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Coaching candidate spotlight: Eric Musselman

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After building winners in the Mountain West and SEC, could Musselman do the same thing in the Big Ten?

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Arkansas
Enthusiastic sideline clapping remind you of anybody else we know?
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

This is the latest installment in Crimson Quarry’s Coaching Candidate Spotlight series, where we’ll break down names that Indiana could consider to replace Archie Miller. You can find other installments as well as the rest of our coaching search coverage here.

In the early stages of this coaching search, there have been some pretty lofty names thrown around; names that originally made some people laugh even if they may or may not be slowly becoming more feasible. On the other side of the discussion, there have been a few names that most people have seemed to agree are more realistic. Chris Beard, who we wrote about on Wednesday, is one of those. Eric Musselman is another.

Musselman isn’t necessarily the most experienced of the candidates that have been tossed around and, like the others, he may come with a concern or two. But there’s definitely reason to believe that he’s a legit option for the Hoosiers.

The Resume

Record: 204-152 (.745)

NCAA Tournament appearances: Four in six seasons as a DI head coach

NCAA Tournament record: 3-3 including Friday’s win over Colgate

Regular-Season conference championships: 3

Conference tournament championships: 1

Muss is only in his sixth season as a head coach at the college level, but he has decades of experience at various levels of the sport. He started as a semi-pro coach with the Rapid City Thrillers but eventually moved on to the NBA where, after a few different stints as an assistant, he became the head coach of the Golden State Warriors in 2002 and finished as the runner-up for the NBA Coach of the Year Award in his first season. After being let go after two seasons with the Warriors, he had another stint as an assistant — this time with the Grizzlies — then became the head coach of the Sacramento Kings for a season. After that, he coached in the D-League, then finally made his way to college ball in 2012 as an assistant at Arizona State for a couple of years. He spent one season at LSU.

Finally, in 2015, Musselman got his first college head coaching gig, taking over the Nevada Wolf Pack. That stint ended up lasting four seasons that were very good when you consider Nevada’s history. In his four seasons, Muss:

  • Took over a team that went 9-22 the year before and went 24-14 in year one
  • Went 28-7, won the MWC and the MWC Tournament to clinch Nevada’s first NCAAT berth since 2007 and lost a 5/12 matchup to Iowa State
  • Went 29-8, won the MWC, cracked the AP poll for the first time, got an at-large bid and made a run to the Sweet 16 as a #7 seed
  • Went 29-5, won the MWC again, cracked the top five of the AP poll, lost a 7/10 matchup to Florida

Ahead of the 2019-20 season Musselman moved on from Nevada, heading to Arkansas where he’s still the coach of the Razorbacks. So far in Fayetteville, Muss:

  • Took over an 18-16 Arkansas squad and went 20-12 despite losing Daniel Gafford to the pros
  • Went 22-6, finished 2nd in the SEC, cracked the top 10 of the AP poll, received a #3 seed as an at-large team and will play in the round of 32

Advanced Metrics

So far across his six seasons at the DI level, Musselman has shown an ability to put together both above-average offensive and defensive teams. His very first Nevada squad was Not Good on offense, ranking 210th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, but they made up for it by being 55th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Two years later Nevada had the nation’s seventh-best adjusted offensive efficiency and was still 108th on the defensive end. In 2019, the Wolf Pack were top 35 in both. This year Musselman has put together a monster defensive squad, ranking 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency while still being 35th on the offensive end.

To put some of these numbers into context, 2020 was Musselman’s worst offense outside of his very first Nevada team, with an adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 109.1. That number was better than any that Indiana posted under Archie Miller.

2020 Arkansas was also Musselman’s worst three-point shooting team since his first Nevada team, hitting 33.4 percent of its shots from beyond the arc. That percentage, as well, was better than any that Indiana posted under Archie Miller.

This season’s Arkansas team has posted an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 90. Indiana hasn’t had a defense that proficient since 2002.

In terms of tempo, Musselman has coached some teams that have gotten up and down the floor with the best of them, but he’s also had some teams that are more middle of the pack in that regard.

