SAN FRANCISCO — There are a million different paths to success in basketball coaching, but few are as winding as Eric Musselman’s. In many ways, his trip came full circle here on Thursday night.
His first big head coaching job was here in the Bay Area 20 years ago, when he was named to lead the NBA’s Golden State Warriors at age 36. He was fired two years later, with a 75-89 record. A few years later, he joined the Sacramento Kings and was fired there after a 33-49 season.
After that, he founded an AAU team in Danville, California, near Oakland, working the kids at Sycamore Valley Park and training 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 few college assistant gigs before landing the chief job in Nevada in 2015. Fast forward seven years, and Musselman arrived here with his Arkansas Razorbacks for a date. yourself with the fate of March Madness.
“The day I got kicked out of the Kings or the Warriors, to think I’d be coaching at a Sweet 16 in the Bay Area, if someone had asked me that at that time, I would have told them that ‘There was no chance,” Musselman said. “Not 5%, not 10%, literally no chance of that happening. I guess the world has a funny way of coping.
In the arena of the first franchise to fire him, the world went well for Eric Musselman on Thursday night. His Hogs shocked NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed Gonzaga, unleashing a relentless defensive effort on the Zags in a 74-68 triumph that marks Arkansas’ first-ever victory over a No. 1 seed. On Saturday, the Hogs will play in the Elite Eight for the second straight year, making Musselman the most successful coach in the Southeastern Conference over the past two seasons and among the most successful in the nation. (The only other coaches still playing who can make a second straight Elite Eight are Houston’s Kelvin Sampson, who did Thursday, and UCLA’s Mick Cronin.)
Not only did many of old Bay Area friends see the biggest win of Musselman’s career, but so did his mother, Kris. The California resident had never attended one of his games since arriving in Arkansas in 2019, but she was the first person Muss looked for when he walked into the Hogs fan section after the match. Previously, she had given Eric a lucky buckeye that his late father and longtime professional and college trainer, Bill, had kept in his possession.
Arkansas got lucky Thursday night: Trey Wade made three 3-pointers, his best in a game since March 2021 while playing for Wichita State; big man Jaylin Williams made a pair, only the second time in his college career that he made more than one in a game; and Gonzaga freshman Chet Holmgren had a tough whistle, playing just 23 minutes and committing a foul after several questionable calls.
But mostly, the Razorbacks were just tougher and more athletic than the Zags. Arkansas has reopened old questions about whether Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference competition adequately prepares him for what he faces in the big dance. Musselman, who played in the WCC in San Diego, raised this point himself.
“I played in this league,” Musselman said. “I know what some teams are like in this league, and the physicality and speed that we can play with is just different. And, obviously, they played a very tough schedule at the start of the season, but it’s been a long time in the conference since they’ve faced a team like us.
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It’s certainly been a long time since Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard has encountered the defensive buzz that the Hogs were, especially guard Au’Diese Toney. Nembhard is one of the three indispensable Zags, along with Drew Timme and Holmgren, and in some ways he is the most vital. He set Gonzaga’s blistering pace and was the big man’s main distributor – and Toney smothered him. “Au’Diese just owned Nembhard,” Arkansas guard JD Notae said.
Ownership was complete. Nembhard managed just two of 11 shots, scored seven points and had three assists and five turnovers in a miserable 40 minutes. “I think his length was a factor,” Nembhard said of the 6’6 Toney. “He’s athletic. He did a great job, keep putting pressure on me throughout the game.
This Arkansas team is all about athleticism and defense, and hopes to get enough shots. The Hogs are shooting just 30% from three-point range this season, and their offense rests almost entirely on Notae’s shoulders. Musselman gave him mindless shooting privileges, and he used them to the fullest on Thursday: 29 field goals attempted with just nine scored, but he also contributed six rebounds, six assists, two blocks and three steals.
“He could have missed 10 more shots, and I probably still would have called his number because I thought the next one was coming in,” Musselman said.
For Gonzaga, the belief that last year’s journey to the championship game could be replicated — and ultimately surpassed — died hard Thursday night. It was a night the Zags just couldn’t put together the kind of crushing runs they used to dispatch opponents by going 28-3 heading into this game.
In the first half, Gonzaga continued to flirt with a hard hit and apply some game pressure to Arkansas, but failed to connect. The Zags surged 16-10, then missed two straight shots and the Hogs went on a 7-0 run. The Zags took 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 the places we wanted and get the shots we wanted,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We just weren’t able to convert like we always have in the past. The length and the athleticism, obviously, were taken into account, and it was maybe more difficult to achieve them at the beginning, but the pace of the game, I thought, was good. It started well. …I just needed to step up and get a few shots.
While Gonzaga may continue to wonder if the WCC is the best place to prepare for the rigors of March Madness, Arkansas continues as the only SEC representative still playing. Musselman is one win away from fully reawakening the echoes of the glory days of 1990s Forty Minutes of Hell, as his devious career comes full circle in the Bay Area.
More March Madness coverage:
• Fans react to refereeing in Gonzaga-Arkansas game
• This is a truly diverse and unpredictable masculine Sweet 16
• NCAA guarantees that officiating mistakes are bound to be repeated