LITTLE ROCK — A first-year Arkansas Razorbacks men’s head basketball coach holding the first basketball press conference in Barnhill Arena in more than two decades was certainly different, and unexpected, but such a rare opportunity to get significant face time with the new Head Hog prior to October opened the door to a multitude of questions from local media still trying to get a read on the new regime.
Eric Musselman has been a social media darling — Twitter, Instagram, podcasts, etc. — since taking over the Hoop Hogs in early April. But face-to-face interaction with the media had been limited to 3-4 occasions until Thursday when Musselman held a press conference in the venue that will play host to the annual Red-White game (3 p.m. CT, Saturday, Oct. 5 at Barnhill Arena).
A former NBA head coach with decades of experience in the pro game, Musselman has shifted to the college game in the last eight years and has made his case to players, fans, and the media with energy, enthusiasm, and purpose.
All of that came through once again on Thursday as he explained the decision to bring Barnhill back into the loving embrace of the men’s basketball program — even if only for a day — while smartly addressing a multitude of queries regarding his brand new progam.
Musselman on Arkansas’s non-conference schedule that was released on Tuesday: “We feel like it’s a very challenging non-conference. Especially if you look across our conference. There’s not many programs that are playing three true (non-conference) road games. Obviously, I look back at the history of Arkansas of basketball schedules and there’s not a lot of years where you have three true road games. You might have some neutral-site games … and we feel that some of the programs that are coming in here to play in Bud Walton are challenges as well. There’s a lot of programs that we feel are going to win their league or have the opportunity or a chance to win their conference. And of course that becomes really, really important as you gets towards March and Selection Sunday type deal. You want to at least give yourself a chance … When you look at some of the people we’re playing, Northern Kentucky for instance, is a program that’s won a lot of games. They got a lot of starters back. So we feel like it’s a really, really challenging schedule with the road games and then playing TCU here at home. It’s a challenging slate in our opinion.”
Musselman on his familiarity with the history of Razorbacks basketball, specifically the Triplets: “There’s no doubt with The Triplets. Having the opportunity to fly to the (Naismith) Hall of Fame last week and sit with Ron Brewer Sr. and sit with Marvin and talk stories. A lot of the players in that era I’m so familiar with. I remember the cover of Sports illustrated. There’s no question those three guys, somebody my age that loves basketball you’re going to know who those three guys are for sure. One of Sidney Moncrief’s visits was to the University of Minnesota. The problem was it snowed in Minnesota and it was like mid-September. So I think when he saw the snow in mid-September at a football game, he decided Arkansas was probably a better place for him.”
Musselman on having former players back in Fayetteville to attend games: Yeah, no question. I had a great talk with Coach Richardson the other day. One of the first things we wanted to do … I wanted to make sure that he thought it was a good idea, and he certainly did. He talked about a lot of the things that he had done in the past form a marketing standpoint and so forth. Yes, we’re going to reach out to as many players as we can and invite them back. Without question that’s something we’re going to start doing as early as next week.”
Musselman on the promotional aspect of playing the Red/White game at Barnhill Arena: “That was kind of the reason that all of us felt as a group it would be a good idea, because once you’ve done something for two or three years, you always want to try to come up with something new. We think that for our students to see a basketball game in here … And it’s not just about people that have seen games here in the past. It’s also about some people that have never seen a basketball game in here. To me, it’s going to be a great night. It’s going to be different, it’s unique. We want to have fun. And hopefully as we get closer to the game we’ll continue to come up with some new ideas to make it a special night. I’m not really an expert on what we’re going to do. There will probably be some baskets that aren’t anchored down, so we’re not going to be doing tomahawk dunks. But, we’re going to play a game and it’s going to be competitive because we’re going to use it as an evaluation tool. We will probably use some tape but it will look good. Obviously, with volleyball being in season we don’t want to do anything to disrupt that at all. I think it will look really cool by the time we start playing the game.”
Musselman on transfer Connor Vanover and his unresolved NCAA waiver request for imeediate playing eligibility: “There has been no update yet one way or the other. We’ll just continue to wait. We’re practicing as if he’s a transfer and will have to sit out, but we’re hopeful that we’ll get a different word. Right now it’s about practicing. It’s about Connor getting better. Whether he was eligible to play or whether he was sitting out, we’d still have the same approach from a player development standpoint right now. We don’t really need a decision until about a week before. We’re going to practice a certain way and not really do our game prep until a week before we play Rice. I don’t think there is any doubt that there will be a decision before the season. Like I said, internally we’re not talking about it all because it’s a matter of how do we get our guys ready from a player development standpoint. We’re not really zoned on is JD Notae playing or not, we’re just trying to get better as a group.”
