These 6 Teams Would Be Better Madison Square Garden Foes for Arkansas than Michigan

Eric Musselman, Jon Scheyer, Dan Hurley, Arkansas basketball, Madison Square Garden
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Duke Athletics / UConn Athletics

Arkansas basketball landing John Calipari as its head coach trained a national spotlight on Fayetteville, as the Naismith Hall of Famer is one of the biggest names in the sport. To Calipari, it’s all about the brand – and what a symbol he’s made for himself and his schools over the years.

At Kentucky, he frequently scheduled high-profile non-conference matchups that boosted the Wildcats’ resume and, most importantly, put them on the national stage as often as possible. The Kentucky basketball program already had plenty of cachet, but Calipari’s work took it to an even higher level.

It appears Calipari will continue that strategy at Arkansas given how he’s discussed playing in big neutral site venues next season.

“Most of the stuff is done of who we’re playing, and then there may be one team that I try to do a home-and-home with,” Calipari said on Wednesday. “But we’re going to play in Little Rock. We’re going to play in Dallas. You need national games. You’ve got to play in Madison Square Garden.”

That’s a stance Coach Cal has been firm on throughout his career. During his time at Memphis, he used that same verbiage when explaining why he made the decision to phase out the Tigers’ rivalry with Arkansas.

“We have to play national games,” Calipari told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2002. “You can’t play regional games if you’re being a national program. We don’t need Arkansas to sell out our building.”

Ouch. Fortunately, time heals all wounds and is also a flat circle, as Calipari is now donning Razorback red pullovers and traveling the country to draw recruits to Arkansas.

Arkansas Basketball Gets a “Meh”ize & Blue Foe

It appears that matchup in the Garden will be a date with the Michigan Wolverines in the Jimmy V Classic, according to Jon Rothstein.

That showdown produces plenty of intriguing storylines between two historic programs that were powerhouses in the 1990s. 

First of all, both teams will be sporting first-year head coaches in Calipari and Dusty May. An interesting reunion will happen, as Florida Atlantic transfer turned Arkansas guard Johnell Davis will be matched up against his former coach in this game, as May moved to Ann Arbor from FAU. He’ll also play against his former teammate, Vlad Goldin.

Over at the esteemed, traditional journalism powerhouse that is “brobible,” there is even some rumor-mongering around this game that tries to make Davis look bad.

The Arkansas basketabll program is 3-4 in its last seven meetings against Michigan, with the last one coming in December of 2012, when the Hogs lost to the No. 3 Wolverines on the road. Back in 1994, Arkansas beat Michigan in the Elite 8 en route to its first national title. Three years later, Michigan got revenge in the semifinals of the NIT at, you guessed, Madison Square Garden.

While the Maize and Blue haven’t made much noise in recent years, they’ll be hoping May can right the ship. The matchup will draw plenty of eyeballs and this is no doubt a big coup for Michigan basketball.

Yes, the Hogs have a little history with Michigan, including the above statement early in the Mike Anderson era. But man, this could have been so much better. Hog fans will be forgiven for speculating on what could have been a juicier opponent in the Big Apple:

Familiar Faces in Different Colors in New Big Ten Clash

“Eric Musselman vs. John Calipari” has never failed to deliver the goods from an entertainment standpoint, and there’s nothing to think that their changing teams would change that. How much fun would it have been to see the new Head Hog face off against his predecessor?

It’s a long flight from Los Angeles to New York, but it’s one the Trojans will have to get used to as they move into the Big Ten, which includes east-coast schools like Rutgers, located in New Jersey.

What better way to get used to that jet lag than to face off against the Hogs in the Garden? This would certainly be one of those “imagine if you were in a coma for 12 months and woke up to this” matchups. We’ll believe it when we see it – whenever that time comes.

No More Exhibitions This Time

Let’s do it for real this time, huh? The Hogs got the better of Purdue in the world’s coolest exhibition matchup last season, but it unfortunately didn’t count for anything in the grand scheme of things.

Purdue came up just short in the Big Dance last year, finishing as the national runner-up, and there’s the literally and figuratively massive hole left behind by the departure of Zach Edey. That makes the Boilermakers vulnerable, but they’re still going to be a solid team. This would be a fun showdown between two big but growing brands.

Dancing with the Devils Again

That was fun last year, right? Come on, you knew Duke had to be on this list. The Hogs and Blue Devils have had a storied history in their handful of meetings over the years, from the 1994 National Championship Game to the most recent court-storming affair from last season.

Duke once again boasts the nation’s top recruiting class, with numerous five-star recruits including No. 1 overall prospect Cooper Flagg and 7-foot-1 international big man Khaman Maluach. 

If Calipari’s Hogs were to square off with Jon Scheyer’s Blue Devils, you’d have everything you want from a non-conference matchup – talent on the floor, storied programs with beef and a perfect venue.

You got to think Duke would have been rarin’ to tie up the all-time series again after falling behind 2-3 the last time out.

Same Beef, Different Blue Blood

Speaking of shots at revenge, Arkansas needs its comeuppance against the Dukies’ rivals down the road. A matchup with North Carolina would spell a potential chance at long-delayed vengeance for Arkansas after losing the five straight in the series. At last season’s Battle 4 Atlantis, the Tar Heels got the better of the Hogs in an 87-72 victory.

The showdown in the 2017 NCAA Tournament also can’t be forgotten. That meeting ended with a North Carolina victory after some officiating decisions that were so bad it led the Arkansas Senate to pass an official resolution condemning the referees.

The Hogs’ last victory over the Tar Heels came in 1995 with Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman, Dwight Stewart et al doing work in the Final Four. The chance for some payback in the Garden would make for appointment television.

Running Headfirst into the UCONN Buzzsaw

Connecticut has become an absolute machine in college basketball, as Dan Hurley’s Huskies have bulldozed through back-to-back NCAA Tournaments, making the most difficult knockout competition in sports look easy. One of the victims of those beatdowns was, of course, Arkansas in the 2023 Sweet 16 as the Razorbacks swiftly came down from the high of their upset over Kansas with an 88-65 loss.

The Huskies have reloaded heading into next season, and will be looking to win the first three-peat since John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins. If you’re looking to build your brand, what better stage than to square off with the two-time reigning champs?

Cal’s Kentucky teams lost their last three times against UConn, including two Final Four knockouts, so you know he’s ready to reclaim some pride there.

Reunion with Memphis for Arkansas and Calipari

Why not get this matchup going again? Maybe Calipari’s had a change of heart over the last couple decades, and will decide that this sorry little regional rivalry deserves to be revived. Seeing Coach Cal and Penny Hardaway coaching against each other would be a riveting watch, especially given Calipari’s time at Memphis.

Hardaway seems to be down for it, at least.

“I think that we can finally get Cal to play us over at Arkansas,” Hardaway said. “The Arkansas fans want the game.”

For Hardaway, it would have been a chance to show out again in the home of the Knicks, where he spent three seasons on the back end of his career. 

Now, fans of both programs will hope that Arkansas vs Memphis comes together as a home-and-home matchup.

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Listen to the full interview with Calipari from Wednesday:

John Nabors’ take on the Hogs in the Garden:

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More coverage of Arkansas basketball from Best of Arkansas Sports:

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