if Musselman’s wardrobe might need a little extra work.
They’re ready to get the program back to where it was nearly three decades ago.
“Coming in, that was our expectation,” Moody said. “We wanted to be here and be in this position. Now that we are, we just got to fulfill what we set out to do. … That’s the mindset: we’re here now so it’s time to take care of business.”'
No. 8 seed North Carolina is carrying quite the streak into its opening-round game against ninth-seeded Wisconsin. The Tar Heels have won 17 consecutive first-round matchups in the NCAA Tournament, a run that started following a 1999 shocker to Weber State in Seattle. UNC and Wisconsin play at Mackey Arena.
The Tar Heels have the best NCAA Tournament record (33-9) and winning percentage (.786) of any program since 2008 (minimum of six games played).
No. 16 seed Hartford is one of two teams making their NCAA Tournament debut this week. Grand Canyon is the other. The Hawks could get a not-so-warm welcome when they face top-seeded Baylor at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The South Region has five teams that have won it all: Wisconsin (1941), Arkansas (1994), Florida (2006-07), Villanova (1985, 2016, 2018) and North Carolina (1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009, 2017). That’s 13 titles combined, seven fewer than the teams in the East (thanks mostly to UCLA's 11).
Reaching the tournament for the first time in 13 years, Oral Roberts drew the No. 15 seed and a daunting matchup with Ohio State. The Summit League Tournament champions from Tulsa, Oklahoma, lead all NCAA Division I teams with an average of 11.3 made 3-pointers a game and boast the country’s leading scorer in guard Max Abmas at 24.2 points per game.
For low- and mid-major programs like the Golden Eagles, getting national TV time — even in an abnormal tournament missing much of the usual in-arena pageantry — is priceless.
“What do you think a two-hour spot on CBS would cost to advertise? I don’t know. $50 million bucks? Hey, you get a two-hour window. We get to prove that our opportunity is legit,” coach Paul Mills said, “And we get a chance to battle a really good basketball team. I mean, what more could you ask for?”
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