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20:05  17 january  2020
20:05  17 january  2020 Source:   countryliving.com

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From the very beginning of their inclusion in the Southeastern Conference nearly 30 years ago, the Arkansas Razorbacks became an annual thorn in Kentucky’s side.

Head coach Eric Musselman of the Arkansas Razorbacks signals to his bench in the first half against the Texas A&M Aggies at Bud Walton Arena on Jan. 4, 2020 in Fayetteville, Ark.© Wesley Hitt/Getty Images Head coach Eric Musselman of the Arkansas Razorbacks signals to his bench in the first half against the Texas A&M Aggies at Bud Walton Arena on Jan. 4, 2020 in Fayetteville, Ark.

In their first meeting as SEC foes during the 1991-92 season, Arkansas embarrassed the Wildcats with a 105-88 drubbing in Rupp Arena. The Razorbacks won four of the first six league meetings between the two storied programs. They won a national championship in their third season in the SEC, advanced to the national title game the year after that, and provided UK with some of its best competition during one of the Cats’ most successful periods.

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Since that era, it’s been mostly angst for Arkansas basketball.

The Razorbacks have made the NCAA Tournament just three times in the last decade, winning a total of just two games during that period. Arkansas, amazingly, hasn’t advanced to the second week of the tournament since 1996, when Nolan Richardson was still the head coach.

Perhaps that’s about to change?

In their first season under Eric Musselman, the Razorbacks are on the cusp of a Top 25 national ranking with Kentucky coming to town Saturday. And, more importantly for the future of the program, Musselman and his coaching staff are earning plenty of victories off the court.

Arkansas’ recruiting class

The top few spots in the team recruiting rankings for the class of 2020 feature a predictable lot. Blue-bloods Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina are 1-2-3. Michigan, a program that has had plenty of recent on-court success and is getting considerable buzz behind first-year coach Juwan Howard, is ranked No. 4 nationally.

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And then comes Arkansas.

The Razorbacks have the second-best class in the SEC and the No. 5 group nationally, according to the 247Sports composite list. This from a program that finished better than eighth in the SEC recruiting rankings only once over the past six years, and never had a national ranking better than 29th in that span.

The last time Arkansas had a Top 25 class nationally came in 2013, when Bobby Portis stayed home and gave the Razorbacks the No. 19 class in the country.

They’ll finish this cycle with a much higher ranking, and Musselman deserves much of the credit.

“He’s done a tremendous job from a recruiting standpoint,” 247Sports analyst Evan Daniels told the Herald-Leader. “And, honestly, you kind of knew he would. He’s an energetic guy that has a track record for winning. And a track record for developing players. I think Musselman and his staff did a really good job of really targeting the in-state players when they took over. And the state of Arkansas has talent. I think that’s pretty clear when you look at their recruiting class.”

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Arkansas’ incoming group features four Top 100 recruits: shooting guard Moses Moody (the No. 45 recruit nationally) center Jaylin Williams (No. 70), and point guards KK Robinson (No. 74) and Davonte Davis (No. 100).

All four players are from the state of Arkansas.

“Those are all talented players and good-enough players to help them potentially compete for an SEC championship one day,” Daniels said.

Musselman’s path to Arkansas

The Razorbacks hired Musselman in April following the dismissal of Mike Anderson, who never had a losing record in his eight seasons at Arkansas but also never advanced beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Musselman, who turned 55 years old in November, brought plenty of experience to Fayetteville. A veteran of the NBA — he was head coach of the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, as well as a G League head coach and NBA assistant with several other teams — Musselman entered the college ranks as an assistant coach at Arizona State in 2012 and took over Nevada’s program three years after that.

In four seasons with the Wolf Pack, he won 110 games, went to three NCAA Tournaments, and advanced to one Sweet Sixteen.

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Along the way, he became known as one of college basketball’s most interesting personalities.

“He just brings a passion and an energetic style that I think kids are drawn to,” Daniels said.

An example of that can be found in what is becoming a fun staple of Arkansas recruiting visits.

In recent years, it’s become popular for star recruits on campus trips to pose for photographs wearing the gear of the college they’re visiting. Musselman has taken that to the next level.

Starting this past fall, the Arkansas coach began recreating famous NBA photos with he and the visiting recruit substituting as the principal subjects.

There’s one of Williams — the 6-foot-9 Arkansas frontcourt signee — and Musselman (who was listed at 5-foot-7 in his playing days) both wearing Razorbacks uniforms and mimicking a photo of former Washington Bullets teammates Manute Bol and Muggsy Bogues.

Another shows five-star recruit Harrison Ingram — a top Arkansas target for 2021 — posing as a dunking LeBron James while Musselman holds his arms out like Dwyane Wade to recreate an iconic shot for the former Miami Heat stars.

“A lot of the stuff we do that’s outside the box just kind of happens organically,” Musselman said at a preseason press conference. “One of our recruits — obviously, can’t name names — but he kind of had the ball in his hands and I got in a defensive stance and someone took a picture. Then some national media guys picked that up and then we had a recruit come on campus and he thought it was a scene of an NBA situation. Then right when that was brought up, it was like, ‘All right, bang. Here we go.’ So, it’s turned into now recruits that have not been on campus texting us and saying, ‘Hey, Coach,’ and they’ll send a picture and say, ‘Can we do this scene if I come on an official or an unofficial visit?’ It’s taken on a life of its own.

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“The high school guys love it. We don’t ask anymore. They actually come to us with what they want to do.”

Good times ahead?

The promising off-the-court results at Arkansas aren’t expected to slow down anytime soon.

The Razorbacks have landed plenty of talented in-state prospects over the last decade, but high-profile misses like Malik Monk and Archie Goodwin (both to Kentucky) have certainly hurt.

Locking down the top players in a talented in-state class could lead to more good things locally.

“I think, now more than ever, these kids talk, especially local kids that play together and know each other,” Daniels said. “There are sophomores in the state of Arkansas that look up to guys like Jaylin Williams and KK Robinson and Moses Moody, and if they see those guys go have success at the home-state school, then they’re saying to themselves, ‘Why not? Why don’t I do that?’”

Of course, the next step is getting players from outside the state.

Musselman and his coaching staff have already sent out scholarship offers to more than a dozen top-50 recruits in the 2021 class. Ingram — the Texas native that recreated the LeBron-Wade photo with Musselman — was supposed to visit again for Saturday’s game against Kentucky before a conflict with his high school team’s schedule came up. He’s expected to reschedule that trip, and Arkansas should be in the mix for other top players in his class.

Much of Musselman’s success at Nevada came through transfers, and that’s also a trend that’s expected to continue at Arkansas. “And I know they’re going to make a play to try and recruit internationally, too,” Daniels said.

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With plenty of NBA experience to pitch to recruits and their families and a recent track record of success in college, Musselman’s recruiting victories should continue. And as the Razorbacks keep winning, their likelihood of landing impact players outside the state lines should only increase.

“He did at Nevada. He got guys from all over,” Daniels said. “I think it’ll be a blend — he’ll try to keep the best players home, he’ll try to recruit nationally, and he’ll try to recruit internationally, and he’ll recruit transfers. I think that’s the mold. And all of that is doable at Arkansas.”


©2020 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

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