In a matter of weeks, Arkansas’s two basketball programs took flight with such urgency and poise that, yes, Virginia, it started to feel like the 1990s around here all over again.
Eric Musselman’s men’s team lost a major rudder when Justin Smith’s injury in the conference opener shelved and limited him for a stretch of games that exposed all of the team’s weaknesses in stark relief. The senior post from Indiana got healthy again and has flourished as the team’s interior linchpin, while Moses Moody, Jalen Tate, J.D. Notae and Davonte Davis have operated deftly on the perimeter at both ends of the floor. The end result of the Hogs’ refocused efforts was a spotless February stretch that included Musselman’s first true “big” wins as head Hog, and they came in bunches, and with emphasis. When the Razorbacks bolted back from a deep early deficit against Auburn and then started to string together the close wins against aggravating rivals like Kentucky and Missouri, things got cooking. And then they exacted calculated revenge on Alabama and LSU, with a commanding Tier 1 win over tournament-bound Florida thrown in as well.
This team’s defensive prowess and effort, along with its unusual and newfound competency in the paint, keyed the 12-game SEC win streak that finally reached a dissatisfying end when the Hogs were listless against LSU in the conference tournament semifinals in Nashville. But that loss didn’t tarnish what was, by every objective measure, the program’s most successful campaign in over a quarter-century. Not only did the Hogs roll to a 22-6 overall record and 13-4 conference mark, they also managed to avoid the COVID-19 casualties that predictably wracked the sport the past few months. Only a brief absence of emerging freshman post Jaylin Williams the past couple of weeks (he’s ready to go for the NCAA tourney) and two total cancellations, namely Tulsa and one road game at Texas A&M, really affected the team’s burgeoning momentum the past several weeks.
What’s been most reminiscent of the Razorbacks’ halcyon years that we middle-agers prattle on about to our disinterested broods? You’ve got a charismatic superstar in Moody, who simply amplified his gameplay the last few weeks to the point that he should’ve taken the league’s Player of the Year trophy home along with the Freshman of the Year accolades he rightly earned. And he’s flanked by Smith, who has arguably been the most important player in the conference given how lost the team seemed without him, and an understated leader like Tate, he of the nifty teardrop floaters and easy demeanor at the point. Coming off the bench, Notae has had his best performances of the season late in the year after a bit of a midseason swoon, and Williams, Desi Sills, Connor Vanover, and of late, Ethan Henderson have all had their shining moments when the opportunities availed themselves.
Davis has been the head-turner for me, though. If you dare try to forge — and I’ll say “force” — a comparison between this team and those championship teams for any reason, it’s a fool’s errand. But Davis has the Corey Beck moxie that is hard to replicate in this day and age, and expectations and nostalgia associated with his name around here are totally fair when you consider that Davis is already a superior natural athlete to Beck and a bit more polished offensively. Plus, those long arms have been front and center in almost every pivotal moment of this charmed season, whether he’s plucking away Kentucky’s last pass or poking the ball away from a Missouri ball handler on a decisive possession.
Arkansas’s women have a similar catalyst in Amber Ramirez, but she’s not some greenhorn freshman who makes her living slashing through the paint. The senior transfer’s fifth season of collegiate basketball has been her best, and she has stood out in the team’s most important games for her deadly three-point proficiency (she’s nailed 75 of them at a near-45 percent clip) and defensive smarts. Chelsea Dungee’s scoring and Destiny Slocum’s playmaking have otherwise been the most notable elements of Mike Neighbors’ highly accomplished fourth squad (they’re 19-8 and secured a four seed in the NCAA tourney, which is likely where they would’ve landed last March had the season not been truncated due to the pandemic), but again, the Hogs’ best efforts have been those where balanced scoring was employed. Dungee, Slocum, Ramirez, and the ever-improving Makayla Daniels are all averaging double-figure point production for an offense that has been among the country’s most efficient when it has really clicked.
The unique advantage the women possess going into the San Antonio-exclusive event? No other team in the country can literally make the claim that they’ve beaten the best, as Neighbors’ group really cemented itself as a contender when they took down top-ranked UConn in late January at Bud Walton Arena, to date the only loss pinned on the ever-powerful Huskies. And, oh yeah, this team also put one of the two defeats on Baylor this fall, early in the year before the Bears took off as the class of the Big 12.
Here’s what is concerning for both teams, though, by contrast: The losses have been bewildering, and at times a shade too ugly. On the women’s side, the Hogs pushed Texas A&M twice before losing in a one-possession matter, but also had some garish defeats, specifically a couple of blowouts at the hands of South Carolina and Tennessee that obviously aren’t too embarrassing given those teams’ respective statures. Arkansas’s men lost by 31 to Alabama and got taken way out of rhythm twice by a dangerously talented yet underperforming LSU team, but again, those aren’t shameful losses by any measure. For Neighbors and Musselman, though, they both go into this tourney with the momentum of February having ebbed just a shade by exits from the SEC tournament.
But, really, of what consequence are those losses? Arkansas has never been terribly fond of the conference tournament at all, and the 1999-2000 team that won the men’s side after a 15-14 campaign promptly went to the NCAA tourney and showed the wear and tear of it, losing the opener to Miami. I continue to refer to the 1994 season very cautiously here, but kindly recall that the championship team’s absolute, undisputed worst game was its semifinal dud against Kentucky that basically allowed the team an extra day of rest and a chance to refocus. That’s how Nolan Richardson treated those SEC tournament defeats, and coaches of the caliber of Musselman and Neighbors understand that the conference tournament is a dress rehearsal. That’s not to denigrate its meaning, by any means, but there’s no sense of finality to that loss when your programs are going strong.
March Madness is, at long last, very much a thing in this state again. It wouldn’t even hurt for the delirium to stretch into the next month, either, right?