As the Hogs meander cautiously through the minefield of March, we diehards can’t help ourselves.
Those late 1980s and early 1990s teams that Nolan Richardson guided toward 24 NCAA Tournament wins over an eight-year stretch jump to mind.
Even if it defies logic and luck, you allow yourself that luxury.
The variables of the NCAA Tournament that make it unique—frustratingly for favored teams, often—are the same ones that make it “Madness.”
Early-round games are played in unfamiliar, sterile locales. Tipoff times can generally be described as “too early” or “TBA,” too, which disrupts players and coaches who have mostly labored on weeknights and Saturday afternoons.
The effects of the pandemic on logistics needn’t be retold, either.
That’s why Arkansas vanquishing Colgate 85-68 on Friday was a breakthrough, since that little opener can be big trouble. Chris Holtmann, Matt Painter and Shaka Smart are a few of the defeated coaches who can attest to being victims of the upset bug.
The Raiders built a 14-point first-half lead because they game-planned for their moment. So did Oral Roberts, North Texas, and Abilene Christian in their respective first-round wins over the aforementioned, now-embattled coaches.
Colgate rode absurd shooting as the Hogs scuffled with their own offensive flow for a bit, but Eric Musselman’s increasingly cohesive group surged right back to take the halftime lead and coasted to a 17-point win.
As true first-round games continued to unfold on Friday and Saturday, Arkansas’s +31 over the last 25 minutes of game action became an anomaly against the backdrop of mass bracket chaos.
Of course, getting to the Sweet 16 as a No. 3 seed requires dodging the 6-11 matchup’s winner. That’s almost always a reasonably deep opponent since those seeds commonly go to inconsistent power conference schools or tough, established teams from next-tier leagues.
You must go back nearly 30 years for the last time Arkansas was a No. 3 seed. It lost to then-Memphis State and Penny Hardaway in the second round to close a turbulent final season for the trio of Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller.
Texas Tech, the NCAA Tournament runner-up in 2019 led by a shrewd tactician in Chris Beard, buried Utah State in its opener and leaned on the rigors of a rough-and-tumble Big 12 to condition itself for a postseason run that led to Arkansas in the second round.
The Red Raiders (not to be confused with the color-neutral Raiders of Colgate) played their usual brand of ball-control offense. Arkansas could not break loose despite building constant leads, the biggest of which was a 13-point second-half spread that disappeared quickly.
Had it not been for Jaylin Williams’ interior rebounding, passing, and defense (I’ll gladly submit that it was the most dominating one-point performance a Razorback player has ever had), that wild second half might have tilted in favor of Beard’s bunch.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Justin Smith continued his late-season dominance, and that Arkansas was largely competent from the free throw line and contesting Tech at the rim. The last big stand came when J.D. Notae and Smith thwarted Kyler Edwards’ late layup attempt to send the game to an extra five minutes.
Arkansas would’ve gained precious little from just routing these two opponents with ease. Now, there’s almost a strange sense of unease being a double-digit favorite in the Elite 8.
Especially since the opponent is the Oral Roberts, the national darlings who stunned both Ohio State and Florida to advance.
Eric Musselman is fully aware of the threat ORU can present: the Golden Eagles bolted to a big first-half lead at Bud Walton Arena in December before the Hogs awakened and eventually cruised to an 87-76 win.
This is an already-competent team made all the more dangerous by its newfound Cinderella status. It knows it can hang with Arkansas after pushing these Razorbacks a bit three months ago.
And to those who think that the Hogs are a much different, deadlier team than they were before Christmas, I’ll remind you that ORU is, too.
At the time the Golden Eagles had a 3-6 record, but they since reeled off 13 wins in 17 games.
The combination of quick-firing Max Abmas and swingman Kevin Obanor is the kind of 1-2 volume scoring punch (44 ppg between the two) that really lands with force in March when the stakes get bigger and standout players act accordingly.
Should the Hogs make the regional final, Baylor is the prohibitive adversary, though the Villanova won’t be a cakewalk for the Bears in the first South semifinal.
Either team is elite in its own way. Baylor has inarguably been the best or second-best squad in the nation all season. Nova, meanwhile, won the Big East and further burnished its postseason reputation under Jay Wright’s leadership.
I prattle about the first two rounds and the potential next two to make a point. I promise.
In 1994, Arkansas played poorly in an SEC tournament semifinal loss, then genuinely just outlasted North Carolina A&T and Georgetown to start their memorable tear through the NCAA Tournament.
The Hogs’ third-round date was an upstart Tulsa team coached by Tubby Smith that nearly shocked the Razorbacks just weeks earlier. Provided the Hogs survived that, they’d face a Michigan team that had evolved from the Fab Five to the field’s most tournament-toughened roster.
Arkansas reached the precipice of its eventual greatness that spring through a quiet homegrown superstar, a selfless supporting cast, and a firebrand coach. If this sounds familiar — and you’re now enraged at me for implying the comparison at hand — just hear me out.
This isn’t to force undue and unfair parallels between a championship team from nearly three (!!!) decades ago and a very different breed of Razorbacks trying to redo that success now.
This run could end abruptly and harshly, as we know too well.
Rather, it’s a courtesy reminder for the Hog fans that forgot, and those that never knew, what a championship-level Arkansas team had to do to earn that descriptor. It’s also a reminder about what a newcomer must do with to maximize the remaining minutes of this bizarre, beautiful basketball season.
Back in 1994, Arkansas beat a hard path to that net-cutting in Charlotte, dispatching Tulsa in the Sweet 16 before wearing down the Wolverines. If the 2021 model has those grand designs then it has to grind out this next pair (hopefully) of games with the same poise it has shown for two months.
The program has been re-coached and retooled for March success the last two years regardless of how much longer this trek ends up being.
That’s why it feels familiar, and damn good, to be in this position all over again.
At long last.
Author Beau Wilcox writes the Pearls about Swine column for Arkansas Times