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Questionable times: Hogs still searching for right answers

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FAYETTEVILLE — This isn’t the first time the University of Arkansas basketball team has hit a rough patch under Coach Eric Musselman.

It actually has happened in all three of Musselman’s seasons with the Razorbacks.

This season it has happened earlier.

The previous two seasons Arkansas got back on track.

Musselman and the Razorbacks (10-5, 0-3 SEC) hope they can get things going in the right direction again, starting with tonight’s game against Missouri (7-7, 1-1) at Walton Arena.

“There’s angst before every game. There’s excitement before every game,” Musselman said. “I think with any team of any sport at any level, when you lose two or three in a row, for sure your confidence is going to be [affected].

“You have to create your own confidence right now is really what it comes down to.”

Two years ago Arkansas lost five consecutive SEC games with guard Isaiah Joe — now in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers — out because of a knee injury.

With Joe back, the Razorbacks won four of their next six games — including the SEC Tournament opener against Vanderbilt 86-73 — and finished 20-12 when the season was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last season Arkansas lost four of five games to fall to 2-4 in SEC play. The Razorbacks then won 12 consecutive games against SEC opponents, advanced to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight for the first time since 1995 and finished 25-7.

After starting 9-0 this season and being ranked as high as No. 10 in The Associated Press poll, Arkansas has lost five of six games and started 0-3 in SEC play for the first time since 2009.

“I don’t know if they’re desperate, but I know they’re fighting to get a win,” Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I do know they’re a talented team. I know they’ll be ready to go.”

Arkansas is a couple of possessions away from being 2-1 in the SEC.

After losing at Mississippi State 81-68 with senior guard JD Notae — the SEC’s leading scorer averaging 18.8 points — missing the game because of covid safety protocols, the Razorbacks lost at home to Vanderbilt 75-74 and at Texas A&M 86-81.

Notae had a three-point attempt bounce off the rim against Vanderbilt as the game ended and Arkansas cut a 17-point deficit against the Aggies to one point with 1:02 remaining.

“JD not being at Mississippi State, nobody cares,” Musselman said. “You have to be able to go out and play.

“When another team makes a run, you’ve got to have mental toughness as a group, everybody included … to come back and fight.

“We showed that a little bit at Texas A&M, but came up short, which we’ve come up short of late a lot. So we’re just looking for guys that understand how important it is to continue to compete for 40 minutes.”

Musselman and Martin have known each other for more than 20 years since their days in the CBA. They met during the 1996-97 season when Musselman was head coach of the Florida Beachdogs in West Palm Beach, and Martin played for the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Mackers.

“We had some intense games,” Martin said two years ago when asked about the Beachdogs-Mackers matchups. “The good thing about Muss is that he talked trash a little bit as a coach on the floor. I enjoyed that.”

After a lengthy pro coaching career, Musselman is 165-58 in seven seasons as a college head coach at Nevada and Arkansas.

“I think he’s a good coach. I think that part is understood. I don’t ever think that’s in question,” Martin said when asked about Musselman’s track record of turning around struggling teams during the season. “Just his resiliency. He’s a fighter. He’s a competitor.

“If you have willing players that want to be good and embrace coaching, then they’ll be fine. Because Muss will do his part. He’ll put them in position [to succeed]. They just have to be willing to do whatever it takes.

“But sometimes when you get in ruts like this, those conversations in the locker room amongst family and team, can be uncomfortable. You’ve got to be able to embrace that conversation and move forward as a team.”

Musselman said he’s been spending more time at the office than usual with the Razorbacks struggling.

“We’re trying, we’re searching,” Musselman said. “We’re trying to do everything we can.

“As a competitor, whether you’re a player or a coach or a graduate assistant or a support staff member, losses need to hurt and then you need to try to figure out how you can dig a little bit deeper and be a little bit more competitive.

“As a coach, that’s your job, is to continue to try to get the team to improve as much as you can on a daily basis.”