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What Eric Musselman Is Bringing to Fayetteville

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The Fastest 40 is out, and the NBA-style pace and space is in

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Florida vs Nevada Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Arkansas has its man. Nevada’s Eric Musselman is headed to Fayetteville to replace Mike Anderson.

The hire comes as little surprise. Musselman is one of the top mid-major names out there and he showed up early on Arkansas’ coaching search radar. For a coaching search that was starting to look like it had been bungled due to how long it had taken, this is a really nice way to end it.

This post will break down Musselman’s scheme and give Hog fans an idea of what to expect moving forward.

NBA roots

Musselman is a professional basketball journeyman. The son of a former NBA coach, he led the pre-Curry Warriors (2003-2004) and the Kings (2007). He’s also coached extensively at lower levels of professional basketball (1991-1996, 2010-2012) and as an NBA assistant (1998-2002, 2004-2006). These experiences helped form much of his scheme, which is very NBA-style. He cut his teeth in college as an assistant at Arizona State (2013 and 2014 seasons) and LSU (2015) before taking the Nevada job, where he inherited a program with three straight losing seasons and no NCAA Tournament appearances in nearly a decade. He went 110-34 in Reno, including 52-17 in the Mountain West Conference. He reached the NCAA Tournament in each of his last three seasons, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in 2018.

Like most NBA teams, Musselman’s teams will try to spread the floor, take high-value shots, and not turn it over. Although not a “fast-break” offense, expect a moderately-fast pace with plenty of movement in the half-court. This scheme is fun to watch, and it is absolutely devastating when its shooters get hot.

Space-and-pace basketball

Let’s take a closer look at the core tenets of this offense, sometimes called space and pace.

#1 - Lots of Assists, Few Turnovers

At Nevada, Musselman adopted a goal that he picked up from the Golden State Warriors: he wanted his team to make 200 passes per game. Good passing gets the defense out of position, wears them out, and creates open shots.

An emphasis on good passing creates lots of assists, and it does another thing: it limits turnovers. Nevada turned the ball over on just 12.8% of possessions this season, good for 9th in the nation. In 2018, they led all Division I teams in turnover rate.

Avoiding turnovers was generally part of Mike Anderson’s offense as well — just not in 2019 — but Musselman’s Nevada teams were even better. They were particularly good at not having the ball stolen from them, ranking 4th in Division I in each of the last two seasons. That success can’t be attributed to just one player: Nevada had different starting point guards in 2018 and 2019, and in 2018, the starting point guard missed nine games — including the entire NCAA Tournament — with a ruptured Achilles.

#2 - Lots of 3-Pointers

Before Anderson’s firing, I wrote about how Arkansas should shoot more 3-pointers and de-emphasize offensive rebounding, noting that current college basketball trends were not in their favor:

College basketball is following the NBA trend started by teams like the Warriors and the Rockets: more three-pointers, fewer mid-range jumpers. The fact that 3-pointers are worth more always makes them better options: for the Hogs, each 3-point attempt yielded 1.04 points, while each 2-point attempt yielded just 1.02. The gap was larger in 2018, when each 3-pointer netted 1.19 points, while each 2 generated 1.02 points.

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The concern for the Hogs is that they will not be able to score enough points if they try to swim against the current. A diet heavy on 2-point shots only works if you can hit free throws (2019 Arkansas couldn’t) and if you can snag offensive rebounds (2019 Arkansas couldn’t, and there’s little reason to believe 2020 Arkansas can).

Well, the Hogs just hired a coach who preaches exactly that. Nevada has kept their three-point rate above 40% over each of the last three seasons:

What’s interesting is that Nevada hasn’t been a great three-point shooting team under Musselman. They’ve been decent, but their 34.7% mark in 2019 was outside the top 100 nationally. But since 3-pointers are worth more than 2-pointers, that’s the equivalent of shooting 52.1% from inside the arc.

When they’re not shooting 3’s, Musselman’s teams are taking shots right at the rim. Again, the objective is high-value shots. If you can’t get a shot right in next to the basket, then you try a 3-pointer. The midrange game of the Barford/Macon years at Arkansas is now over. NBA teams have largely abandoned midrange jumpers, as the payoff of such a difficult shot is not worth it when you can step back a couple feet and take a shot worth 50% more.

Compare the shot charts from Arkansas and Nevada this year:

The Hogs loved wing 3-pointers, but also shot a lot of midrange jumpers from the elbow, the free-throw line, and the baseline. Nevada, on the other hand, showed more variety in their three-point attempts and did not take many midrange jumpers at all. Most two-point shots being at the rim helped boost their two-point shooting percentage to 54.8%, good for 29th nationally.

