Hmm. Eric Musselman just took a job as assistant coach with the LSU basketball program.
Good for Louisiana State. Not so good for Arizona State.
The Tigers’ head coach, Johnny Jones, didn’t pirate Musselman away from ASU, where he was on Herb Sendek‘s staff the past two seasons. Musselman had already left the Sun Devil program, announcing his intentions to move on back in April.
But his landing spot does raise an eyebrow – and a few questions as well.
Musselman has a coaching resume rich with experience, including tours as head coach with two different NBA teams after also serving as an assistant with four other NBA franchises. He has worked with some of the better professional coaches in the game, including Doc Rivers, Chuck Daly, and Mike Fratello.
He also coached seven years in the ‘minor leagues’ of the NBA, with teams in the CBA, USBL, and NBA Developmental League. His 68.8 winning percentage during those years is second only to George Karl, and he was the NBADL Coach of the Year with the Los Angeles D-Fenders the year before he took the job at ASU.
OK, the point here is that Sun Devil fans naturally assumed he left the program after just two seasons to jump back into the pro game. Or, at the very least, for a head-coaching position in a major-college program.
But his new role in Baton Rouge is exactly the same as the one he held in Tempe. He will be the associate head coach on Jones’ staff. So it turns out to be a lateral move.
So why not stay with the ASU program where he was generally credited with playing a significant role in the program’s turnaround the last couple of years. Sendek enjoyed three straight 20-win seasons after taking over the program eight years ago, but that was followed by a losing season that included just a dozen wins and then a 10-win record in 2011-12. But with Musselman on board, the Devils improved by 12 wins and made it back to the post-season for the first time in three years, garnering an invitation to the NIT in 2013 and to the NCAA Tournament last season.
One would have to assume that ASU would have preferred to have his continued help going forward. But now he’s in Baton Rouge, preparing to help the Tigers work their way back from a disappointing season in which they won 20 games but weren’t impressive enough to get an invitation to March’s Big Dance.
No, he’s not returning home. He was born in Ohio and went to high school in the Buckeye state. No, he’s not returning to coach at his alma mater. He graduated from University of San Diego.
So you can’t help but wonder if he was getting out of Dodge (er, Tempe) because he didn’t like what he was seeing on the horizon. The program lost the core from last year’s team with the departure of point guard Jahii Carson, shooting guard Jermaine Marshall, and 7’2″ center Jordan Bachynski.
Sendek will rely on junior-college imports more than he has in the past, bringing aboard four JUCO transfers to go with a trio of freshmen. He doesn’t have a recruiting class coming in that is bulging with four-star and five-star prospects, like his University of Arizona rival, Sean Miller. So dipping into the junior-college talent pool makes sense.
The shift to more JUCO recruits will give him some immediate help, blending some seasoned talent into a depleted roster and help fill the gaping holes in a team that finished last season 20-12, which enabled them to squeeze into the NCAA A Tournament, only to get bounced from the tourney by Texas in the first round.
Expectations are not high for next season and the Sun Devils will probably get a pre-season ranking somewhere deep in the bottom half of the Pac-12 Conference.
But at LSU, Musselman will be working with a program on the rise. The Tigers have the talent, they just need to develop more consistency over their play of last year. Their roster next season will include a couple of sophomores in forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin, who will likely opt to enter the NBA draft after next season, and a senior in Ben Simmons that could be an NBA lottery pick if he has a solid senior season.
It appears that Musselman made a smart move, despite the fact that he’s still on a college bench as an assistant coach.
But his reasons for leaving ASU in the first place have to leave fans wondering now.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)