DES MOINES, Iowa — Despite playing in different conferences, each of Arkansas basketball’s first two opponents at the NCAA Tournament have compared it to the same team: Texas.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood made the comparison Wednesday and Kansas interim coach Norm Roberts echoed that opinion Friday afternoon, on the eve of his team’s second-round matchup with the Razorbacks.
“I don’t think anybody in the country has as many athletes as Arkansas has,” Roberts said. “We have had different teams in our league that are pretty athletic — Baylor was athletic but they’re not as tall, long; West Virginia is long but they’re not as fast.
“So we played against a combination of those things. Probably the closest one would be Texas. Texas probably has as many athletes in length that’s similar to Arkansas.”
The Fighting Illini, which Arkansas eliminated from the tournament with a 73-63 win Thursday afternoon, actually beat Texas 85-78 in overtime at the Jimmy V Classic way back on Dec. 6. It was the Longhorns’ first of only eight losses this season en route to earning a 2 seed.
“Texas is probably the best fit,” Underwood said. “Texas was a little bit different because they don’t play a true center, the twins are a little bit (of that), but yeah, athletically, they’re very comparable.”
An interesting aspect of Roberts making the comparison is the fact that Kansas hasn’t exactly played well against Texas this season. The Jayhawks won the first matchup 88-80 in Lawrence, but that was on Feb. 6.
In two meetings this month, the Longhorns have smoked Kansas by 16 in the regular-season finale and by 20 in the Big 12 Tournament championship. That has provided the Jayhawks with plenty of preparation for the athleticism they’ll face Saturday.
“Well, Arkansas is quick and athletic, just like Texas,” Roberts said. “We played against that all year. We know what we need to do. We know we need to be keyed up. We know that we need to be very active in what we do. The main thing for us is we can’t let people get comfortable. When you let somebody get comfortable they’re going to play very well.”
On the flip side, Arkansas senior Kamani Johnson compared Kansas to the SEC’s pair of former Big 12 schools: Texas A&M and Missouri.
The Razorbacks were 1-2 against the Aggies, including a loss in which they blew a 13-point lead at the SEC Tournament, and 1-1 against the Tigers, including a loss in which they blew a 10-point lead in Columbia, Mo.
“If I could compare them to one SEC team, maybe Texas A&M — just the pace that they play at and how well they move the ball,” Johnson said. “I would think Texas A&M or maybe Mizzou when Kobe (Brown) is at the five and the way they move the ball. They run well in transition. So those are the two teams I could compare them to.”
Close Point Spread for Arkansas vs Kansas
Despite being an 8 seed and playing a Kansas team that had a case for the No. 1 overall seed, Arkansas basketball is just a 3.5-point underdog in Saturday’s game.
That is significant because it’s the closest spread for a 1 seed in the second round since 1996, when 1 seed Purdue lost to 8 seed Georgia as a 2.5-point favorite, according to Chris Fallica of FOX Sports.
Fallica added that top-seeded teams favored by four or fewer points in the second round are just 2-4 straight up, with only one — 1994 Missouri — covering the spread.
(That Missouri team, of course, was blown out by Arkansas’ eventual national championship team — much like this year’s team was blown out, in an exhibition, by the Texas team it is now being compared to.)
Kansas interim coach Norm Roberts didn’t need that stat to know that Arkansas will be a tough second-round challenge for his team.
“I think when you get in the NCAA Tournament any team is dangerous,” Roberts said. “You’re playing against champions, guys that had really good seasons and know how to win. Arkansas comes from the SEC. They know how to play in big games. They know what it’s like to win big.”
More Familiar Faces
In the first round, Arkansas faced an Illinois team led by Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer, a pair of transfers who played the Razorbacks in the Big Dance two years ago — at Texas Tech and Baylor, respectively.
On Saturday, the Razorbacks will face another player from that Texas Tech team, as Kevin McCullar is now at Kansas.
“It’s pretty wild that yesterday we played two guys that were on other teams in other NCAA Tournaments, and now we’re playing a third guy,” Musselman said.
Now averaging 10.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.0 steals for the Jayhawks, McCullar put up 15 points and 8 rebounds against the Razorbacks two years ago and Davonte Davis — the only remaining Arkansas player from that game — remembers him well.
“(He’s) a hard-nosed guy, down and dirty, getting loose balls, rebounds, getting dirty buckets,” Davis said. “Can also make plays for himself and his teammates. We know for sure that he’s a guy we have to focus on because he can be an X-factor for them.”
That isn’t the only connection between the two teams.