Choosing high-value shots meant that a team that was not great in 3-point shooting (154th nationally) was still able to rank 61st nationally in Effective FG%. Combine that with avoiding turnovers, and you have a recipe for an offense that can score a lot of points.

#3 - Getting to the foul line

Mike Anderson’s teams had a mixed record of getting to the foul line, but Musselman’s have been pretty good at it. Drawing a contact is a necessary skill in the NBA (watch how James Harden does it), and Musselman knows how to coach it.

Nevada ranked 17th nationally in free throw attempts per field goal attempt. In 2018, they ranked 93rd.

Opposite day on defense

The Mike Anderson/Nolan Richardson system of defense calls for a pressure defense that forces a lot of turnovers, at the expense of defensive rebounding and fouling. Musselman’s scheme is pretty much the exact opposite.

#1 - Secure defensive boards

As a I wrote in the season recap, Arkansas’ rebounding plan hopes that good offensive rebounding can cancel out bad defensive rebounding. But that hasn’t worked for the last couple years:

Ideally, the Hogs should aim for a 50% total rebound rate. That would mean that good offensive rebounding is canceling out bad defensive rebounding. But the Hogs have only hit that mark twice, during Moses Kingsley’s sophomore year (50.2%) — when he and Bobby Portis were playing together — and in 2016 during his junior year (50.0%). The Hogs’ 46.7% total rebound rate this season was the worst of the Anderson era, and meant that rebounding gave opponents about three extra scoring chances per game. Again, defensive rebounding isn’t important only if you’re good at offensive rebounding and turnovers. But that wasn’t the case in 2019.

Musselman’s plan takes the opposite approach: maximizing defensive rebounding at the expense of forcing turnovers. Nevada was one of the nation’s top defensive rebounding teams in 2019, snagging about 78% of their opponents’ missed shots.

His Nevada teams weren’t great at offensive rebounding, but they were good enough to be a rebound-positive team in three of four seasons:

Nevada’s 51.8% and 52.4% total rebounding marks in 2019 and 2017 equate to a couple net extra shots per game for the offense. When you’re good at avoiding turnovers, winning the rebounding battle gives you a big advantage.

#2 - Avoiding fouls

A defense predicated on forcing turnovers is going to foul a lot. A defense predicated on securing defensive rebounds probably isn’t. Musselman’s Nevada teams were above-average at keeping opponents off the free throw line. His 2019 team was just 122nd in avoiding fouls overall, but they ranked 51st in FTA per FGA.

Recruiting concerns

Fans have raised one big concern about Musselman: his Nevada teams were stocked mostly with junior college players and transfers. None of Nevada’s top five scorers in 2019 were original signees of the Wolf Pack. The Martin brothers (Caleb and Cody) transferred from NC State and played two seasons. Jordan Caroline played three seasons at Nevada after transferring from Southern Illinois. Guard Jazz Johnson transferred from Portland. And guard Tre’Shawn Thurman was a grad transfer from Omaha.

So is that a concern? Potentially. If a series of uneven classes lead to “total rebuilds” every three or four years, then yes, it’s a concern. But let me inject to the contrary: that’s what happened to Arkansas anyway. Mike Anderson wasn’t really supposed to be an all-transfer type coach, and yet the 2016 and 2019 rebuilds were due to uneven roster management. Guys like Dusty Hannahs and Jalen Harris transferred in, while junior college players like Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon, Arlando Cook, and Mason Jones helped cover guys who went to the NBA, transferred out, got injured, or never panned out.

But Musselman seems unlikely to fall victim to the uneven roster management that plagued Anderson, if only because his transfer-heavy strategy is intentional. When he was hired at Nevada, he studied how Fred Hoiberg built Iowa State into a Big XII power, finding under-appreciated talents (like former Arkansas guard Nick Babb) and helping them come into their own. In Reno, where top high-school talent is scare, Musselman basically had to rely on transfers.

At Arkansas, Musselman will have access to a much deeper talent pool, as Arkansas’ high school basketball punches well above its weight, producing at least one, and often two or three SEC-caliber players each year. Land those, and fans probably won’t mind if the Hogs supplement the rest of the roster with a well-planned transfer strategy. The primary way things could go awry is if Musselman frays relations with Arkansas’ high school coaches and the in-state talent starts to flee the state. That could be the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for the Musselman era, so it’s worth watching.

Conclusion

Musselman will arrive on campus to find four returning starters, including some shooters who will be key for his offense (Isaiah Joe, Desi Sills). Justice Hill is already signed, and he’ll have two more scholarship openings to fill. At least one needs to be an immediately-eligible forward to replace Daniel Gafford.

It’s a new era in Fayetteville. Now the off-season begins.

Poll

How would you grade Arkansas’ hire of Eric Musselman?

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    A
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  • 39%
    B
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