On occasion during these past couple of charmed basketball seasons, some of Arkansas’s losses might’ve looked prettier than a few wins have.
No question that the Hogs’ second-game dogfight against New Mexico State rated as the sloppiest game of the tourney. The 53-48 Razorback win featured a winner that made all of 14 field goals the entire 40 minutes.
That’s illogical. It’s not possible, many might contend.
But Arkansas’s secret, boring weapon all year — the free throw — served them well again. The Hogs outscored the Aggies there, 22-6, and that neutralized a far more spirited NMSU team after halftime.
Of course, nits happen to be available for picking in games like that. JD Notae and Jaylin Williams struggled to finish at the rim and had some in-game mental lapses, but finished strongly. Neither Devo Davis nor Chris Lykes could energize the offense.
And Arkansas still clanged shot after shot. When this squad actually shoots something more within the realm of reason than 3-for-16, as it did from three Saturday night, it’s dangerous.
To beat top-seeded Gonzaga tonight in San Francisco, “dangerous” is likely all that will do.
Arkansas, which has never beaten a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, last played top dog as a No. 4 in the 1993 Sweet Sixteen. On the heels of the Day-Mayberry-Miller years, the retooled Hogs surprised many with early wins over Memphis and Arizona.
Corliss Williamson’s long-awaited freshman campaign hit an early snag with an injury that robbed him of nearly half that year. But fellow frosh Scotty Thurman emerged, and the Hogs shook off SEC inconsistencies nicely.
That Arkansas basketball team beat Holy Cross and St. John’s, setting up a date with prohibitive favorite and No. 1 seed North Carolina. And the so-called “Runts” (nobody on the roster stood taller than 6’9”) pushed the Tar Heels to the brink before falling, 80-74.
That Carolina team won the title ten days later thanks to its loaded roster and a Chris Webber mental gaffe.
Everyone around here knows what that deep run, and that vigorous threat of a titan, did to the program. A year later, the scene was refreshingly different. Those seemingly not ready, eight-loss Hogs of ’92-’93 were within a couple of late possessions of the Elite Eight. Last year, the Hogs ultimately provided Baylor’s toughest test, too, despite burying themselves early.
This team doesn’t have the offensive firepower across the board to recover from that kind of start. But it does have a head coach brimming with confidence in his ragtag roster:
Eric Musselman’s obsessive nature bleeds over to his team in the best way. As the Hogs’ SEC contemporaries floundered in the first 72 hours of the tourney, Arkansas just soldiered onward, aesthetics be damned.
So why should Gonzaga, which notably lost to Alabama in December and bricked 12 free throws, scare these guys?
Arkansas saw Teddy Allen rack up 37 for NMSU in its opening-game upset of UConn. Enter Au’Diese Toney, who shackled the transfer guard to the point that a trey in the final minute nudged Allen into double figures.
Toney’s hounding of Allen made him the consensus top player on a night where nobody shined offensively. It was, as astutely noted by my friend and colleague, Evin Demirel, a defensive masterpiece.
The Toney factor, along with Stanley Umude’s enhanced offensive contributions, mean that those two have effectively, amazingly done the job Justin Smith and Jalen Tate did a year ago. They are, to no one’s surprise, vigorous workers at both ends.
Toney’s smothering perimeter defense was large in the Hogs’ biggest SEC wins, and notably missed in its loss at Tennessee to finish conference play.
He’ll be busy with potentially three or four Zags players due to his versatility and wingspan. Expect him to help on Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren, too, while spying Andrew Nembhard and Julian Strawther near the arc.
He’s a quietly pivotal cog in the shadow of the kinetic Notae and do-everything Williams. And he’s symbolic of a team that now practically gobbles up the chance to be disregarded.
Oddsmakers slowly trended toward the Zags as the week wore on, again not shockingly. Arkansas now is ostensibly a double-digit dog.
That’s nothing to an enthusiastic group that, from the second week of January onward, genuinely rated among the best teams in the land. Arkansas is 17-3 in its last 20 games; Gonzaga’s a salty 19-1.
There’s no conceivable way a team that never gives up will suddenly do so tonight. There’s no way that a team that has shown more doggedness than any team in Razorback history in driving to the hoop, drawing fouls and cashing in on easy points at the line suddenly loses its bite. As Musselman implied, there’s no substitute for preparedness: after all, it’s led to the Razorbacks being the last SEC team standing for good cause.