By the numbers, at least, it seems like Musselman is willing to adjust his team’s style to fit its strengths which, frankly, sounds pretty nice right about now.

Recruiting

So far in his career, Musselman has had the prestigious honor of recruiting high school kids to Reno, Nevada and Fayetteville, Arkansas, which for all I know are great places. But at the same time, they don’t necessarily feel like big draws. When considering that, Musselman has done a pretty solid job on the recruiting trail, his career so far highlighted by a few big classes:

  • 2020: 9th nationally, 4th SEC
  • 2019: 136th nationally, 6th MWC
  • 2018: 52nd nationally, 1st MWC (included 5-star Jordan Brown, highest-rated recruit of 247 era)
  • 2017: 101st nationally, 4th MWC
  • 2016: 57th nationally, 2nd MWC (included Deveari Ramsey and Josh Hall, 2 of program’s top 5 commits of 247 era)

His most recent class, of course, is his best. Last year, he managed to snag a quartet of four-star recruits including Moses Moody, the program’s eighth-highest rated recruit of the 247 era. Moody’s been a huge part of this team as a freshman and figures to be a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft because of it.

He also brought in three of Nevada’s top five recruits of the 247 era — Class of 2018 five-star Jordan Brown (first), Class of 2016 three-star Devearl Ramsey (third) and Class of 2016 three-star Josh Hall (fifth).

Making use of the transfer portal

It’s pretty well-documented that Musselman’s programs have had more than their fair share of players transfer in and make an impact. His Nevada squads that garnered national acclaim were led by bolstered by the transfer market. His final Wolf Pack team, the one that reached the top five in the AP poll, featured five former transfers in the starting lineup between Caleb and Cody Martin (NC State), Jordan Caroline (Illinois State), Tre’Shawn Thurman (Omaha) and Trey Porter (Old Dominion).

When he made the jump to Arkansas he hopped right into the transfer portal, managing to add a few players who have already had an impact for the Razorbacks. Jimmy Whitt (SMU) became an instant starter and key guard for Musselman, and the trio of Connor Vanover (California), JD Notae (Jacksonville) and Abayomi Iyiola (Stetson) each sat a year. The first two have become key members of the rotation while Iyiola has spent most of the season sidelined with an injury. Ahead of this season, he snagged three more transfers, all immediately eligible — Jalen Tate (Northern Kentucky), Vance Jackson (New Mexico) and, of course, former Hoosier Justin Smith. Tate and Smith are both starters for this year’s Arkansas team, the former averaging 10 points, four assists and four rebounds per game while the latter’s putting up 13 points and seven rebounds per game while continuing his war on rims.

With the transfer portal potentially playing a huge role in this offseason, even more than usual, it may behoove whoever the new coach is to take advantage of it. Musselman is well-equipped to do that.

Parting thoughts

For my money’s worth, from a basketball standpoint, Musselman is a perfectly good candidate for this job. He’s won everywhere he’s been, posting at least 20 victories every season. He’s also won immediately, posting 24 wins in his first season at Nevada and 20 in his first season at Arkansas. He’s also made the tournament in four of his six seasons as a DI head coach including last season when the tourney was canceled. Since 2003, IU has made the tournament four times in a six-year span only once.

If Musselman were to leave Fayetteville for Bloomington, it’s easy to believe he could turn around the Hoosiers’ fortunes pretty quickly. His aptitude for dipping into the transfer portal would be beneficial to him in that effort.

One thing that could be a bit concerning with a potential Musselman hire is simply the fact that he seems to be a high-energy guy who’s always on and working. At first, of course, that can be a positive, but over time it can wear on some people. For instance, look back to the later Tom Crean years. If the folks in the athletic department and perhaps a decent-sized chunk of the fanbase have had enough time to recover from the Crean experience, maybe we can look past that. But it’s still there.

All in all, I’d be perfectly fine with Musselman to Bloomington, so long as Brad Stevens doesn’t want the job.