In case you’re wondering, there’s about 200 more days before Arkansas basketball returns.
That’s an inexact number because the 2022-23 calendar has yet to be filled in, but a bunch of us are already counting down the days until we can start counting down the days. Obviously there are promising baseball and football seasons between here and there, but at the moment, my mind is still on the hardcourt.
After last year’s run to the Elite Eight came to an end, I found my thoughts centered on the past, the conjoining fiber of Arkansas basketball that runs through most of my life, connecting Joe Kleine to Jaylin Williams, my 6-year-old self to my 6-year-old daughter.
Last March, I think many of us felt the same bittersweet blues. We felt appreciation for the team that stirred our memories and brought us back to the place we knew we belonged, and thankful to be reminded of how much fun college basketball can be when the Hogs are playing to their potential – and beyond.
So when Baylor got the best of us last year, I didn’t feel any anger.
I can’t, however, say the same about last weekend’s 78-69 loss to Duke – and make no mistake, that’s a credit to the 2022 team. As Coach Eric Musselman put it in his postgame press conference, “the bar has been raised.”
Even though the season ended at the same point each of the last two years, this year’s run had a different effect. It left us hungry for more. It cemented our place, proved that there was no fluke, and that we won’t be going away any time soon. We won’t be a one-year wonder. We’re (re)building something.
Now, as I write, days after the conclusion of another stellar season, another stunning mid-year turnaround, another flirtation with the Final Four, I find myself thinking more about the future than the past. And I’m not the only one.
“As soon as I get out of here I’m going to start working on next year,” Musselman said Saturday night.
True to his word, less than 48 hours later, Arkansas secured the commitment of Anthony Black, a 6-foot-7, five-star point guard, the third McDonald’s All-American in next year’s recruiting class, which was already one of the most decorated in program history.
Then on Wednesday, he locked down Trevon Brazile, a highly athletic 6-9 freshman transfer from Missouri who finished third in the SEC in blocks last season despite playing only 22 minutes per game.
Each of the last two years, the Hogs have wrung the roster for every drop of talent it held, falling short only when the disparity was too great to overcome. Baylor went on to dominate its way to a national title in 2021, and it shouldn’t shock anyone if Duke did the same this year.
The Blue Devils are a team loaded with NBA talent; as many of four of their starting five could go in the first round of this year’s NBA draft, with two expected to be among the top 10. Meanwhile, Arkansas doesn’t have any sure-fire first-rounders, and yet, for long stretches of the game, we stayed with them. When Jaylin Williams was on the floor, we actually outscored them by three.
So what happens when we’re the ones with overwhelming talent and don’t have to make up the gap with hustle and grit?
We won’t have to wonder for long. With six incoming freshmen ranked among the nation’s top 100 players and three inside the top 20, the Hogs are getting a massive infusion of talent for next year – and that doesn’t include whatever further additions Musselman is able to add in the transfer portal.
But, as I’m trying to remind myself, before we wish away the present, we should probably pause to appreciate it.
Years from now, I imagine the 2021 team will live on in our memories as the one that brought about the resurrection of the program, that stirred the sleeping giant, and tipped off a new era of Arkansas basketball. It’ll likely be the team we remember that first showed us – or reminded us – what could be accomplished through sheer determination, defense, and a refusal to accept mediocrity.
But in that distant future, when we think back, I hope the 2022 team’s contributions won’t be overshadowed by what came before or whatever comes after, because if last season’s team is the one that put us back on the map, this year’s group solidified our place and the blueprint for how we do it.
After a pandemic limited our participation last year, the 2022 team is the one that put the volume back in Bud Walton. They gave us court-rushing levels of joy. They gave us a win over Kentucky in front of a deafening home crowd. They gave us Hard to Be Humble playing on national television in the home of the Golden State Warriors. They gave us our 11th trip to the Elite Eight. They gave us everything they had to give. And even if it wasn’t enough for a national championship, it was still enough. They’ll forever be the first team in the history of college basketball to beat the No. 1 team in the country in the regular season and the postseason.
For all the difficulties of late December and early January as they struggled to find an identity, it’s ironic that they may be the team that established the one that lasts. They showed us and demonstrated for future Razorback teams what can be accomplished by fully buying into a system, by taking pride in playing with ferocity, and that winning ugly always beats losing with style.
We are not where we are – with a future brighter than we’ve known in 25-plus years – without what they gave us over the last two months.
For years, watching the NCAA Tournament unfold as Arkansas sat sidelined, I wondered why we couldn’t get back to that ground we once held. I know I saw teams with less talent go on tournament runs – why wasn’t that us? I never arrived at a satisfactory answer until the teams of the last two seasons provided it.
Now we’ve got a coach and a culture that can mold good players and take them to the cusp of greatness. We have maximized the talent we have and each year fallen short only to the best team in the country.
There’s still a lot to be determined before next year’s roster comes together. There’s at least an outside shot that JD Notae and Au’Diese Toney could return. Jaylin Williams is seeing his name show up on NBA mock drafts after a strong tournament showing and could test the pro waters, and it’s a certainty that the transfer portal will lead to further comings and goings.
But whatever shape it takes, no matter how much talent abounds, the group that takes the floor late next fall would do well to learn the lessons provided by this one. I can hardly wait to see what this program will do when we don’t have to overachieve — but I hope that we continue to play like we have to.
There could be no better legacy for the teams that brought us to this point.
READ ALSO: 4th & 25: Trust in Muss. He’s Earned It.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.