Entering Year 3 in Fayetteville, Eric Musselman keeps pushing on the recruiting front like he’s still got something to prove.
In theory, he could stand to let off the gas pedal a bit. He has proven to all the doubters that he’s a top-notch college basketball coach by turning around two programs in major ways.
He’s already off to the most successful start in Arkansas basketball history and just last month signed a new $5 million contract making him one of the nation’s highest paid coaches.
But Musselman and his staff are still going as hard as ever on the recruiting front, trying to put together a roster in the next few years that will be capable of going further than the Elite Eight Arkansas recently made.
A big part of that, of course, is working the transfer portal — a skill Musselman has mastered in his six years of coaching college ball.
“I actually love the challenge of putting a group of six new players together and trying to have your system in place by Nov. 1,” he recently told The Athletic’s Seth Davis.
“I thrive on it.”
Musselman’s pro basketball experience helped him develop the roster shuffling skills that have brought to Arkansas game-changing transfers like Jalen Tate and Justin Smith.
Musselman is the former head coach of two NBA franchises, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings, that are nowhere near the top of the teams most likely to win the Western Conference in 2021 according to basketball best odds.
Musselman also coached for years in what’s now known as the G-league.
All those experiences, plus the multiple states he’s lived in throughout his life and while trying to climb the college coaching ladder, have helped give him a more varied life than most college head coaches.
That, in turn, probably allows him to find common touch points with almost anybody he converses with.
And, man, Musselman is talking with a lot of people.
Seth Davis points out that Musselman and the staff that make up his “transfer operation hub” — Anthony Ruta, Hays Myers, Pat Ackerman and Michael Musselman — have an in-depth process for figuring out who to pursue when it comes to transfer portal prospects.
It starts with a look at advanced analytics. The numbers show about 80% of all Division I transfers on the market can be eliminated right away.
Drilling down further, the staff estimates that only 5% are good enough to earn significant minutes at Arkansas and only half of those could actually move the needle in helping to win big games.
The competition is tough for players in that last bucket. New Arkansas transfer Stanley Umude, one of the nation’s best scorers last season at South Dakota, is a great example.
Musselman and his team recruited Umude hard after his name popped up in the transfer portal during the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Even while the Razorbacks were advancing, Musselman would carve out time to call the 6’6” shooting guard.
“As soon as I entered the portal, Coach Muss called me, even though they were still in the tournament,” Umude told Davis. “I was a little surprised because it was a crazy time for them, but that made me feel real good because it showed I was a priority.”
If only looking at physical skills and basketball ability, adding Umude to next year’s roster would have been a no-brainer.
But Musselman was more interested in discovering whether Umude would be a good fit in other ways. Specifically, did he have the right mentality to play on a loaded team in which minutes weren’t guaranteed to anybody?
“The player’s goals have to fit with your goals. You’ve got to be really truthful about that, or else the locker room gets turned upside down,” Musselman said.
As Davis wrote, if during the interview process, a prospect “starts asking about the other players in the program, it’s a major red flag.”
“The most successful guys we’ve had never asked who else was on the roster,” Musselman added. “You should be ready to compete.”
To make sure he covers all his bases, Musselman and his staff talk to numerous folks who know the prospect at different levels.
Davis points out that in Umude’s case Musselman spent a long time chatting on WhatsApp with his older brother Sidney Umude, a professional overseas basketball player.
It’s a two-way street, naturally. In the case of another new Razorback transfer, Au’Diese Toney, Musselman spent a lot of time chatting with his mother because his mother had a lot of questions about the chemistry and culture of the Arkansas basketball program.
Heading into the summer, Musselman still has two scholarships to give, but he is careful about how and whether he fills them. Arkansas is reportedly in the mix to land another highly-sought transfer like the 6’4” Bryce Hamilton, UNLV’s leading scorer this season.
But there are only so many minutes to go around, especially in the loaded backcourt. So it may be better for overall team chemistry to go with a long-term development project who doesn’t expect to play much in 2021-2022.
Looking forward, Musselman’s ability to work the transfer portal likely won’t remain so unique as so many other programs up their own transfer portal skills by necessity.
If competing coaches increasingly focus their time and energy on pursuing transfers to keep up with masters like Musselman and Baylor coach Scott Drew, then it’s likely high school recruits won’t feel the same level of love they once did.
If that’s the case, Musselman will be ready to strike.
“When he first loaded up on transfers at Nevada, Musselman was praised for thinking outside the box, but now that all of college basketball is jammed inside that box, he is wondering if it might be time to jump back into the high school pool,” Davis wrote.
Now would be a great time.
In the class of 2022, Arkansas is producing its best in-state crop of talent in decades. Which explains why Musselman and his guys are recruiting this class harder than any other class he’s gone after as a college coach.
Learn more about one of the crown jewels of the class here: