Tusk to Tail: Finding reasons to cheer beyond the ‘football wilderness’
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It was the first Saturday of the new year, more than a week before University of Arkansas students were due back in Fayetteville. Bartenders struggled to serve the thirsty throng of cardinal clad customers at the Graduate Hotel off the square. Outside Bud Walton Arena, Arkansas fans’ fingers thrust into the air, looking for tickets up until the sold out 6 p.m. tipoff against Texas A&M.
Everywhere you looked, it was clear. Arkansas basketball is back.
Joining them is Tusk to Tail, our diehard group of lifelong Hog fans who have been sharing our football stories here since 2012. Like those patient patrons at the overflowing Graduate bar, we are thirsty for wins. Thus we turn the calendar to spring sports, where the Razorbacks are kicking some serious ass.
Everyone knows the men’s track program has dominated for decades. The women have fared even better lately, stacking championships like cord wood, including the national Cross Country title in November. A similar situation unfolds on the basketball court. As of Sunday night, Coach Mike Neighbors’ LadyBacks (13-2 overall, 1-1 SEC) are ranked number 20 nationally. The men improved to 12-1, the program’s best start since 2008-09, after beating the Aggies Saturday night.
The baseball season begins in less than six weeks, with the goal of returning to the College World Series in Omaha for the third consecutive season. The Diamond Hogs have earned another preseason Top 10 ranking for 2020. We will cover their games extensively, from the first popped top at the tailgate until the final out on the field.
The GymBacks, coached by Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber, have higher expectations than ever. Softball has been reaching new highs in the ultra-competitive SEC, as well. I could go on, but you get the point.
Look around. As long as you keep your back turned to the green grass and empty seats of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, you may see a golden age on The Hill. Nearly every other sport – soccer, golf, tennis, you name it – is collectively doing as well as ever. As our Commander in Chief says, “you may even get tired of winning.” After years of aimlessly wandering the football wilderness, Tusk to Tail wants a little taste of that action.
That brings us back to basketball.
Most fans loved former Coach Mike Anderson. He ran a clean program, and won a lot more games than he lost. He had the Razorbacks in postseason contention most years, but they never succeeded past the early rounds of the NCAA or National Invitational Tournaments. Unfortunately, Anderson’s mild mannered approach and lack of postseason success begat apathetic Arkansas fans. That combination likely led to his dismissal after last season.
Enter Eric Musselman, a compact bundle of energy and analytics obsessively focused on getting his players and team to the next level. Just one game into the conference schedule, Coach Muss already has Hog fans feeling some type of way. His meticulous attention to detail makes it easy to turn the page on the football program’s smoldering tire fire that undid former coach Chad Morris in less than two seasons. The Muss Bus is already rolling while Morris was never able to fulfill his promise to put the Hogs in the “left lane, hammer down.”
It was widely reported that Morris was never able to beat a team from the SEC or any other Power Five conference as a head coach. In less than half the time, Coach Muss has beaten all three such opponents he has faced. In addition to Saturday’s home conference win over the Aggies, Arkansas beat basketball blue bloods Indiana and Georgia Tech on the road.
A large part of Musselman’s early success stems from his ability to develop players. Junior guard Mason Jones and Senior forward Adrio Bailey had been serviceable components of Anderson’s middling teams. Muss has developed them into the heart and soul of this year’s squad.
Musselman has also shown the ability to adapt to the flow of a game. Texas A&M coach Buzz WIlliams, another highly regarded SEC newcomer, was able to limit the Razorbacks Saturday by clogging up the interior lanes and contesting every Arkansas shot at the perimeter. With about nine minutes left to play, the Hogs had made only 1 of 8 second half 3-point attempts, shooting just 22% overall at that point of the half. A nine-point Arkansas lead had evaporated to a scant 52-50 advantage. Muss responded unconventionally with a quicker lineup of five guards, who passed and shot their way to the 69-59 victory.
Entering the meat of the conference schedule, tougher times may be right around the corner for the Hoops Hogs. They will likely struggle against teams with legitimate size, and road wins never come easy in the SEC.
For now, though, it seems fair to say that Arkansas basketball is back. Tusk to Tail will be there along the way.
Editor’s note: Now in its eighth year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.