Musselman discusses hoops impact of Oklahoma, Texas joining SEC
An underrated aspect of the SEC’s decision to become a super conference by inviting Oklahoma and Texas is what it’ll do to the league in men’s basketball.
The conference was already on the rise, but adding two more schools led by coaches with a Final Four on their resume will only further enhance it and push the ACC and Big Ten for national superiority.
It’s particularly impactful for Arkansas, as it ensures the Eric Musselman-Chris Beard rivalry will be an annual matchup.
Most fans got their first dose of that in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, when the Razorbacks hung on for a 68-66 victory - thanks to a couple of missed layups by Texas Tech - to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 25 years.
It was a dramatic finish, but Musselman recently said in an interview on the Morning Rush radio show that it was actually the second-best game he’s coached against Beard. The first matchup was a thriller in 2017 when he took a No. 22 Nevada team to Lubbock and blew an 11-point second-half lead in an 82-76 loss.
“We lost in overtime,” Musselman said. “I’ve never seen a worse whistle in my entire life, so it’ll be good to play them with the same conference referees (rather) than what we experienced at Nevada, I can tell you that.”
Now the head coach at Texas, Beard is tasked with guiding a program that has just three all-time Final Four appearances - only one of which has come in the last seven decades.
However, he’s had success everywhere he’s been and Musselman seems to respect the way his teams play. Beard led Little Rock to its second ever NCAA Tournament win in his lone season there, then took Texas Tech to its first two Elite Eights - including a runner-up finish in 2019.
“When you play against Coach Beard’s teams, you better be mentally tough and you better not back down and you better not flinch,” Musselman said. “Our teams won’t flinch and our teams won’t back down. He’s a tremendous coach. They have incredible resources behind them at Texas. They’re going to use their resources. They’re always going to be talented.”
Beyond the two coaches, Arkansas and Texas also have a history as rivals dating back to their time together in the Southwest Conference. The Longhorns have dominated the series on the gridiron (leading 56-22), but the Razorbacks have owned the hardwood. They lead the all-time series 87-68, but it’s been even more lopsided (32-15) since the Eddie Sutton era.
Oklahoma was briefly a member of the SWC, but it was during the 1910s and before the start of Arkansas’ basketball program the following decade. That has led to fewer meetings - the Razorbacks lead the series 16-12 - but it is still a “natural rivalry” because of proximity.
It is less than a four-hour drive from Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville to the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman. Because the two schools are so close, they actually agreed to a multi-year non-conference series that was scheduled to begin last year and will now start Dec. 11 this season after the pandemic wiped out last year’s matchup.
The contract left open the possibility that two more games could be added in the series, but that might not be needed depending on the timing of Oklahoma joining the conference. For now, the games are set to be played at the BOK Center in Tulsa, which is located about halfway between the two campus, with tickets to be split 50-50 and divided at midcourt.
“We’re playing that game because we, as a program, thought that would be a really good game for our fan base,” Musselman said. “That’s why we signed a contract to play a series with Oklahoma and to play it in Tulsa. We thought it was good for our fans to be able to travel and it’s not too far and it’s in a city that might be desirable to go watch a game.”
After Lon Kruger retired following this past season, the Sooners hired Porter Moser, who took Loyola-Chicago to the Final Four in 2018 and Sweet 16 in 2021.
With Beard and Moser in the mix, half of the 16 SEC - or soon-to-be SEC - programs are led by coaches who have made the Final Four and all but two of them have taken a team to at least the Sweet 16.
“I think that when you’re in the SEC, every game is tough, no matter who you play,” Musselman said. “I don’t think that changes one bit. I do think from a recruiting standpoint, where we are in our league right now, you better really recruit at a high level and you’ve got to do it every single year or you’ll fall behind.”