Once Again, the Powers That Be Have a Vested Interest In Seeing Duke Beat Arkansas

Coach K

Nolan Richardson and his Arkansas Razorbacks rode the “no respect” mantra all the way to a 76-72 victory over media darling Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski in 1994 – and here we go again, only with Eric Musselman in Nolan’s chair, and a Final Four berth on the line in San Francisco after Thursday’s takedown of top-ranked Gonzaga.

Twenty-eight years ago, it was for the national championship. Saturday night, it will be to keep alive a shot at another national championship next week: either the second all-time for Arkansas, should the Hogs win twice more next week in New Orleans, or the sixth for Coach K and Duke as the veteran coach rides off into the sunset. CBS loves the latter story; they will tolerate the former.

CBS’ Gary Parrish admits to as much at the end of Thursday night’s “Eye on College Basketball” show when he discusses what a ratings bonanza that Krzyzewski in New Orleans would be.

Familiar Territory for Arkansas Basketball

The Arkansas basketball program seems to have lived in this “no respect” territory for longer than 28 years. In 1977, a one-loss Razorback team entering the 32-team-field NCAA Tournament was not given much notice. Unfortunately, it let a big lead get away against Wake Forest in Norman, Oklahoma, in the first round, and no one nationally would know just how good of a program Eddie Sutton had going in Fayetteville.

The next year, Arkansas had spent one week at No. 1 nationally, thanks to a good schedule and improvement among the top teams in the Southwest Conference (mainly Texas and Houston). The Hogs gained enough national credit to get an at-large berth after losing in the Southwest Conference semifinals and dispatched an easier first-round foe in Weber State. That pitted them against No. 2 ranked UCLA in Albuquerque in the Sweet 16. 

UCLA was the Duke-times-100 of college basketball then, a 10-time national champion just three seasons removed from its last title under legendary coach John Wooden, and two years removed from a Final Four with Wooden’s successor, Gene Bartow. Bartow bolted from LA quickly to create the Alabama-Birmingham program, so Wooden protege Gary Cunningham now was in the main seat in his rookie year, pressing and running fast like Wooden’s teams did.

They were led by future NBA forward David Greenwood and quick guards Roy Hamilton and Raymond Townsend. Arkansas stormed out to a 19-point lead in the first half behind Marvin Delph’s uncanny shooting (no 3-point shot then, or it would have been by 25 or more) and the Hogs’ usual good half-court defense. The last 20 minutes were frantic, though – shades of the year before against Wake Forest (or, modern day, like Baylor’s comeback from 25 down against North Carolina last week), with the officials seemingly eating their whistles while the Bruins literally clawed and chewed their way back in it. 

UCLA edged ahead 60-59. At some point, we learned later, Hog forward Jim Counce sarcastically asked the official handing him the ball for an inbounds play if he was purposely giving the West Coast powerhouse the game. He received an icy stare.

Arkansas regained its footing. UCLA’s long climb back took a lot out of the Bruins and the Hogs regained the momentum. They were headed to a comfortable 6- or 8-point margin when Sidney Moncrief went flying in for a finishing dunk and was viciously slammed by Greenwood at the basket. Tempers briefly flared, cooler heads prevailed, and Moncrief was knocked out of the game, but it was far too late to matter as the Hogs won 74-70. And the national audience (watching on the old MIZLOU or some syndicated network that carried the early games) got to learn just why Ron Brewer was known as boothead from Marvin Delph. (“Because his head’s shaped like a boot,” Delph said, of course).

Former Greatest Win in Razorbacks Basketball History 

That was, then, the greatest victory in Arkansas basketball history. It put Sutton’s program on the proverbial national map, and the Razorbacks followed it up two days later by surviving yet another big lead evaporating – credit to Boothead’s deft hands to deny Cal State-Fullerton even a last-moment shot, then tapping it forward to Counce running off in the other direction for a clinching layup, 61-58. 

That sent the Hogs to St. Louis, where they battled No. 1 Kentucky before falling 64-59 in the national semifinals. At least back then there was still a third-place game at the Final Four, where Boot delivered the top-of-the-key dagger to drop Notre Dame 71-69. (And, before Duke was Duke, the Blue Devils surprised everyone all the way to the title game before losing to Jack Givens and the Wildcats.)

