USC hires Musselman away from Arkansas

USC hires Musselman away from Arkansas

On Thursday afternoon, USC hired Eric Musselman as its next men’s head basketball coach to replace Andy Enfield, who left to take the SMU job last week.

When Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek hired Musselman on April 9 of 2019, the proud program had been to only six NCAA Tournaments since 2001 and had only three NCAA Tournament wins since the turn of the century.

Even worse, the Razorbacks hadn’t tasted a Sweet 16 appearance since Nolan Richardson’s 1996 squad. At the time, it was the second-longest Sweet 16 drought for any SEC program except for Georgia, which still hasn’t made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend since 1995 (when it lost an epic overtime game against John Wallace’s Syracuse squad that made the finals before losing to Kentucky).

During Richardson’s spectacular tenure from 1985-2002, Arkansas went to three Final Fours, four Elite Eights, six Sweet 16s and made the national-title game twice, winning it in 1994 on Scotty Thurman’s go-ahead 3-pointer to beat a Duke team led by Grant Hill.

When Musselman was hired to come to Fayetteville and replace Mike Anderson, he had taken Nevada to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, winning 28, 29 and 29 games after going 24-14 and winning the CBI Tournament in the first season of a four-year tenure.

It didn’t take long for Musselman to start working his magic in the Ozarks. In Year 1, Arkansas was 20-12 overall but just 7-11 in the SEC when COVID prompted the cancellation of the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.

But in Year 2, the Hogs went 25-7 overall, 13-4 in SEC play to finish second and advanced to the Elite Eight with wins over Colgate, Texas Tech and Oral Roberts. Arkansas eventually lost an 81-72 decision to Baylor, the eventual 2021 national champion.

The Razorbacks went to the Elite Eight again in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, beating top-seeded Gonzaga 74-68 in the West Region semifinal. Musselman’s team bowed out in a 78-69 loss vs. Duke in the West region finals, but it posted a 28-9 overall record.

Despite a ninth-place finish in the SEC standings during the 2022-23 campaign, Musselman got his team to the Sweet 16 for a third year in a row. Once again, Arkansas ousted a No. 1 seed, taking out Kansas in a 72-71 Round-of-32 win at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Just like in 2021, it took the eventual national champ (UConn) to eliminate the Razorbacks from the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

At this time a year ago, Musselman was the Toast of the Town in Fayetteville. Arkansas was playing in front of packed crowds again at Bud Walton Arena, something that hadn’t consistently happened since Richardson had the Hogs rolling as one of college basketball’s elite programs throughout the 1990s.

But things went South quickly. For whatever reasons, Musselman’s incoming transfers didn’t jell together like they had on previous squads.

Arkansas struggled to a 16-17 overall record and a 6-12 mark in SEC contests, missing the postseason altogether. Then Musselman’s name started popping up in multiple coaching searches like the one at Louisville and others.

When Enfield bolted for SMU, there was suddenly a vacancy in Southern California. Musselman grew up in San Diego and played his college basketball for the Toreros.

When reports early Wednesday indicated that an interview was scheduled between USC and Musselman, it certainly appeared as if he had one foot out the door.

But USC? Really? The Trojans don’t have a storied basketball tradition. In fact, they’ve only been to a pair of Final Fours… in 1940 and 1954!

USC has been to the Sweet 16 just three times in the last 62 years.

Whether the motivation was the climate of Southern California or a fractured relationship between Musselman and Yurachek is unknown. What is for sure is that it’s not easier to win at USC than Arkansas, especially with the Trojans making their Big Ten debut in 2024-25.

Whatever the case, Musselman bid farewell to Arkansas with this post to his X account on Thursday afternoon.

In another post on X, Yuracheck wished ‘Muss’ and his family well and announced that a national search had begun for “one of the premier opportunities in college basketball.” 

Muss leaves the program in much better shape than when he inherited it. He went 111-59 overall (65.3%), 47-42 (52.8%) in SEC play and 8-3 in NCAA Tournament games.

This swift divorce came about quickly and is a bit of a head scratcher. Nevertheless, the Arkansas basketball program and Muss’s stature as a college coach are both better for having each other over the last five years.

Like Richardson two decades before him, Muss once again demonstrated that you can win big at Arkansas. Bud Walton is one of college basketball’s most special environments and they aren’t lacking for dollar bills in the Ozarks.

There’s plenty of NIL money dedicated to the hoops program and when things are going well, Arkansas has one of the country’s most passionate fan bases. Likewise, when the program is enjoying success, the state’s elite recruits like to stay home, and the Razorbacks can get their share of players from Memphis and Texas, too.

Most reports out of Fayetteville have indicated that Arkansas is going to move fast in this coaching search. The three names linked to the job the most in the last 24 hours are Ole Miss’s Chris Beard, McNeese St.’s Will Wade and Kansas St.’s Jerome Tang.

UPDATE on Friday, 4/5/24, at 2:52 p.m. Eastern: Beard has removed his name from consideration and is staying at Ole Miss. 

UPDATE on Sunday, 4/7/24, at 2:22 p.m. Eastern: Tang removed his name from consideration for the Arkansas gig on Friday night. 

It’s extremely unlikely that Yurachek’s list will need to go beyond those three names but if so, potential names could include UAB’s Andy Kennedy, Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams and South Florida’s Amir Abdur-Rahim.