Arkansas lost 86-81 at Texas A&M last month to drop to 0-3 in the SEC. Five days after that defeat, which doubled as the fifth loss in a six-game stretch, Eric Musselman had surgery to repair a shoulder he injured when Trey Wade, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound senior, landed on him in a closeout drill during practice.
Things were obviously not going well.
The night of Musselman's surgery, I texted him just to check in. And what I remember most about the exchange is that I left it with the impression that the third-year Arkansas coach genuinely believed the worst was in the past, both in terms of pain for himself and losses for his team.
Turns out, he was right.
Sure, Musselman's arm is still in a sling -- but he's on the mend. And his team? Well, his team has developed into one of the sport's hottest. The 18th-ranked Razorbacks beat sixth-ranked Kentucky 75-73 on Saturday to improve to 13-1 in their past 14 games with the lone loss in that stretch being a 68-67 loss at Alabama. They've gone from 10-5 to 23-6 overall. They've gone from 0-3 to 12-4 in the SEC. They've gone from 54th to 19th at KenPom.com. They've won three straight Quadrant 1 games.
"I've just been so impressed [with] the way that we've played throughout this whole streak," Musselman said following the win over Kentucky. "When we struggled early, we talked about trying to get hot at the right time. ... Three or four weeks ago everybody was talking about our schedule, and we still have two incredibly tough games, one at home, one on the road. But what the group has done is they weathered a really, really tough schedule. And not only did they kind of weather it, they dominated it by winning basketball games, quite frankly, against some incredible teams."
No lies detected.
Arkansas opened Saturday with a 15-2 run and seemed on the verge of maybe blowing the Wildcats out. Kentucky settled down, though, and cut the deficit to 34-28 at halftime -- and with just 83 seconds remaining in regulation, UK actually led 70-69 thanks to another monster performance from Naismith Player of the Year favorite Oscar Tshiebwe, who finished with 30 points and 18 rebounds in 39 minutes.
Emboldened by a capacity crowd inside a rowdy Bud Walton Arena, the Razorbacks immediately went on a 6-0 run to retake a 75-70 lead. TyTy Washington's 3-pointer at the buzzer disappointed gamblers who were holding tickets that read "Arkansas -2" but was otherwise meaningless. And because Auburn subsequently lost at Tennessee, , and tied for second with Kentucky, in the SEC standings with one week left in the regular season, meaning a top-two finish in the league for a second straight year is very much attainable even though Arkansas lost four of the top six scorers from last season's team that advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
What. A. Turnaround.
Like Musselman noted, Arkansas still has "two incredibly tough games" left in the regular season. The first is Wednesday at home against LSU. The second is Saturday at Tennessee. So the Razorbacks will need to continue to operate at a high level to avoid losing once, or even twice, before the SEC Tournament. But, regardless of how the next week unfolds, it's remarkable that Arkansas has a chance to finish 14-4 in the SEC after starting 0-3 in what KenPom rates as the second best league in the nation.
Arkansas has an SEC Coach of the Year candidate in Musselman and All-American candidate in JD Notae, the latter of whom got 30 points and eight assists against Kentucky while showing himself as the best guard on the court, regardless of team. Together, and combined with a nice supporting cast, they now seemed poised to make a run at a second straight Elite Eight -- and, perhaps, also an appearance in the school's first Final Four since 1995.