Like It Is

OPINION | WALLY HALL: UA hoops back at a level to revered, feared

There was 6:38 to play and JD Notae had just hit a three to give Arkansas a 59-50 lead over No. 1 Gonzaga and just like that, the route changed.

The CBS star team of Jim Nantz, Grant Hill and Bill Raftery seamlessly moved from the Zag train to the Muss bus.

Until then, it has all been about Mark Few and the incredibly successful Gonzaga Zags (Bulldogs officially).

It wasn't real bad, but it was obvious they expected Gonzaga, the overall No. 1 seed, to find a way to beat No. 4 seed Arkansas.

Suddenly, Eric Musselman was a seven-year overnight sensation.

By Sunday, when the Razorbacks took on No. 2 seeded Duke on TBS, it was all about the Blue Devils, Mike Krzyzewski's incredible career and his success at Duke.

He deserved all the accolades he received.

He earned them by winning more games than any other Division I men's coach.

This time, when Musselman called for his smothering defense, it didn't work against a bigger, stronger and more experienced team.

So the bulk of the TV talk Saturday night was about Duke.

Don't think, though, that back-to-back Elite Eight runs hasn't gotten the Arkansas Razorbacks and Musselman on the national radar, because it has.

They are a top 25 program, and most of the time a top 10.

Wins during the regular season get noticed but victories in the NCAA Tournament get magnified.

In two NCAA Tournaments, Musselman has led his team to the final eight each time.

He and the Hogs are 6-2 in the NCAA Tournament, and that's more wins than all the coaches combined at Arkansas since Nolan Richardson left.

That's two decades of March Madness mediocrity in a program that fans came to expect great things from.

First there was Stan Heath, who is now the head coach at Eastern Michigan, who was 31-49 in SEC play and 0-2 in the NCAA.

John Pelphrey, now head coach at Tennessee Tech, was 25-39 in SEC action and 1-1 in the NCAA.

Mike Anderson, now the head coach at St. John's, was 78-64 in SEC play but 2-3 in the Big Dance.

All of those guys are great people. You would invite them to Thanksgiving dinner. But that party at the end of the season, the NCAA Tournament, is where coaches are hired or fired.

Letting Anderson go was like telling a family member to move to another state. He was and is beloved, and he took his firing with grace and dignity and almost immediately landed on his feet in the Big East.

Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek knew what he wanted in a basketball coach, and he first went after Houston's Kelvin Sampson. Yurachek was AD at Houston before coming to Arkansas.

Sampson was never leaving, and when he retires, his son becomes the Cougars' head coach.

Greg Marshall was on Yurachek's short list, but a bullet was dodged there.

Also on Yurachek's short list was Eric Musselman, basically an unknown who had changed the course of his career from NBA to college. He spent three years as an assistant, two at Arizona State and one at LSU, before he got a shot with Nevada.

In four seasons his worst record was his first (24-14), and the Wolf Pack won the CBI. The next three seasons ended in the NCAA Tournament, one in the Sweet 16.

In three winning seasons at Arkansas, Musselman has reestablished the Razorbacks as a national team, one to be feared.

Last season in the Elite Eight, they lost to eventual national champion Baylor 81-72 and on Saturday, they fell to the face of college basketball Coach K and the Blue Devils of Duke, who now face their No. 1 rival, North Carolina.

Arkansas basketball is back on that level where everyone knows your name.

An earlier version incorrectly listed a school where Musselman previously served as an assistant coach.

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