Eric Musselman Quickly Galvanizes USC Men’s Basketball

‘We’re going to be a problem:’ New-look USC roster is confident in Eric Musselman

After a disappointing year at Arkansas, Musselman has targeted experienced mid-major veterans in the transfer portal, an approach that’s appealed to players

New USC men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman gives the “Fight On” salute during his introductory press conference Friday, April 5, 2024, at the Galen Center. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
New USC men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman gives the “Fight On” salute during his intro presser Friday, April 5, 2024, at the Galen Center. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, LADN/SCNG)

Luca Evans (OC Register)  —  LOS ANGELES — For the majority of his time in the transfer portal, Saint Thomas heard the same pitch, regardless of school crest.

Don’t play for Eric Musselman.

Dozens of programs reached out once Thomas hit the portal out of Northern Colorado, as would be expected for a 6-foot-7 forward who’d just averaged 19.7 points a game. Thomas took a visit to Arizona State and to SMU, who’d just imported Andy Enfield and USC’s old coaching staff. But they were all playing from behind because former Arkansas coach Musselman had established a strong relationship with Thomas through his hire at USC.

So schools started trying to sell Thomas against Musselman, a firecracker of a coach with a polarizing reputation. He’ll be hard on you, Thomas heard. He’ll pressure you.

And I’m like, ‘But, his winning percentage is (70%),’” Thomas recalled. “Why wouldn’t I want to go play for somebody that’s winning and everybody’s hating on?”

Quite simply, Thomas wanted to be pressured. He craved it. It’s what has drawn him, and a carefully constructed squad of hired guns, to USC and Musselman.

When he arrived at USC in April, Musselman had a virtual blank slate, nearly every 2023-24 Trojan holdover transferring out with Enfield’s departure. In came Thomas and senior Boise State floor-spacer Chibuzo Agbo Jr., two of the best mid-major transfers available. In came Ivy League graduate transfers Clark Slajchert and Matt Knowling. In came Michigan’s Terrance Williams, and San Diego State’s Bryce Pope, both of whom have played four years of collegiate basketball. With the exception of star Xavier transfer Desmond Claude, every player coming into USC from the portal will be a senior in 2024-25.

That’s been highly intentional, players feel. Musselman’s Razorbacks stumbled to a 16-17 record last season despite a wealth of talent, and several USC transfers told the Southern California News Group they sensed the coach was trying to build a different culture at this new stop in Troy. He hasn’t gone star-gazing this offseason; Musselman has intentionally brought in grinders, mid-major hoopers looking to make a name, players with weights on their shoulders as heavy as the chip on his own 5-foot-7 frame.

“The year just didn’t match up like they wanted to,” Thomas said, of Arkansas’ 2023-24 season. “And I know he was trying to … get a lot of guys that just mold together and are willing to sacrifice.”

Production over potential

A little over a week ago, Harrison Hornery, the senior forward and lone returner from USC’s 2023-24 team, blasted out a group text to USC’s mishmash of new talent. Let him know if anyone had questions about classes or housing, Hornery wrote. Feel free to reach out.

“So, I guess, like, the nice text that usually the senior sends to all the incoming freshmen, in the world that was college basketball 10 years ago,” Slajchert cracked. “But that’s no longer the case.”

No, this was a senior sending a welcome to other seniors, because Musselman has hit the portal for veteran help as hard as any coach in collegiate basketball this spring. Partly out of necessity. Partly out of philosophy.

Slajchert entered the portal in early March, determined to prove himself as a combo guard who could control a game at the Power Five level, a veteran two-guard who’d averaged 18 points a game as a senior at Penn. On a Zoom with Musselman and his staff, Slajchert said, they presented a PowerPoint with an intricate breakdown of his analytics and shot chart from Penn. The sheer effort stood out, to Slajchert.

Pope entered the portal in late March, determined to prove himself as a bucket-getter who could score at the Power Five level, a veteran two-guard who’d averaged over 18 points a game for two straight years at San Diego. After taking a visit to USC, Pope said, Musselman called him daily. When Pope went on a subsequent visit to Maryland, Musselman called him again. Don’t commit, Musselman pleaded. The sheer effort stood out, to Pope.

There’s no secret to this pattern. Musselman was taking a different approach than he had in previous years at Arkansas, Pope felt, prioritizing “high-character kids.”

Each of the Trojans’ current seven transfers was a starter in their previous stops. Every player is coming off seasons averaging at least 10 points a game.

“I don’t think this is, like, a rebuilding thing,” Pope said. “I think this is like, a — we can definitely win with Coach Muss in year one at USC.”

‘You have no idea how motivated I am’

Coming off a 2023-24 season as one of the best players in the Big Sky, Thomas declared for the NBA Draft while entering the portal in late March, invited to work out privately with a handful of NBA teams.

