FAYETTEVILLE, Ar. (KNWA/KFTA) – Shortly after it was announced by Eric Musselman back in December that Devo Davis would be taking some time away from basketball to deal with some personal issues, a rumor began to circulate that it had something to do with Davis’ lack of emotion after Arkansas dramatic overtime win over San Diego St. in the Maui Invitational. Most of the players could be seen on the TV broadcast celebrating wildly after the win while Davis sat stone faced.
His time away lasted just one game, but I could not help thinking about that rumor as Musselman hugged Devo after Arkansas’ improbable come from behind win over one-seed Kansas in the NCAA West Region, a win that propelled the Hogs into the Sweet 16 for the third straight season.
“Devo was absolutely incredible,” a smiling Muss proclaimed. “I feel like he’s my son. I love this kid so much!”
“I love you too coach,” Davis responded.
Courtside reporter Allie LaForce then said to Davis, “That man challenged you to be the best leader you could possibly be. You said it took you a little out of your comfort zone. Looking at it now, what do you think of that challenge?”
An emotional Davis struggled to answer. “I don’t know,” he said, “It’s crazy. He then lowered this head and put his hands on his knees while fighting back tears.
“What makes you tear up? What are you thinking about?” LsForce, asked.
“Putting in the work. This team is struggling and we figured it out and I’m glad we did at the right time. Hopefully we’ll continue to do it,” Davis answered.
Was that the source of his brief time away from the team? The personal challenge his head coach had issued?
We may never know but we do know that Davis took over the Kansas game with 25 points on an afternoon when Arkansas’ two high profile five-star freshmen combined to score just four. Davis’ surge began on a made layup with 16:01 left in the game and the Hogs down by nine. His 19 points from that point until he fouled out with 1:56 left, was the leadership spark Muss had asked of him three months earlier.
Make no mistake, it WAS leadership. Teammates Ricky Council IV, Jordan Walsh, Makai Mitchell and Kamani Johnson each followed his lead in that closing stretch. The four combined for 41 points in the game and hauled down 15 critical rebounds. More importantly, after he went to the bench with the Hogs down by a point, those guys kept scoring, rebounding and playing defense.
It’s hard for me to process all the social media criticisms of Musselman I’ve read during Arkansas’ up and down walk into postseason play. We do know that the Anthony Black most of those fans had seen during a good part of the season has been playing through an ankle injury for several weeks. According to the game announcers, Smith Jr. did not participate in Friday’s practice for the game. They also indicated that he was once again dealing with a knee problem.
Don’t tell me the man has coaching issues. Arkansas has just moved into the Sweet 16 for the third straight season. He and his teams have knocked off a number one seed two years running. Arkansas beat Kansas with its two playmakers basically relegated to playing defense.
In the postgame press conference, Muss echoed Davis in explaining that this team is still learning, still improving, still adding to it’s offense and it’s defense. He also made the point that this has never happened to any of his teams this late in the season.
I have no sources for this, but I have also have gnawing feeling that shortly after a new national champion is named some school out there looking for a coach is going to make a big time offer to Eric Musselman. He’s done more than enough over the past three season to convince athletic directors around the country who want a coach who wins games in the NCAA Tournament that Muss is the place to start.
If I’m right, Hunter Yurachek had better be prepared to open his checkbook again and those Internet critics who have been dogging Muss this season had better hope that he hasn’t decided he’s done all he can do to keep them happy and it’s not enough.