Arkansas vs Kansas Is a Should-Be Rivalry That Begs for More

Eric Musselman, Bill Self, Arkansas vs Kansas
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Kansas Athletics

Who would have imagined that Arkansas and Kansas, which played their last football games of the 2022 college football season against each other, would be matched on the basketball court as well on Saturday, where one team will end its year and the other will carry momentum into the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16?

Most of the nation would expect Arkansas’ football team in any year to beat Kansas, and they did in December, but in a wild one that went three overtimes. Most of the nation also would expect traditional blue blood Kansas in basketball to usually beat the Razorbacks. Rare is the game between the two that Arkansas has gone in as the favorite. They’re not favored Saturday either.

But we could see Saturday’s matchup in the West Regional second round in Des Moines, Iowa (yes, that makes little sense), going about like the AutoZone Liberty Bowl did back on Dec. 28: Arkansas grabs control in the first half, gives a little as it usually has all season in the second half, but this time seemingly has control the way it did in an impressive victory Thursday over Illinois in the first round, 73-63. 

However, with Kansas’ talented and tall guard Gradey Dick able to score from anywhere and equally rangy Jalen Wilson driving relentless to the hoop for baskets and drawing fouls – while Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman plays the percentages and the expected possessions remaining and tries to run out the clock with his isolation offense – the West Regional top-seed Jayhawks make a furious rally in much the same way its football counterparts did in Memphis. They take the game to overtime. Everyone is freaking out on both sides.

Maybe if Devo “Mr. March” Davis then can emulate the Hogs’ quarterback, KJ Jefferson, and have a perfect overtime (even if it runs three OTs), the 3-point underdog Razorbacks will shock the college basketball world Saturday.

Would it be that shocking, though? 

Recent History of Defending Champs

Five of last six NCAA champions have been eliminated in the second round, culminating with Baylor falling in OT last year to eventual tourney finalist North Carolina, an 8 seed, before a wild and partisan Bears crowd in Fort Worth, Texas, in much the same fashion as I just described how Arkansas vs Kansas might go.

North Carolina stormed ahead by 25 points, only to see the officiating crew go blind in the last 10 as Baylor frantically pressed its way back into the game to force OT. The massive comeback may have drained the region’s top-seed Bears for the extra period, though, and unheralded UNC survived and somehow reached the Final Four. Then, after shocking Duke, which had eliminated Arkansas in the Elite Eight, the Tar Heels only fell on championship night to Kansas when a last shot missed.

The sixth team among those previous defending national champions since 2016, Virginia in the 2020 season, was unable to defend because of the March arrival everywhere of COVID-19 and college basketball being canceled before the NCAA field was even announced. When the tourney returned in 2021, the Cavaliers still managed to make an early exit, bowing out in the first round to 13th-seed Ohio. That seems to be their M.O. other than the 2019 title year.

Villanova, under the now retired and relaxed Jay Wright, won in 2016 and 2018 and in both followup years the Wildcats were second-round exits. Roy Williams’ last title team at North Carolina, the 2017 squad that benefited from some luck and magical late game officiating against both Arkansas and Kentucky on the way to beating Gonzaga in the championship game, took a second-round exit in 2018.

Previewing Kansas Basketball

Bill Self, the Kansas head coach, may not even be on the sideline Saturday, having just come off a heart procedure more than a week ago that forced him to sit out the Jayhawks’ runner-up finish in the Big 12 Tournament and KU’s first-round romp Thursday over 16-seed Howard, 96-68.

As Musselman said Friday, though, the Kansas basketball program “is a well-oiled machine.” The Jayhawks and fill-in coach Norm Roberts know who their starting five is, and Musselman conceded Friday that it’s very well the best starting five in college basketball. The help the Jayhawks get from their bench is mostly in error-free, solid minutes spelling the stars. The points come from the starters, and especially junior forward Wilson (20 points, 8.4 rebounds a game) and the 6-8 freshman Dick (14 points a game, 40% on 3-pointers), with guards Kevin McCullar (transfer from Texas Tech) and Dajuan Harris providing solid play on both ends. Harris has 219 assists on the year. 

Inside, at just 6-foot-7, sophomore K.J. Adams Jr. still connects on 63% of his shots. Don’t put Wilson, Dick or McCullar on the foul line, especially late, as they all hit better than 77%. Wilson has gone to the free-throw line 188 times.

Kansas only turns the ball over 12.3 times a game. Arkansas needed every one of Illinois’ 18 turnovers on Thursday, and there are nights the Hogs are apt to turn it over that many or more times, especially when carelessness seeps into all the guards. 

That might be the only difference in the teams: Kansas’ valuing of the basketball vs. Arkansas’ too-often wild passes and dribbling crazily through traffic in a display of showy play.

Musselman admitted Thursday night after the win, in a question that referred to a few low basketball IQ plays late that let Illinois once again make a quick run to within 5 points, that he allows his players a lot of freedom on the offensive end – for better or worse. What he expects is outstanding defense and a big effort on the boards. That combination has helped the Hogs to 21 wins and a shot for the third year in a row at a No. 1 seed. 

Musselman had five days to prepare a perfect game plan to negate much of Gonzaga’s strengths and eliminate the Zags last year in the Sweet Sixteen, when their West Regional trip really was out west. His team battled top-seed Baylor in 2021, when the entire tourney was staged in Indianapolis, in the Elite Eight but never could get over the hump in the final 20 minutes in losing to the eventual national champions. The 9-point margin, though, was Baylor’s tightest game in the tournament. 