Arkansas’ trio of five-star freshmen — Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh — played in the McDonald’s All-American game with Kansas star freshman Gradey Dick.
Smith added that he’s known Bobby Pettiford since he was in fifth or sixth grade and that he was a really good friend. He also has memories of playing KJ Adams Jr. when he was young.
Even though Jalen Wilson is a redshirt junior, making him several years older, Walsh said he was familiar with Wilson because they’re both from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“Obviously played against him a couple times and it’s always been a friendly battle, but it’s always been healthy,” Walsh said. “Even though we’re not on the same team, and even back then, he could come up to me and say, ‘Jordan, on the roll you could have hit the corner. He was open. You gotta look for that.’”
Kansas guard Joseph Yesufu joined the Jayhawks as a transfer a couple of years ago. He came from Drake, with which he helped beat a Wichita State team that featured both Trey Wade and Ricky Council IV in the First Four of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
Playing at Wichita State, Council shared a state with the Jayhawks and actually considered them as a potential transfer destination, so he is looking forward to getting to play them.
“I called two of my friends last night that played at KU and we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Council said. “Obviously KU is one of the schools I was considering when I entered the transfer portal, so there’s a lot of fire to that and I can’t wait for it.
Bill Self Update
There is a chance Kansas basketball will be without its head coach for a fifth straight game Saturday, as Bill Self is still recovering from a procedure that caused him to miss the Big 12 Tournament entirely.
He made the trip to Des Moines, Iowa, but was not on the sideline for the Jayhawks’ first-round win over Howard. It’s unknown where he’ll return for the matchup with Arkansas.
“It’s a day-to-day situation with him and everything, but he’s doing good,” interim coach Norm Roberts said. “He was in practice with our guys just a little while ago and coaching them, so we will see what happens.”
Despite not being able to coach the actual games, Self is still active in staff meetings and at practice, so not much has changed from that perspective.
Musselman said he doesn’t believe Self’s absence would impact the Jayhawks much because their coaching staff has been together so long.
“Certainly we all want Coach to be as healthy as possible and to get back to coaching as quick as he can,” Musselman said. “But having said that, they’re a well-oiled machine in how they go about their business and how they execute.”
Kansas Scouts Arkansas
Here are a few thoughts from Kansas interim coach Norm Roberts on specific Arkansas basketball players…
Ricky Council IV: “Ricky is an explosive athlete. His first step is ridiculously quick and he’s explosive to the rim. He’s a really, really good player, and he’s had a great year for them.”
Anthony Black: “One thing about Anthony, he’s always been a great passer, but now his body is stronger than it was coming out of high school. He’s explosive getting to the basket. He’s become a good defender as well. There is no doubt that he has an NBA career ahead of him and he has a great basketball IQ.”
Nick Smith Jr.: “Nick is a terrific player. We recruited Nick, so I’ve known Nick and his family. Terrific family. Nick can score the ball, but he affects the game in other ways, too. He can get in the passing lane. He’s long. He plays very, very aggressively. He can create for others as well. He is a main focus. He is a guy we can’t let get off early against us, because he could have a big night. We know that.”
Arkansas Scouts Kansas
Here are a few thoughts from the Razorbacks on specific Kansas players…
Eric Musselman, on freshman guard Gradey Dick (14.3 pts., 40.4% 3PT):
“I don’t think there is any question that you got to stay attached to him. You have to keep your core defensive principles, but certainly your help off of him, especially on the strong side, you need to be concerned with that for sure. He does a great job with his pump fake game. He does a great job with backdoor cuts. He does an excellent job moving without the ball. And he’s a really good offensive rebounder. So there are a lot of factors when you guard Gradey Dick, a lot of factors that you gotta consider.”
Nick Smith Jr., on Gradey Dick:
“A lot of people don’t know he’s very athletic and he can get out on that break. If you let him, get going, he can get hot very quick. We just have to try to slow him down and try to have everybody else make plays for their team.”
Anthony Black, on redshirt junior guard Jalen Wilson (20.1 pts., 8.4 reb.):
“Jalen’s the Big 12 Player of the Year for a reason. He’s super talented. He can score in the post, with the 3 and just get to the bucket, really.”
Eric Musselman, on fifth-year senior guard Kevin McCullar (10.6 pts., 7.1 reb.):
“He’s a great cutter. I mean, that is the greatest compliment. If you turn your head and you don’t have your head on a swivel, he’s backdoor, dunk. He’s a great rebounder. He’s a tough, physical, loose ball getter. He’s a big part of what Kansas does.”
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