But at the end of an initial workout with the Brooklyn Nets, Thomas sprained his ankle, axing the rest of his scheduled visits. When the NBA announced its field of prospects last week for the G-League Elite Camp in Chicago, Thomas’ name was nowhere to be found.

Immediately after he learned of the omission, trainer and close friend Adam Barnes remembered, Thomas turned to his phone and texted Musselman, in a message that will stand as the prologue to USC’s season.

“I’m about to work my (butt) off so much for you,” Barnes recalled Thomas writing, some variation of. “You have no idea how motivated I am.”

Back when Thomas was a sophomore at Loyola Chicago in 2022-23, he struggled so severely with his mental health that he stepped away from the program entirely, moving back home to Omaha, Nebraska, to focus on training with Barnes. In his second go-around in the transfer portal, it was important for Thomas, he said, to find a coaching staff that could understand him and where he could feel comfortable mentally.

On paper, Musselman’s fiery personality seemed a volatile fit. In 2022, he’d screamed “Go (expletive) yourself” to a section of opposing fans after an Arkansas win, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. In 2023, he was ejected from a matchup with Oklahoma for the second time in his Arkansas career. And Musselman was honest with Thomas in his recruitment: he would push him at USC.

But Thomas embraced that. He wanted to develop into a first-round pick, and he wanted to win in his last year of college, and USC offered a “solid number” in NIL opportunity, Barnes said. So Thomas specifically asked Musselman, in his recruitment, to “yell at me just to get out of myself.”

“I want to be not only better as a basketball player, I want to be a better man at that,” Thomas said. “I think he can push me to be both.”

The range of outcomes for USC in 2024-25 will be vast, Musselman tasked with somehow coalescing a completely new roster into a competitive product entering the Big Ten. The coach is under pressure, as Thomas affirmed, after a couple underwhelming seasons at Arkansas, and asked to jolt a sleeping giant awake at USC.

Musselman has assembled a group intent on seeking out that pressure, behind him.

“I just think we’re going to come with so much fire, energy, and I just know nobody – and I’m not just going to say the Big Ten,” Thomas said, catching himself. “I think we’re going to be a problem for the whole country to deal with.”


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Noble Genius
May 15, 2024 11:22 am

This Georgia HS WR CJ Wiley looks imposing. He’s scheduled to visit USC May 31st. He appears to have some size in addition to quickness. I can see LR drooling at the mouth watching this kid perform. Pull out the checkbook, House of Victory, this kid could be the real deal if it comes to that.

Genius Member
May 15, 2024 7:29 pm
Reply to  Jamaica

Dang, it’s a long shot for CJ, UGA has a strong hold. He’s visiting and anything can happen on visits. CJ is a beast at 6-4, 200 lbs, 10.8 100m, 21.9 200 m; he big and fast. So far we have a very good WR commit, Romeo Ison, 6-0, 175, Maryland, 10.8 100m, 21.6 200m. Very fast USC should get Calif best WR, Phil Bell, 6-2, 185, Mission Veijo, pretty fast 11.2 100m, 22.9 200m. Seen him play many times, he runs great routes and catches everything. Very physical on DB’s. Like him a lot. Hope we get Calif, 2nd… Read more »

Noble Genius
May 15, 2024 11:27 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

In a physically challenging football league like the Big Ten, you have to be concerned if your O & D lines are suspect/undermanned. Ball control is so important if you have it and in trouble if you don’t. Having a worn out or severely weakend by injury line is what you don’t want to deal with.

Genius Member
May 14, 2024 8:34 am

Thanxs Bruddah Allen for da up lifting article by Luca Evans. Hell it’s tough figuring out what makes a successful team. UCLA C.John Wooden had a cast of All Stars and won many NC and pretty much dominated. Look at Kentucky in recent years, even with a roster filled with All Stars they struggled as a team.    I really believe a team’s success depends upon coaching and how well he can relate to each players personality. Most of all the players must like and have confidence in one another. Most teams have good solid talent, but a coach must get his players… Read more »

Major Genius
May 15, 2024 8:14 am
Reply to  Canyon

Feels like all our transfers are the same type of player. Long, good scorers, but not #1 scoring option. It will be interesting to see how it all gels. Andy did a good job, I think Eric has a much higher ceiling. Can’t believe we’re talking hoops, good stuff!

Noble Genius
May 13, 2024 5:49 pm

I hope USC basketball turns a corner this season. I remember going to Cal State LA basketball games when I was young. Dad was the sound tech for the school. When they played USC (as Diablos) the Trojans brought a pep band. The games were fun but my memory was dad cheering for both teams. I got hooked on baseball games and didn’t stop following basketball until I got children of my own.

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