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Andy Hodges

How these Hogs have evolved maybe shows Musselman at his best

Blending youth and experience in a year with lots of other distractions maybe shows what Eric Musselman does best — developing a team.

From the start of this season, you kinda figured this was going to be an interesting year with how Eric Musselman put together this Arkansas team.

An interesting collection of young and graduate transfers with some talented freshmen and only one key player from last year coming back.

Tuesday night it may have all come together in a 75-64 win over a Florida team that hadn’t played a game in two weeks and has been up and down all year.

Leadership played a huge role from the experienced guys and the continued emergence of Davonte Davis is starting to make this team one that could be REALLY interesting in March.

After the Razorbacks blew a double-digit lead and the Gators took a 62-61 lead with less than five minutes to play, the always-hyper Musselman wasn’t the one calming things down during timeouts.

“The big thing is in the timeouts being composed, which the players were more composed than I am,” he said later. “They did a really good job of keeping their composure.”

Behind a steal by Davis that he went the length of the floor for a layup to take the lead back, then the defense stepped up to close it out. Oh, and the way this team shoots free throws in the stretch is also starting to become huge.

It was the defense by the Gators that let them wipe away a 15-point lead the Hogs had in the second half, putting them into the lead before Davis’ steal and layup.

“We’ve shown over the course of the season our ability to win these close games,” senior transfer Justin Smith said later. “Granted, we shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place.

“We should have been able to keep that lead, but the fact that this keeps happening, but we are able to pull it out and win in the end is a testament to our mental toughness.”

That’s what this team has, maybe more than any other Hogs’ team in the past 20 years or so.

Photo by Arkansas Communications

It’s been my experience teams reflect their coach more often than not. Musselman lives for the games. Practices probably bore him as much as anything and the guess here is that’s when he’s developing that mental toughness Smith talked about.

Musselman historically hasn’t played a huge number of players in each game and it’s looking like he’s settled on Smith, Davis, Moses Moody, Jalen Tate and Connor Vanover.

Smith and Tate are graduate transfers. Vanover a regular transfer. Davis and Moody are freshmen.

While Moody has gotten most of the press and attention (he’s listed by most as a lottery pick in the next NBA draft), it’s Davis’ play recently that’s getting folks’ attention.

“Phenomenal,” Musselman said after the win over Florida. “He gets better and better every game.”

He had 18 points against Florida just figuring out ways to score.

The player in Razorback history he reminds me the most of is Sidney Moncrief. Most never knew and some don’t remember Moncrief was nowhere close to the same player when he left as when he started with the Hogs out of Little Rock Hall (and he was really good as a freshman).

Musselman made it clear he hasn’t got a clue what Davis is going to do when he gets the ball.

“You just kind of hold your breath when Devo’s got the ball,” he said. “He just kind of figures out a way to slither to the rim and get by people. It’s not like I’m telling him to hold up. I don’t know what he’s going to do in there but he’s gonna do something.”

Smith had 15 against Florida, Tate 14, Moody 14 and Vanover 8 (and he missed his free-throw attempt of the year after the blathering by the ESPN announcers about his perfect shooting from there).

The way Musselman has blended the youth and the experience while it’s obvious the older guys are constantly working with the freshmen. It helps the youngsters listen.

As a result, the Hogs are now on a seven-game SEC win streak. It’s the best by Arkansas since 2015. The Hogs also won seven straight to close the 1994-95 season. The best SEC win streak in school history is 11 games to close the 1993-94 season.

The way Musselman has blended this team during the strangest year in history with covid and everything else.

Which is why there’s no way you’ll get a prediction here on how far this team could go in March.

But you can probably count on it being, well, interesting.

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