For those who continued to question Eric Musselman throughout the 2022-23 season, it’s probably time to stop doing that.
With Saturday’s 72-71 upset of 1-seed Kansas, Musselman has led the Arkansas Razorbacks to three straight Sweet Sixteen appearances, the first time that’s happened for the Hogs since 1994-96.
As time ticked down and Ricky Council IV sank clutch free throws down the stretch, it was only a matter of time until the celebration began. Musselman and his squad erupted with joy and ran over to the Razorback faithful, where he stood on a table, took his shirt off and displayed pure excitement after he had led his team to the Sweet Sixteen again.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, that’s as great of a win as I’ve ever been a part of,” Musselman said. “Again, because of the history of Kansas, because of some of the their veteran players that were part of a championship team last year. A lot of people didn’t think we were going to win our first-round game.”
After struggling down the stretch with three losses to end the regular season, a lot of people had given up on Musselman and the Razorbacks. Social media was filled with hot takes and doubt of whether or not he built a winning roster.
Throughout the season, Musselman often told reporters that each game has its own identity and his team was young and continuing to learn and grow. Though it is still learning and growing, they are hitting a stride at the perfect time all while continuing to learn.
“I’ve continued to tell the guys internally and I’ve continued to tell the staff that we are a team that continues to get better,” Musselman said. “That just doesn’t happen this time of year, but because of all the circumstances that have happened, we’re still evolving, we’re still adding offensive plays, we’re still adding defensive coverages.”
Internal leadership was an issue early in the year and extra effort seemed to be a problem after some losses, including after a 97-84 loss to Vanderbilt on Jan. 14, a game that Musselman said he was disappointed with competitiveness afterwards.
Just over two months later, he praised his team’s willingness to get shots up before the win over Kansas on Saturday.
“These guys didn’t have hardly anytime off between our last game and I didn’t want to come shoot today,” Musselman said. “Not many teams shot today, they gave up their practice time. So I told them, hey, guys, let’s do a walk-through and film and I can walk you through what we need to and Ricky and Devo stood up and said no, Coach, we want to go to the gym and I said I was worried about legs and they said, nope. It wasn’t my decision. It was their decision.”
The two players that stood up and said no just so happened to be key to the victory. Davis had a signature performance with 25 points — 21 that came in the second half — and eight rebounds. Council scored 21 points, had six rebounds and four assists to go alongside his five free throws in the final 23 seconds that iced the game.
“I feel like we all did something to help us win and I’m glad we did that,” Davis said. “Ricky knocked down big free throws, we had Nick come in and play really good defense at the end of the game. Everybody contributed, Coach Muss even subbed the right way and things like that to help us. Even the coaches and the team contributed in some type of way to help us win.”
Having things come together the way they did after the way the season played out brought out a lot of emotion, especially from Davis during the CBS postgame interview.
Similar to Davis’ words, Musselman mentioned how tough the season has been, and advancing to another Sweet Sixteen is a great reward.
“This has been as challenging and up and down season as I’ve ever been apart of,” Musselman said. “For these guys to be rewarded for sticking with it and being able to go to Las Vegas and participate with only 16 teams still standing, it’s really hard to make this tournament. It really hard to win a game in this tournament. It’s really hard to beat defending champions, No. 1 seed. We did it, proud of us.”
Arkansas’ next challenge will be to face the winner of 5-seed St. Mary’s and 4-seed UConn inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday.
“I know it does feel good and I know the guys that be haven’t been a part of something like this, I know we feel like we’re at the top of the world and we want to continue and get better,” Davis said. “Like Coach Muss was saying, we not done yet and I think we can continue to get better as the season continues to go on.”