The 1978 gathering at St. Louis may have been where the Final Four took off as a thing. Behind Kentucky, Notre Dame and Duke, Arkansas probably had the least Q Factor among the programs there. At least Al McGuire, the former Marquette coach who admitted his 1977 team avoided having to play the Hogs in the Midwest Regional on the way to his national title en route retirement, seemed to fall in love with Arkansas’s “Triplets,” which he named.

Beating the Top Rival of Duke Basketball 

It was McGuire, and NBC’s main voice Dick Enberg, who would witness Arkansas’s next greatest win, a 65-64 upset of No. 1 and unbeaten North Carolina and Michael Jordan in Pine Bluff in 1984. That Hog team with Olympians Joe Kleine and Alvin Robertson deserved a better fate at the end of the season; controversy swirled around some officiating calls late in Virginia’s 54-52 second-round tourney victory in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and New York media members covering the game were seeking a press conference with the officials to explain some late decisions, answers that never came. As a young reporter, I was merely amused at the accents and the vitriol. Point being, NCAA tourney officiating has always been controversial It didn’t just start last night:

Arkansas’s first trip back to the Final Four since Sutton and the “Triplets” went in 1978 ended in a 97-83 loss to Duke in Denver in 1990. The Hogs were a No. 4 seed that year, too. It was a tremendously taxing game that afternoon in mile-high altitude for both teams – from an 83-all tie in the final 4 minutes, Duke ran off with it while Richardson had to pull his fatigued starters with a minute still to play; they had nothing left to give. 

Razorbacks’ Effort Leads to Blowout for Coach K?

Duke had nothing left the next two days (being there at the team press conferences on Sunday, I’d never seen a squad so drained), and UNLV made a mockery of the title game, winning 103-73, denying Coach K a title once again in what had become regular appearances in the Final Four.

Duke and K finally broke through with back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992, stunning unbeaten UNLV in ’91, 79-77, and wiping out the Fab Five of Michigan in ’92 by 20 points. After giving way to a terrific North Carolina national champion in 1993, the Blue Devils were back in the title game in 1994.

And even the many Hog fans of today who weren’t born 28 years ago, or who were too young to have any memory of it, know well of Scotty Thurman’s 3-pointer with 50 seconds to play and all the other heroics; of Corliss Williamson and Corey Beck and Arkansas rallying from 10 down early in the second half where previous teams (like the 1991 UA team that should have won everything) would have gagged it all away; of Dwight Stewart momentarily fumbling the ball before quickly finding Thurman to beat the shot clock; of Ken Biley, a senior reserve, getting the nod from Nolan to start and defend the great Grant Hill for the first 3 minutes and holding him down, and Hill going on to commit nine turnovers that night. 

And now, our circle comes full to the same Grant Hill being courtside with longtime CBS analyst Bill Raftery and play-by-play man Jim Nantz (“Hello, friends) to call a game on Thursday night that now will join the UCLA and North Carolina games, just behind the national title win, among the greatest victories in Razorback basketball history.

The broadcasting trio, especially the analysts, sounded mostly like the Gonzaga broadcast crew. They brought out their refereeing expert Gene Steratore to forensically analyze two late fouls called on Gonzaga’s 7-footer Chet Holmgren (their consensus, of course, was they weren’t fouls). They found a missed call early that should have been a turnover to Gonzaga, rather than leading to a 3-pointer by the Hogs. They and a few of their studio heads on CBS or TBS placed, or attempted to place, into national fans’ minds the idea that Arkansas got the breaks to win, but maybe wasn’t deserving. However, more national commentators and writers we heard and read seemed to believe Arkansas was the better team, even with the handful of breaks cited. 

Meanwhile, who knows where the critical analysis of Gonzaga’s obvious “breaks” went?

The court lights weren’t even cool before CBS studio commentator Seth Davis, a Duke grad, was surmising the matchup on Saturday. Naturally, drawing Arkansas in the Elite Eight was better for Duke than getting Gonzaga, he said, despite the fact Duke beat Gonzaga 84-81 early in the year.