Comparatively, this Arkansas basketball team without Nick Smith Jr. at the time, let a victory slip out of its hands at Baylor in late January, 67-64. The Hogs trailed by 11 early and led by 8 in the second half. Earlier that week, Baylor beat Kansas on the same floor 75-69 (and lost a month later in Lawrence 76-61).

Keys to Victory for Arkansas Basketball

Big 12 rival Texas appears to be the squad that’s solved Kansas best this year, winning by 16 at home and 20 in the Big 12 final in Kansas City, when Self was at home convalescing and with assistant Roberts in charge. Before that, KU won a high-octane thriller 88–80 over Texas in January.

The TV experts seem to believe that a team needs to play at a slow place to have a chance against the Jayhawks. Arkansas’ Ricky Council IV, taking a brief look ahead Thursday after helping lead the Hogs past Illinois, hinted that the teams’ paces are similar and the Hogs might be more in tune to playing uptempo with KU. No question that’s the game Council, of all the Hogs, wants to play.

It might be Kansas that needs to slow down Arkansas, though. Get Arkansas into a half-court game, play man-to-man and force Arkansas into what appears to be its only offense: pick-and-roll or isolation. In one-on-one isolation against Illinois, Devo Davis threw in some unbelievable shots, including a couple of 3s in crunch time. Nick Smith Jr., on the other hand, went 2 of 10 with 0 assists (and 0 rebounds). He’s 3 of his last 20 shooting the ball after a terrible second half in the SEC tourney against Texas A&M, when the Hogs blew a 13-point halftime lead. Allowing Arkansas to run out and get fastbreaks regularly isn’t a recipe for beating the Hogs. Guys like Council, Smith, Davis and Anthony Black thrive in that scenario.

The Hogs didn’t blow their 17-point second-half lead against Illinois, and even when they let a double-digit lead slip against an obviously talented Auburn team (which sped past Iowa in the first round in the Midwest Regional) in the SEC tourney, they composed themselves enough in the last 30 seconds to win, with Smith hitting the game-winner.

Musselman senses his team is continuing to improve. It’s easy to forget 11 of the 13 players joined this roster in the offseason, and six are freshmen.

Only three freshmen, meanwhile, play for Kansas with only Dick starting. Sure, the Hogs blew a lot of second-half leads this season on the way to 13 losses, but the college basketball experts have continued to say that Arkansas was not a team you wanted to draw in the NCAA Tournament. 

History says that is the kind of team that will send another No. 1 defending national champ packing early. Like Baylor getting maybe an underachieving North Carolina in the first weekend last season, or even like an unbeaten Wichita State drawing on the first weekend a young but blossoming powerhouse in Kentucky a few years back. Wichita State wasn’t a defending champ, but it was a horrible draw for a highly ranked squad to get Kentucky when it was pulling in the nation’s best talent annually.

And, while we’re on the Arkansas vs Kansas matchup …

Arkansas vs Kansas History

Someday, somebody in the athletic department offices of both schools need to get together and match these teams up, both in football and basketball, in the regular season. Throw baseball in there as well. 

Arkansas many years ago would open its season with Kansas, when KU was already a decades-long powerhouse with the likes of JoJo White and Arkansas wasn’t even dreaming of the kind of basketball success it would realize starting with Eddie Sutton.

In fact, Sutton got Kansas on the Arkansas schedule in the 1976-77 and 77-78 seasons, won both games, and the first one, in Lawrence, was the road win that first caught the national experts’ eyes of The Triplets. That Hog team went 26-2, shattered by an opening-round loss in the NCAA Tournament. The next year, in Little Rock, Eddie’s Hogs won a titanic battle with KU’s very tough big men, and a tough schedule hardened the Brewer-Delph-Moncrief-Counce bunch to survive UCLA in the tourney and reach the Final Four.

Nolan Richardson also got the Jayhawks on the schedule twice, including a monumental win in Barnhill Arena for his program over Danny Manning, coach Larry Brown and KU in 1986-87. He’d catch KU again, in 1991 in Charlotte when Roy Williams had taken over a probation-riddled KU program after Larry Brown, and those great Hogs of Lee Mayberry, Todd Day and Oliver Miller (who we didn’t know was playing with a groin injury, limiting his effectiveness) blew a 12-point halftime lead, were outscored by the smaller but quicker Jayhawks 58-34 in the second half, and lost by double-digits in the Elite Eight. This was a No. 2 ranked Hog team that, had they kept their composure in the second half, very likely would have faced upstart Duke for the national title a week later, the same Duke they had beaten by 10 points in NYC back in November.

Bill Self was all of Arkansas fans’ favorite to replace Richardson in 2002 after UA athletic director Frank Broyles and Chancellor John White ushered the championship-winning coach out of his job. But, despite the rumors that continue to fly some 21 years later that Self had accepted Broyles’ offer of the job, that’s not true and the hiring was not going to happen. Not then, anyway. Self was at Illinois, and he’d soon replace Williams at KU in 2003 and continue that program’s college basketball dominance going on two decades.

But irony of ironies, when Self and KU did go up against the Hogs in 2005, Arkansas was led by Richardson’s successor, Stan Heath. And Heath’s Hogs shocked the Jayhawks 65-64 in an early-season tournament in Maui.


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