It has been more than 26 years since the Arkansas Razorbacks were at the peak of the NCAA, winning the crown in the 1994 season in the tenure of Nolan Richardson. The team enjoyed a magical ride deep into the NCAA Tournament, beating stout foes like the Michigan Wolverines on their way to the Final Four.
The Razorbacks powered past the Arizona Wildcats before a showdown against Duke in the NCAA Championship Game. Richardson’s side had enough to edge past their fancy--pants opponents, who featured future seven-time NBA All Star Grant Hill in their line-up. They secured a 76-72 victory in hostile territory in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Corliss Williamson put in a series of excellent performances in the tournament to be named Most Outstanding Player. Williamson raised the level of his game to defeat Duke, scoring 23 points in the triumph. Scotty Thurman and Corey Beck also notched clutch performances to allow Arkansas to claim the first and only crown in their history.
Arkansas came so close to repeating their success in the following season, which saw continued brilliance from Williamson. Richardson’s men produced a brilliant comeback to overcome the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Final Four, only to be beaten by the UCLA Bruins in the title tilt. Since then, their trips to the NCAA Tournament have only known disappointment.
Since that era, March Madness magic has escaped the Razorbacks. Richardson, Stan Heath, John Pelphrey, and Mike Anderson have all attempted to revive the fortunes of the team. The last major run came under Richardson’s tenure in 1996, reaching the Sweet 16 stage. Since then, Arkansas hasn’t advanced past the second round.
Eric Musselman is the latest man to have been tasked with guiding the Razorbacks to the days of old when they could compete with NCAA’s best. There has been enough promise halfway through his first campaign to suggest that a return to the NCAA Tournament could be on the horizon this season — although they will be outsiders in the betting odds in March Madness,. As of late January, Arkansas is generally projected to be one of the lower seeded teams in the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
Musselman inherited a team that finished with an 18-16 record overall in the 2018-19 season, and their performance was even worse in the SEC posting an 8-10 performance. Anderson was fired as a result of his side’s decline during his tenure. He had shown promise in spells at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Missouri Tigers, guiding the former to the Sweet 16 stage and the latter to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
However, Anderson was never able to lift the Razorbacks beyond the second round. Last season was the final straw as the team failed to even reach the NCAA Tournament, instead competing in the National Invitation Tournament.
Now, under Musselman, Arkansas appears back on the path to success, winning 14 out of their first 18 games. The Hogs have overcome a lot to get to this point, including transfers from Keyshawn Embery-Simpson and an early jump to the NBA by Daniel Gafford which has left a gaping hole in Arkansas’ front court.
All of the returning players have improved. Before recent struggles in SEC games, Isaiah Joe had taken the next step in his development. In his first 15 games, the 20-year-old averaged 18.2 points per game while showing improved defense.
He produced the best display of his young career in the Razorbacks’ win over Ole Miss in January, putting up 34 points on the board due to his efficiency from distance. Mason Jones has also provided an impact, leading Arkansas in points per game with 19.3. Jones made an impact from the off against Rice and more notably in a 41-point outing against Tulsa. There is a lot to like about his performances over the course of the season.
Jimmy Whitt has been a solid addition following his transfer from SMU. He’s been a solid third wheel with Joe and Jones. Arkansas will need those players to remain at that level throughout the rest of the regular season if Arkansas wants to win the 10 SEC games it will likely need to make the NCAA Tournament.
The Hogs have been a pleasant surprise this season as many experts predicted before the campaign that they would struggle in the SEC, ranking 11th out of 14 teams in a pre-season poll. However, they’re well on course to surpass those expectations courtesy of their strong start. Whether they are able to sustain it when they face elite competition is another matter. Arkansas has beaten Indiana on the road, but lost to Kentucky on the road.
If the Hogs can win the rest of their games at home, and pick off a game or two on the road, they should maintain their current projection of making the NCAA Tournament. Their competitive play in losses to LSU and Kentucky suggests they could make it as far as the second or third round if they get favorable matchups. In the past, a single NCAA Tournament win may not have been seen as an achievement. But in Year 1 of the Musselman era, it certainly would show that the Hogs are trending in the right direction.