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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Pat Forde

Eric Musselman’s Biggest Win Yet Came in a Most Befitting Setting

SAN FRANCISCO — There are a million different paths to success in basketball coaching, but few are as meandering as the route Eric Musselman took. In many ways, his journey came full circle here Thursday night.

His first big-time head coaching job was right here in the Bay Area 20 years ago, when he was tabbed to lead the NBA’s Golden State Warriors at 36. He was fired two years later, with a 75–89 record. A couple of years later he bounced to the Sacramento Kings and was fired there after a 33–49 season.

After that he started an AAU team in Danville, Calif., near Oakland, working out kids in Sycamore Valley Park and coaching his son. They went 71–0 before a loss to the Sacramento Yellow Jackets. Musselman retired from AAU coaching at 71–1.

Then he bounced through the G League and a couple of college assistant gigs before getting the head job at Nevada in 2015. Fast forward seven years and Musselman arrived here with his Razorbacks for a date with March Madness destiny.

Musselman celebrates Arkansas’s win over Gonzaga.

Tony Avelar/AP

“The day that I was either fired from the Kings or the Warriors, to think that I would be coaching in a Sweet 16 in the Bay Area. If anybody would have asked me that at that particular time I would have told them there was zero chance,” Musselman said. “Not 5%, not 10%, literally zero chance of that happening. I guess the world has a funny way of working itself out.”

In the home arena of the first franchise to fire him, the world worked out in a beautiful way for Musselman on Thursday night. His Hogs shocked the NCAA tournament overall No. 1 seed, Gonzaga, laying a relentless defensive effort on the Zags in a 74–68 triumph that marks Arkansas’s first-ever victory over a No. 1 seed. Saturday, the Hogs will play in the Elite Eight for the second straight year, stamping Musselman as undoubtedly the most successful coach in the SEC over the past two seasons and among the most successful in the country. (The only other coaches still playing who can make a second straight Elite Eight are Houston’s Kelvin Sampson, who did so Thursday, and UCLA’s Mick Cronin.)

Not only did a lot of old Bay Area friends see the biggest win of Musselman’s career, so did his mother, Kris. The California resident had never been to one of his games since coming to Arkansas in 2019, but she was the first person Muss sought out when he went to the Hogs’ fan section after the game. Beforehand, she’d presented Eric with a lucky buckeye that his late father and longtime college and pro coach, Bill, had kept in his possession.

Arkansas did get some good fortune Thursday night: Trey Wade made three three-pointers, his most in a game since March 2021 when he was playing for Wichita State; big man Jaylin Williams made a pair, just the second time in his college career that he’s made more than one in a game; and Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren got a tough whistle, playing just 23 minutes and fouling out after multiple questionable calls.

But mostly, the Razorbacks were simply tougher and more athletic than the Zags. Arkansas reopened some old questions about whether Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference competition adequately prepares it for what it has to face in the Big Dance. Musselman, who played in the WCC at San Diego, raised that point himself.

“I played in that league,” Musselman said. “I know what some of the teams are like in that league, and the physicality and the speed that we can play with is just different. And, obviously, they played a really tough schedule early in the season, but it's been a long time in conference play since they faced a team like us.”

It’s certainly been a long time since Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard has encountered the defensive buzz saw that was the Hogs, specifically guard Au’Diese Toney. Nembhard is one of three indispensable Zags, along with Drew Timme and Holmgren, and in some ways is the most vital. He set Gonzaga’s breakneck tempo and was the primary distributor to the big men—and Toney suffocated him. “Au’Diese just owned Nembhard,” Arkansas guard JD Notae said.

The ownership was total. Nembhard made just two of 11 shots, scored seven points and had three assists and five turnovers in 40 miserable minutes. “I think his length was a factor,” Nembhard said of the 6'6" Toney. “He is athletic. He did a great job just keep pressuring me the whole game.”

Toney (left) and Notae set the tone for the Razorbacks on defense and offense.

Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

This Arkansas team is all about athleticism and defense and hoping to make enough shots. The Hogs shoot just 30% from three-point range this season, and their offense rests almost completely on the shoulders of Notae. He’s been granted no-conscience shooting privileges by Musselman, and he used them to the fullest Thursday: 29 field goals attempted with just nine made, but he also contributed six rebounds, six assists, two blocks and three steals.

“He could have missed 10 more shots, and I probably would have still called his number because I had that belief that the next one is going in,” Musselman said.

For Gonzaga, the belief that last year’s journey to the championship game could be replicated—and ultimately exceeded—died hard Thursday night. This was a night when the Zags simply couldn’t put together the kind of crushing runs they’ve used to dispatch opponents in going 28–3 heading into this game.

In the first half, Gonzaga kept flirting with landing a heavy blow and applying some game pressure to Arkansas but failed to connect. The Zags jumped up 16–10, then missed two straight shots and the Hogs went on a 7–0 run. The Zags pushed out to a 27–19 lead a few minutes later, but with Holmgren on the bench with two fouls they scored just two points the rest of the half and trailed 32–29 at intermission. They never led in the second half.

“I actually thought we were able to get to our spots that we wanted and get the shots we wanted,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We just weren't quite able to convert like we always have in the past. The length and the athleticism, obviously, factored into that, and it was maybe tougher to get to them initially, but pace of the game, I thought, was good. It started out good. … Just needed to step up and make some shots.”

While Gonzaga can continue to wonder whether the WCC is the best place to prep for the rigors of March Madness, Arkansas moves on as the lone representative of the SEC still playing. Musselman is one win away from fully reawakening the echoes of the Forty Minutes of Hell glory days of the 1990s, as his circuitous career comes full circle in the Bay Area.

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