Joe Santoro: Is Musselman the best coach in college basketball?

Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman reacts to a call in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Friday, March 12, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman reacts to a call in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Friday, March 12, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Is there any doubt now that Eric Musselman is one of the best coaches in college basketball? He might be the best.
Musselman won a College Basketball Invitational title and went to three NCAA Tournaments (one Sweet 16) in four seasons with the Nevada Wolf Pack. And now the Muss Bus is just two wins away from its first Final Four.
An Arkansas Razorbacks victory over Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16 on Saturday will make Musselman the first former Wolf Pack coach to get to the Elite Eight (ex-Pack coach Trent Johnson also went to the Sweet 16 with Stanford in 2008). Musselman has now been to four NCAA Tournaments in five years (there was no tournament last year) as a college coach with two Sweet 16 appearances and an eye-opening record of 154-52.
This is the same guy who couldn’t sniff a head coaching job in college basketball or the NBA from 2007, when he got fired by the Sacramento Kings, until the Pack hired him in the spring of 2015. He had to coach the Reno Bighorns in 2010, for goodness sake. By early next week he could have the pick of any job he wants.
Musselman and Arkansas have already beaten Oral Roberts this year, taking an 87-76 decision back in late December. Oral Roberts has already lost 10 games this year. They finished fourth in the Summit League. Arkansas, which finished second in the SEC, is a No. 3 seed. Oral Roberts is a No. 15 seed. The Razorbacks are favored by 10 points.
Musselman’s biggest challenge this week is keeping his Razorbacks from looking ahead to an Elite Eight matchup on Monday against either No. 1 seed Baylor or No. 5 Villanova.
The last time Musselman was in the Sweet 16 his Wolf Pack lost to Loyola of Chicago 69-68 in 2018. Musselman’s Razorbacks might meet Loyola this year in the Final Four semifinals. You just know Musselman, who obsesses about every little detail, is well aware of that possibility.
If the Mountain West ever wants to get some respect across the nation, it needs to start winning some NCAA tournament games on a regular basis. The Summit League, West Coast Conference, Missouri Valley Conference and American Athletic Conference have teams in the Sweet 16 this year. Why not the Mountain West?
The Mountain West’s two tournament teams this year, San Diego State and Utah State, were both bounced in the first round. The last Mountain West team to win a tournament game was, you guessed it, the Wolf Pack in 2018 (the miraculous comeback against Cincinnati). Mountain West teams are 22-51 in the NCAA tournament since the league was formed in 1999-2000. Just six teams (Nevada in 2018, San Diego State in 2011 and 2014, UNLV in 2007, BYU in 2011 and Utah in 2005) have ever gotten as far as the Sweet 16.
The league has clearly underachieved over its first two decades, despite the presence of numerous quality head coaches and talented players.
The UNLV Rebels are starting over once again. Coach T.J. Otzelberger stayed at UNLV for all of two seasons before abandoning the Rebels basketball program for Iowa State last week. Otzelberger was just 29-30 in his two Rebel seasons so it’s not like UNLV is going to miss him. Even Marvin Menzies broke even at UNLV (48-48).
The Rebels then took all of about 72 hours to replace Otzelberger, hiring Kevin Kruger. In reality, it took them all of about 72 minutes since Kruger was a current Rebel assistant.
“We methodically went through the interview process, speaking to many strong candidates,” UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois said. Yeah, OK.
UNLV basketball and football are dumpster fires. Football is historically awful. The basketball program hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013. Over the last seven seasons Rebel hoops has gone 113-108 and has won 20 or more games just once.
And now the Rebels have been reduced to hiring the sons of former head coaches. Kevin Kruger is the son of former Rebel coach Lon Kruger, who went 161-71 at UNLV with four NCAA Tournament berths in seven years (2004-11). Kruger didn’t make Rebel fans forget the Jerry Tarkanian era but he has been the best Rebel coach since Tark by far. Kevin Kruger played at UNLV for his father and later coached at Oklahoma under his dad.
Danny Tarkanian, who played for his dad and also coached with him, must have been too busy with his law and political career to take over the Rebels. Imagine the “Baby Shark” marketing possibilities. UNLV missed a great opportunity.
The Rebels, though, seem to enjoy hiring the sons of former head coaches. Jay Spoonhour took over the Rebels for 10 games at the end of the 2003-04 season after his dad Charlie resigned in his third season at UNLV.
Kevin Kruger is not the first hasty decision the Rebels have made regarding their football and men’s basketball hires. When Chris Ault turned down the Rebels at the end of the 1993 football season, UNLV seemingly took all of five seconds to hire Jeff Horton as head football coach. If Reed-Francois was the Rebel athletic director in 1993 and cell phones were available, it might have taken all of two seconds.
Horton wasn’t Ault’s son, but he was the next best thing. He coached under Ault and was Ault’s handpicked choice to become the Pack head coach when he (Ault) stepped down after the 1992 season.
UNLV’s football and men’s basketball struggles, of course, don’t warrant any sympathy from the northern part of the state. No matter how disappointing and frustrating Pack football and men’s basketball seasons have been the last two decades or so the Rebels’ ineptitude has been enough to make Pack fans smile. But the Mountain West needs UNLV football and men’s basketball to get its act together. UNLV should be one of the Mountain West’s signature programs. UNLV should be going to bowl games and NCAA tournaments almost every year. A successful UNLV is good for everyone in the Mountain West.
Don’t be surprised if the Denver Nuggets are in the NBA Finals this summer. The Nuggets traded for the NBA’s best good luck charm on Tuesday, getting former Wolf Pack center JaVale McGee from the Cleveland Cavaliers. McGee’s teams have won three of the last four NBA championships. He won two with the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and 2018 and one with the Los Angeles Lakers last year.
Yes, a few guys named Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Anthony Davis had a little something to do with those titles also. But McGee, who not too long ago was nothing more than the laughingstock of the NBA because of Shaquille O’Neal’s Shaqtin’ A Fool segments, is now a proven winner and team leader and a piece teams want to fill out a championship roster.


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