Don't let his long career in professional basketball fool you. Eric Musselman gets the college game. The evidence goes way beyond six straight 20-win seasons as a head coach on campus, the first four at Nevada, the last two at Arkansas.
One minute he's showing up at a frat house in full practice gear to throw down a dunk (on a severely lowered rim, but still.) The next minute, he's popping up on the UA campus handing out candy in anticipation of the annual Red-White Game, where his players' jerseys contained both a throwback logo and their Twitter or Instagram handles.
"The neat thing about being on a college campus is having fun," Musselman said during an appearance on SEC This Morning. "I probably wouldn't be pulling any of those stunts if I was coaching in the NBA."
Or if he weren't winning the way he's already won in Fayetteville, where he's 45-19 in two seasons. His second Arkansas team a year ago finished second in the conference, then advanced farther in the NCAA Tournament than any other SEC team, reaching the Elite Eight before falling to eventual champion Baylor. The Hogs hadn't gotten that deep into the tournament and finished the season in the top 10 (at No. 6 in the postseason USA Today poll) since 1995.
The momentum of that Elite Eight run has shown up in different ways in the run-up to the 2021-2022 season. Arkansas sold out of season tickets on Monday after landing recent commitments from two of the top seven players in the ESPN 100: No. 6 Nick Smith Jr., a 6-3 guard from North Little Rock, Ark., and No. 7 Jordan Walsh, a 6-7 forward from Oak Cliff, Texas. That lifted Arkansas to the No. 2 2022 recruiting class in the nation.
But Musselman and the Razorbacks aren't waiting till next year to take another crack at the Final Four. They brought in six Division I transfers for this season, three of them grad transfers. One of them, guard Stanley Umude, who played four years at South Dakota, led the Red team in Sunday's intrasquad game with 16 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
Musselman's pro coaching background, especially in the NBA's developmental league, helped him develop the roster adaptability college coaches have to have in the transfer portal era.
"You have to have offensive and defensive schemes that players can pick up," he said. "You have to understand the importance of chemistry, getting to know your teammates in a short amount of time. The most important factor from a recruiting standpoint, especially with graduate transfers, is who fits in. Do his vision and goals align with what you want in your own program?"
Musselman will try to blend those transfers with a talented returning core led by senior guard JD Notae, last season's SEC Sixth Man of the Year. In Notae, sophomore Davonte Davis and Miami grad transfer Chris Lykes, Musselman said, the Hogs have "three point guards who can score."
"Every team takes on a different identity," Musselman said. "This year is about how much we are going to share the basketball."
And how much fun they'll have as they shoot for an SEC title and another deep postseason run.