Musselman on his Hoop Hogs’ recent workout with the Razorbacks track and field team: “It went great. Our guys really like it. A couple of our players tweeted out about it that they really liked it. It was unique and different. I just think from a basketball standpoint things can get stale. I always want to kind of jolt them, let them have some fun. That’s why we did boxing, that’s why we did spin. We always try to get them a little out of their comfort zone to where they’re also having fun. The neatest thing about college athletics is that it doesn’t matter what sport you’re coaching on a college campus, it’s really a family. Some of the track coaches are my friends. We live in the same neighborhood, a few of us. We were just talking one night about basketball players and how they run, to be honest. I think that our guys learned something technique-wise even just running. So, we talked about doing it more than once. I don’t know if we will just because of time constraints with them and us. But, I think it was good for our guys, it was good for comradery and now our guys know the track group a little bit better and vice versa. That is the neatest thing about being on a college campus.”
Musselman on his hiring philosphy and choices when assembling his three assistant coaches (associate head coach Chris Crutchfield, assistant coach Corey Williams, and assistant coach Clay Moser): “I talked a lot with administration about our staff just because Hunter and Jon have been doing college athletics for a long time and they’re expects at it. So I wanted to get different perspectives, not just a perspective of my view. I did, for sure, want a former head coach at the Division I level and obviously Corey Williams checks that box. I wanted a former NBA player on staff. I felt that was important from a recruiting standpoint and it was important for our guys that want to play at the next level. Corey checks that box. And then I wanted somebody that I had worked with in the past that knew our system and knew our terminology and our play calls and how to put in drills and obviously Clay Moser and I have worked together at six or seven different spots, so he’s overly familiar with in-game situations and how I would react to what we want to do on wrinkles and plays late game and so forth. Clay having 17 years of NBA experience is really big in recruiting, to have somebody that was on a staff coaching LeBron James last year. Then obviously Coach Crutch, I felt it was overly vital to have someone who had coached and recruiting in this region and had done it at the Power Five level. Obviously Coach Crutch coming from Oklahoma filled that box. So we feel extremely excited about who we have as a staff and I think they’re a really good complement because they all have completely different backgrounds.”
Musselman on his two recruiting coordinator hires (Pat Ackerman and his sson, Michael Musselman): “I think that college athletics, when you look at staff sizes, regardless of the sport, they continue to grow. When you think about recruiting graphics, a lot of recruits are getting graphics on a daily basis. Even four years ago, when I started at Nevada, you were doing kind of mail outs and maybe a graphic once a week for one of your top recruits. Social media, touching your players in different areas… We’re always trying to find new ideas and I think both Pat Ackerman (recruiting coordinator) and Michael (Musselman – his son and director of recruiting), both of those guys, because of their age and being close to the same age as the guys we’re recruiting, are vital. I’m 54 years old and what I think might be really cool, it’s good to have those two guys saying, ‘Hey, that ain’t so cool.’”
Musselman on creative and playful photo re-enactments of famous NBA moments with recruits who are taking visits to Arkansas: “It was really interesting. A lot of the stuff we do that’s outside the box just kind of happens organically. One of our recruits, obviously can’t name names, but he kind of had the ball in his hands and I got in a defensive stance and someone took a picture. Then some national media guys picked that up and then we had a recruit come on campus and he thought it was a scene of an NBA situation. Then right when that was brought up, it was like, ‘All right, bang. Here we go.’ So, it’s turned into now recruits that have not been on campus texting us and saying, ‘Hey, coach,’ and they’ll send a picture and say, ‘Can we do this scene if I come on an official or an unofficial visit?’ It’s taken on a life of its own. It’s been great for the prospective student-athlete. The high school guys love it. We don’t ask anymore. They actually come to us with what they want to do. Everybody in the country is taking a picture with their arm around a recruit, and now this kind of separates us. And the great thing is if anybody tries to emulate it it’s old news. So we kind of started it, and we’re going to keep rolling with it – and no copycatters.”