A Slanted View of Arkansas vs Duke

We shouldn’t begrudge Davis’ opinion? A journalist as well schooled as Davis, see, would typically looks at it from both sides: Where was the thought that perhaps Arkansas, too, benefited better from playing Duke, a freshmen-led squad that has often been defenseless and offensive-focused this season, rather than the much more physical, quick and defensively stout Texas Tech? 

Davis, of course, isn’t viewing things from that direction. Not many seem to. Raftery, moments before Thursday’s tipoff, literally sounded like he might need a change of underwear while he overenthusiastically glowed about the coaching acumen of Gonzaga’s Mark Few.  After the game, we heard nothing from Raftery about the masterful in-game coaching and game plan from the Hogs’ Musselman. Fortunately for CBS (and TBS), the network has enough talking heads (sans Davis) in its studio to form the opinion that, indeed, they’d witness a fantastic plan executed to perfection. 

We know the love affair with Coach K as his career winds down is guaranteed to continue. We fully expect CBS to have camera angles galore with assorted replays every time a call goes against the Blue Devils on Saturday night. Should Arkansas win, expect to feel the chagrin from the broadcasters as it unfolds. Arkansas will head to New Orleans re-ranked among the final four teams as No. 4, certainly. 

And if Duke rolls on? The reaction will be: Of course they would. This Duke basketball team will be expected to usher K out with one more crown, the way UCLA did for Wooden in 1975. 

Oh, a last historical note on that: The classy, genuine and humble Wooden, whom I was fortunate enough to meet at the 1980 SWC tournament in San Antonio, announced his retirement between games at 1975 Final Four. He didn’t go on a season-long parade of adulation the way Coach K has. Nor did he go on a woe-is-me tangent about the extra “pressure” such an announcement put on his players heading into this tournament, and how well the Blue Devils have dealt with all this extra pressure he apparently doesn’t see he put on them. 

Gary Parrish and Kyle Boone, to their credit, point out that lack of self-awareness after the 25:30 mark below:

You know Eric Musselman is eating this “lack of respect” up. You know Nolan Richardson is laughing about it, how little the dynamic has changed in 28 years. You know that, somewhere, somehow, the late Eddie Sutton is smiling. Of course, it takes more than the “no respect” motivation; the players have to execute, which Arkansas has done many times over.

Here’s an idea for the ESPN or CBS producers who care so much about ratings: Go dig up footage of Detroit columnist and author Mitch Albom for a revisit of the day before the 1994 Arkansas vs Duke title game when he predicted Duke, the “the smarter team,” would win.


Arkansas vs Duke Preview

Below is some insight from CBS’ Matt Norlander on the game (yes, I realize the irony of going back to a CBS analyst here, but Norlander [like Parrish] is one of those commentators with a consistently more objective outlook on matters):

“You got to figure Jaylin Williams probably matches up on Mark Williams because those are two traditional bigs. Paolo Banchero continues to be a mismatch, though. Now, to be fair to Arkansas, there was no proper matchup for anyone on Arkansas’s roster against Chet Holmgren. They just got him into foul trouble. Paolo Banchero’s a different kind of big, though. Can they try to take it at Banchero and try and get him into similar foul trouble the way that Holmgren? Sure.”

On JD Notae vs Jeremy Roach

“Jeremy Roach has been a good player throughout the season. He has found another level. It’s no coincidence here that Duke is still alive in this tournament, and it’s not just because Banchero’s been an awesome one-and-done player. It’s because Wendell Moore Jr. is steady. It’s because Roach is hitting big shots, and he’s unafraid.

“…Jeremy Roach is not afraid of this moment whatsoever. He wanted the ball. He commanded it. He took the shots. And they’re taking good shots there. Arkansas will want to run. I think Duke would oblige them. I think there’s a decent chance that this game can be in the high 70s and the 80s.”

“I would give Duke a slight edge because Banchero seems like a huge X factor, but I can’t wait for the JD Notae, Jeremy Roach, head-to-head battle. I think that’ll be a fantastic backcourt matchup.”

More on Arkansas basketball here:

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