It’s hard to find a national pundit that doesn’t favor UConn to beat Arkansas in Thursday’s Sweet 16 game in Las Vegas. All six of these experts for The Athletic [paywall] pick the Huskies in Arkansas vs UConn while all three of these ESPN analysts do the same. I find myself agreeing with them but not for the same reasons.
For the national media, it’s the whole (mostly) “East coast bias” thing. Sure, The Athletic is headquartered in San Francisco but it has an office in New York. ESPN is located in Bristol, Conn., etc. They still remember legendary Jim Calhoun patrolling the sidelines scowling and Khalid El-Amin running the point while Richard Hamilton slashes to the hoop. Those guys are long gone, but it’s that mystique that current head coach Danny Hurley’s success has triggered once again.
Hurley is no Eric Musselman, and this UConn basketball roster isn’t comparable to Calhoun’s 1999 national championship team. No way. I don’t see UConn making it past this weekend, either.
Unpopular Arkansas vs UConn Take Alert
The reason I agree with the prevailing UConn over the Hogs sentiment and have since I saw the bracket early on Selection Sunday is because I have followed this Arkansas basketball team all season. It isn’t the juggernaut I and others predicted it to be. Few of the talking heads have mentioned the Hogs as the sexy pick to make a deep run in this tournament.
In fact, Arkansas backed into the tournament losing four of its final five games leading up to March Madness. In that five piece, there was a great effort at Alabama, in which Arkansas had the Crimson Tide on the ropes but ultimately fell 86-83. The big disappointment was losing to Kentucky on senior day, 88-79, in the regular-season finale.
Arkansas did rebound to beat Auburn in the SEC Tournament but then lost to Texas A&M, 67-61, the following day.
Inconsistency. It was the theme of the season. Without big man Trevon Brazile for most the year and projected NBA lottery pick Nick Smith Jr missing a good chunk of it, the Razorbacks were up and down. Case in point was trampling on Kentucky in Lexington and then losing to the Wildcats at home.
Still, I loved Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament draw – at least for the first weekend. An average Illinois team and then perennial power Kansas. Visions of 9 seed Northern Iowa knocking the No. 1 ranked and top-seeded Jayhawks off in Oklahoma City in the second round of the 2010 tournament danced in my head. There have been some tournament hiccups for KU head coach Bill Self during his successful tenure, and I didn’t see any way the defending champion Jayhawks were going to repeat, so I went with my gut.
Arkansas put together one of the better second halves of the season in a comeback win and junior Davonte ‘Devo’ Davis turned in a performance to remember shocking the Jayhawks who were without Self, who was recovering from a heart procedure.
Downside of All the Arkansas Basketball Celebrating?
That was a huge win and a celebration was definitely warranted. However, with Musselman running around shirtless and players breaking down in tears, it seemed like the Hogs were basking in their ‘one shining moment’ early instead of having the look of a team that is a serious Final Four contender.
There are still two huge games to play to even get to the Final Four, which should be every one of the 16 remaining teams’ goals at this point. But you kind of got the feeling in the postgame that beating KU in Des Moines was the pinnacle for this team. The tournament is a long run, and while emotions do run high in the one-and-done format, it’s virtually impossible to run hot emotionally during the entire tournament.
So, while those wearing Razorback red-colored glasses see a team getting hot and coming together at the right time, I am leery that a letdown is coming for a team that has only once won more than four games in a row all season (and three of those teams Arkansas beat during an early-season 7-game winning streak were Troy, San Jose State and UNC-Greensboro).
UConn Basketball Keys
The Huskies really impressed in the nonconference season with wins over Oregon, the NCAA Tournament No. 1 overall seed Alabama and Iowa State at the Phil Knight Invitational and entered Big East Conference play undefeated. However, the Huskies finished league play only 13-7. The Big East was good this year with 2 seed Maquette, who got bounced in the Round of 32 by Michigan State, and Creighton, also a Sweet 16 team, among others.
Junior big man Adama Sanogo, a 6-foot-9, 245-pounder, has been hard for opponents to handle as he has averaged 17.3 points and 7.5 rebounds. He will be the big problem spot for the Hogs with a depleted front court and a challenge for Musselman, who is a master at pregame preparation. What scheme will Arkansas deploy to slow Sanogo? That was St. Mary’s issue in the second round. Sophomore guard Jordan Hawkins averages nearly 16 points per game. He combines with senior Tristen Newton (10 ppg) to form a formidable backcourt.
Like I mentioned, this Huskies team won’t be confused for Calhoun’s, but the pick here is less about UConn (I’d take UCLA or Gonzaga to beat them in a regional final game) and more about Arkansas being able to take what they had in Des Moines and bring it to Sin City.
If Davis can’t replicate his magic, then who is going to step up? Can Nick Smith Jr, who struggled with foul trouble against KU, play like the lottery prospect he is? Can Ricky Council IV continue to be the stabilizing force he’s been? Will Arkansas be able to slow Sanogo?
Look, I’m not what the kids call a “hater.” There’s simply too many questions and what-ifs for me. If Arkansas plays like it did in Des Moines, it can beat UConn. Nobody denies this is a talented team with a great coach in Musselman. However, unlike many of you who will roll the dice in Vegas at the casinos, I’m not a gambler.
So, with Arkansas’ overall track record this season, I can’t pick the Razorbacks here. The odds say craps.
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