Case for Arkansas vs Duke in 2023 as Biggest Game in Bud Walton History

JD Notae, Arkansas basketball, Arkansas vs Duke, Duke basketball
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

In five months, for just the fifth time ever, Arkansas and Duke will square off on the hardwood.

The Razorbacks will host the Blue Devils as part of the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge, it was announced Wednesday. The game is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. CT on Wednesday, Nov. 29.

“We are excited as a program to host such a storied program as Duke,” Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman said in a statement. “It’s a great opportunity for our fans to see a premier game in November.

“Our players and coaching staff have incredible respect for Duke’s history and current team. We recognize Duke will be a preseason number one team in many polls. What a great early test and challenge for our team prior to SEC play.”

It will be the first non-neutral site meeting between the two schools, who have split the previous four matchups — the most notable of which was the 1994 national championship that Arkansas won 76-72.

Most recently, Duke beat the Razorbacks 78-69 in the Elite Eight of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Their other matchups came in the 1990 Preseason NIT (Arkansas won, 98-88) and 1990 Final Four (Duke won, 87-83).

The ACC/SEC Challenge replaces the Big 12/SEC Challenge in which the Razorbacks had gone 4-5 over the previous nine years. It is going away as a result of the Big 12’s media rights deal including Fox Sports. ESPN will own all of the rights to SEC and ACC events beginning in 2024-25.

The exact channel will be announced at a later date, but the Arkansas vs Duke matchup will be televised on an ESPN platform.

Biggest Games in Bud Walton Arena History

A case could be made that Arkansas’ looming showdown with Duke is its biggest home game since moving into Bud Walton Arena in 1993-94.

It most likely won’t surpass the 1991 matchup with UNLV, which was a rare regular-season meeting between the AP No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams, but that game was played at Barnhill Arena.

Quite a bit would have to happen for November’s game against Duke to rise to that level. However, it is almost certainly the Razorbacks’ biggest non-conference game at their current home.

At least in recent memory, that title has probably belonged to a pair of games early in Mike Anderson’s tenure. Arkansas knocked off No. 20 Michigan on Jan. 21, 2012, for one of his first big wins as head coach and then lost to No. 6 Syracuse the following season, on Nov. 30, 2012.

When those games took place, excitement for Arkansas basketball had been revived by the return of Anderson, who had been a longtime assistant under Nolan Richardson. The vibes weren’t quite the same a few years earlier when the Razorbacks knocked off No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 7 Texas in the span of a week and those games can’t be discussed without memories of the disaster that unfolded afterward.

What’s different from the games in 2012, though, is there isn’t just hope that Arkansas may soon rise again. With a pair of trips to the Elite Eight and a Sweet 16 appearance the last three years, Arkansas basketball — unlike Texas football — is definitely back. The Muss Bus is rolling and fans don’t just expect to make the NCAA Tournament any more; they want a Final Four and national title.

The feelings around the program are similar to what they were in the 1990s, when Richardson had Arkansas basketball at the forefront of the sport with back-to-back title game appearances.

It was during that stretch when Bud Walton Arena hosted what was probably its biggest game ever: Arkansas vs Kentucky on Super Bowl Sunday in 1995.

That game was a top-10 showdown between two of the sport’s powerhouse programs and biggest personalities in Richardson and Rick Pitino, plus was played in front of 20,298 fans and a national television audience on CBS as the lead-in to the football game on ABC.

Arkansas was the reigning national champion and aiming to repeat with the likes of Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman, while Kentucky was led by eventual first-round pick in Tony Delk. It also lived up to the hype, as Thurman buried a jumper with 10.6 seconds left to lift the Razorbacks to a 94-92 win.

How Arkansas vs Duke Could Take that Title

That was the first and still the only top-10 matchup ever played in Bud Walton Arena. It was the Razorbacks’ last regular-season top-10 matchup anywhere until last season’s game against Creighton at the Maui Invitational.

Those are relatively rare events, especially for a program like Arkansas that wandered through the desert for more than two decades until Eric Musselman helped it find its way again.

In fact, Bud Walton Arena went 23 years without hosting a single ranked matchup, a drought that finally ended when the No. 20 Razorbacks beat No. 6 Alabama on Feb. 24, 2021. It has since happened four more times.

Not included in that was Arkansas’ upset win over No. 1 Auburn last year, as the Razorbacks were unranked at the time. However, with a record attendance of 20,327 — and the subsequent court storming — it probably has a case to be called the biggest win ever at Bud Walton.

Had the result flipped, it likely wouldn’t be in this conversation. Auburn, with all due respect, just doesn’t have the same cache as a Duke or Kentucky. That game was amplified simply because of the “No. 1” in front of its name.

That is why the 1995 Super Bowl Sunday showdown between Arkansas and Kentucky is probably still the biggest *game* ever at Bud Walton Arena.

For November’s game against Duke to push for that title, both teams probably need to not only be ranked, but ranked pretty high — and there’s a good chance that happens.

In ESPN’s latest “way-too-early” top 25 for next season, which was updated last week, Duke is No. 2 and Arkansas is No. 14.

With early-season matchups with No. 11 Arizona and No. 4 Michigan State, the Blue Devils could potentially ascend into the top spot. The Razorbacks, meanwhile, will play in the Battle 4 Atlantis the week before hosting Duke and could see a jump in their ranking with a good showing against the likes of Memphis, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas Tech and Villanova.

It also helps that Duke is one of the premier college basketball programs, even without Mike Krzyzewski, and could come to Fayetteville with a top-5 ranking. Throw in the fact that Musselman is now regularly dueling with new Duke basketball coach Jon Scheyer for five-star prospects on the recruiting trail and the matchup grows even more in significance.

Of course, the game itself must live up to the hype. What the teams go on to do in the regular season and postseason would also be important, but we don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight.

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For those not old enough to remember, here are highlights from that 1995 Arkansas vs Kentucky game:

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See how high Arkansas basketball is ranked in these late June 2023 power rankings:

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS…

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