Maybe the biggest thing in basketball that can’t be taught is height and Eric Mussleman showed Saturday night that Arkansas can figure out ways around it.
He played five guards at times in the 69-59 win over the Texas Aggies before a raucous sold-out crowd at Bud Walton.
“It was a little risky,” he said later.
He knew that coming in. In life, height is a product of either genetics or luck. For college basketball teams you either recruit it or figure out ways around it which was — more or less — what Musselman did against A&M.
“They’re comfortable, no matter who the five are,” Aggies coach Buzz Williams said later. “They’re interchangeable.”
The Razorbacks saw a 42-33 halftime lead disappear fairly quickly in the second half, primarily because the odds would have been long they could hit water falling out of a boat in the middle of a lake.
“What I didn’t think would happen is that we would struggle to score,” Musselman said in the postgame.
The Hogs were 2-of-6 from the field, 1-of-2 at the free-throw line and found themselves clinging to a 50-48 lead with 13:11 to play in the game.
About a minute later Musselman brought in Jalen Harris for the only player that gets into games with some height, Adrio Bailey, and the offense found some life. Arkansas shot nearly 50 percent (7-of-13) from the field.
The Hogs, behind Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe, opened a 66-56 lead with 3:52 left, but A&M got a final score from Andre Gordon with 3:36 to play and Musselman basically took the air out of things on offense.
“That small group was really good at getting stops when we really needed it,” he said. “There was a little bit of clock management, we were playing a little bit of a gamble running the clock down, but we thought it was the best way to handle the last four and-a-half minutes of the game.”
What doesn’t get the attention is how well this team plays defense, mostly just scrambling and disrupting things for the other team on offense.
“If you study their defensive numbers, they’re through the roof,” Williams said.
Desi Sills got his attention. Not with his quiet 13 points, four rebounds and two steals, but the disruption he caused in the Aggies’ offense.
“[Sills] is very, very pesky,” Williams said. “Really, really good on-the-ball defender.”
He was just part of the problem for A&M.
“The pressure is contested on every dribble, contested on every pass,” he said. “They own the elbow. That’s probably one of their defensive principles. They make it every hard to get it to the elbow.”
The Hogs committed just nine turnovers in the game, compared to the Aggies’ 17.
“That was a cushion we just couldn’t overcome,” Williams said.
On top of all that, the crowd of 19,200 was a factor in the game, too.
“We handled an incredible college basketball environment in many respects about as well as we could,” Williams said.
Musselman, playing like a chessmaster at times with some calculated gambles, got his first taste of how loud it can get.
“The crowd’s energy was insanely awesome,” he said later. “Had a buddy in from the Bay Area who said he’s never seen an arena as loud as that in his life.”
He might want to get used to it.
While the odds are every gamble he takes won’t work out as well as Saturday night, he’s shown through this team getting to a 12-1 record nobody predicted he’s moved the chess pieces around the board a couple of times before.
Let’s face it, did you think they would be here? Most people were willing to give Musselman a pass and just wanted to see a direction headed up and some fairly decent recruiting.
It’s apparent he wasn’t waiting around on anything … particularly wins.