As much as I thought Arkansas might have had a chance to beat top-ranked Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, I didn’t really think it would happen.
When I filled out my bracket without a Hog hat on, I picked the Bulldogs to win. It seemed to be the objective thing to do. But then a funny thing happened in the Chase Center late Thursday – the Razorbacks won. No matter how many times people complained about the officials calling bad fouls on Chet Holmgren, Arkansas was clearly better than Gonzaga that night. The Hogs outshot them from the field, blocked more shots than the fearsome Gonzaga frontcourt, and had a nearly 2:1 advantage in turnovers. Since the officials (believe it or not!) called a lot more fouls on Arkansas, Gonzaga spent a lot more time in the bonus and had a big free throw advantage, but still it wasn’t enough.
That win was maybe the single most exciting win in Arkansas basketball history since 1995. Arkansas didn’t need Bud Walton Arena to knock off the team many picked to win the national title. No other team Arkansas could face in the tournament would be as respected as Gonzaga, so the sky was the limit.
For the next two days, fans were in a frenzy. We watched the remaining Sweet 16 games thinking about how different teams would match up with the Hogs, and some people started considering travel plans to New Orleans for the Final Four (finally a realistic travel option to see the Razorbacks this postseason for many Hog fans). I spent two days dealing with random bursts of adrenaline, standing up, cheering and flexing in celebration and anticipation.
Duke didn’t have the aura of a superteam the way Baylor did last year. The Blue Devils had already lost twice in March including their home finale with what felt like an entire arena of former players in the house to honor Coach K’s last game in Durham. Considering Arkansas had already beaten then top-ranked Auburn and top overall seed Gonzaga, there was no reason to fear any team. Every team should be respected, of course, but the Razorbacks had given us reasons to be confident against any opponent this year.
Unfortunately for Arkansas, the Blue Devils are hot. Until Saturday night, Arkansas’ defense had feasted on forcing teams into taking bad shots, often from long range, but Duke didn’t take the bait. They only attempted 10 threes in the game, a season low for Arkansas opponents. Duke was able to get the ball into the paint seemingly at will, and the Hogs struggled to slow them down. Duke made several contested shots near the basket, and seven times when they missed, they got the offensive rebound. Duke finished the game shooting over 58% from inside the arc.
It’s very difficult to beat any team playing that efficiently. Arkansas was still able to largely play even with Duke, but a quick 8-0 Blue Devil run to close the first half after the Hogs had cut the lead to four points seemed to keep the game out of reach. The Razorbacks got to within five points in the second half, but then Duke went on another run and that was the game, and Arkansas’ season.
This Arkansas Basketball Team’s Place in History
For a long time it seemed foolish to compare this team to last year’s Elite Eight team, but based on the end result, it’s hard not to. While the 2021 team didn’t suffer the embarrassing losses to Hofstra and Vanderbilt early in the season, they also didn’t have anything close to the highs of this season. This year’s team:
- Beat #1 ranked Auburn;
- Beat #1 ranked Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament;
- Beat the best Kentucky team in a few years;
- Beat a Tennessee team that could’ve been a 2-seed;
- Beat LSU and Will Wade three times;
- Beat Florida in Gainesville for the first time since Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman.
This was a special run. The Razorbacks did all this without a first round NBA draft pick on the roster (at least for this year’s draft). The last 10 weeks or so have remarkable. The Razorbacks went from being on the wrong side of the bubble to earning a 4-seed and making the Elite Eight. Seasons like this don’t happen very often. These have clearly been the best two Razorback basketball teams in a generation, and future Arkansas basketball teams – starting with the most anticipated one in decades this fall – will be compared to them.
JD Notae finished with 660 points for the season – tied for 8th in Razorback history for a single year. The other player to finish with that number was Sidney Moncrief back in 1979. Jaylin Williams finished with 54 charges taken, and as a result could cement himself as a longtime fan favorite and biggest heel in the SEC if he comes back next season. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities for Williams’ future if he can add just a bit more polish to his offensive game.
But man, even without that polish, what a game. Against Duke, Arkansas might have lost the war, but he won this mano-a-mano battle with a future NBA Draft top 3 pick in high style.
Who’s Ready for Next Season’s Arkansas Team?
As great as this season was, the hype for the 2022-23 season began soaring last fall when 5-star players Nick Smith Jr. and Jordan Walsh joined Arkansas’ recruiting class. They joined a class that is now ranked #2 in the country only behind, aggravatingly enough, Duke. That part is all well-known. What still remains to be seen who will complement that buffo class in Fayetteville next season.
Last year’s transfers, specifically Jalen Tate and Justin Smith, chose to leave school instead of taking advantage of a bonus eligibility season due to the pandemic. A few notable Razorbacks, specifically Notae and Au’Diese Toney, have the option to return for another season. Either of them choosing to return would be a big boost for Arkansas. Notae, however, would likely need to share the ball more and get significantly fewer attempts. That may be too much for a first team All-SEC super senior to accept.
For a long time in college basketball, it’s been possible for any player to leave a team and go pro at any point. It felt like that was almost expected for any college player whenever he had a good season. It will be interesting to see how the new NIL rules impact those decisions. Previously, it might have made a lot more sense for a player to test things out overseas to make money since there wasn’t much to be made as an upperclassman in college. But now that players are earning potentially significant money through NIL, staying in school may be more appealing for some players than leaving the country. Since NIL deals like the one Notae has with a JB Hunt family-backed collective are largely private, it’s hard to say how much of an impact they’ll have, but we’ll get a sense of it soon.
The roster will fill out pretty quickly. Arkansas is still recruiting a third 5-star player, point guard Anthony Black, who is set to announce his decision today (the 28th). A number of players throughout the country have already announced they’re entering the transfer portal, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if some of the Razorbacks who didn’t play as much this season entered the portal as well. Eric Musselman said he was going to start working on next season as soon as he got out of the Chase Center Saturday night, so we know he’s already figuring out how to fill those spots.
After consecutive Elite Eight trips, the goal for next year will likely be to move beyond that and return to the Final Four. Final Fours and championships are the only thing Musselman hasn’t yet returned to Razorback basketball, but it feels like he’s almost got the pieces to do it. That may not be a fair expectation. Plenty of teams with higher-rated recruits failed to make the Elite Eight this season. Kentucky didn’t even make it out of the first round. The unexpected always happens in the NCAA Tournament, but that shouldn’t change the goal, and the goals are clear.
Only seven-ish months until tipoff in November! I guess there’s still baseball and football, if you’re into that sort of thing.
(Image by USA Today)