Moments after Arkansas took down top overall seed Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament, head coach Eric Musselman had some choice words for the team's detractors.
"We believed. You know, nobody else did" Musselman told CBS's Tracy Wolfson. "We read everything. I'm telling you we put it up on our screen every single meal. Thank you to everybody who said we had no chance."
If anyone wasn't paying attention to the Razorbacks prior the Gonzaga game, they sure are now, despite their loss to Duke the following game. By making a second straight appearance in the Elite Eight, Musselman's crew has proven they belong amongst the sport's top programs. What comes next could be even bigger.
You Muss Get On This Bus
The Hogs weren't in a bad spot three years ago. Under Mike Anderson, the team made three appearances in the tournament and were fairly competitive. However, what Musselman has brought to the program is an unprecedented knack for recruiting in a player-first era. From 2019, the last year of the Anderson era, to 2020, Musselman's first, Arkansas jumped from the nation's 157th-ranked recruiting class to 9th-best, according to 247sports.
While 2021 was a bit of a let-down (57th-best), this year's group of incoming prospects is an unprecedented haul. With six top-100 players, it's hard to find a better recruiting class in the country, even amongst perennially stacked schools such as Duke and Gonzaga. 247sports had the Hogs ranked #2 prior to five-star Anthony Black's commitment to Arkansas three weeks ago. Black now joins freshmen Nick Smith (#6 nationally) and Jordan Walsh (#18), along with others, to create what may be college basketball's best young core.
It seems that the only thing that can derail the Muss Bus is, well, Musselman. His knack for drawing in top talent, whether it be on the recruiting trail or via the transfer portal, has made an already deep Razorbacks roster downright crowded. The pillars of this year's group, senior guard J.D. Notae and sophomore big man Jaylin Williams, have yet to commit to going pro. Should one or both decide to stay in school, there could be a serious roster logjam. It's a problem most head coaches could only dream of, but it also has the potential to create friction in the locker room. Musselman's talent as a recruiter and positive presence is unquestioned, but it will be on him to guide Arkansas through any in-season turbulence that comes with collecting so much star-power.
Catching Up to Calipari
For years, Kentucky has had a stranglehold on the SEC. Since John Calipari became head coach in 2009, the Wildcats have won five SEC regular-season championships to go with six conference tournament wins, the most for any school during that timespan. When it comes to pulling in top talent, few of UK's rivals have even come close; no SEC team has ever had a higher-ranked recruiting class than Kentucky under Calipari. That was, until this year. The Wildcats, consistently in the sport's top five classes annually, currently sit at 25th on 247's rankings. While there is still time to bring in more talent, it's an especially troubling number for a program that has relied upon rosters filled with one-and-dones rather than players staying on campus.
UK's loss could be Arkansas' gain. To be clear, this is not a two-team conference; schools like Auburn and Alabama have become prominent programs, while last year's SEC Tournament champions, Tennessee, are more than capable of a repeat performance in 2023. However, prestige is powerful. A massive basketball budget of over $18 million, combined with Calipari's reputation as a coach who gets players to the NBA, makes Kentucky a difficult roadblock for any SEC contender. That's why Musselman's elite recruiting is so crucial. The Razorbacks may lose half their roster to the NBA, but it's the precedent of becoming a premiere destination that matters in the long run. High schoolers from the south and beyond no longer have to bleed Kentucky blue to win games or get attention from NBA scouts; they can just join one of the sport's 'new-bloods' instead.
Arkansas could become a national powerhouse in the near future (if it isn't already), reminiscent of the program's peak in the 90's under Nolan Richardson. They could also revert back to the middling program they were under Anderson if this year's recruits simply don't mesh well together. What is indisputable is that there's no better time than now to challenge Kentucky's long-standing SEC supremacy. Backed by an immensely talented head coach and a roster hungry for a Final Four appearance, it's difficult to doubt these Razorbacks. Strap in and get ready college basketball fans: this bus isn't stopping anytime soon.