Razorback fans, your plaintive cries for a return to March Madness have been heard.
Arkansas’s proud men’s basketball program is back in the Elite 8 by the grace of a Devo Davis floater and Oral Roberts’ shining moment-in-wait caroming away harmlessly at the buzzer. Hog backers who endured a quarter-century of frustration — for a while, even outright disinterest — are smiling today as spring break ends with the kids on the team basking in the glow of a season that isn’t finished yet.
What was already the program’s first Sweet 16 trip in 25 years is now the first Elite 8 squad on the Hill in 26. The tension in the Frank Broyles-Nolan Richardson relationship began to brew shortly after the 1995-96 team overachieved its way to a pair of upset wins as a 12-seed. Recruiting dramas ensued and pettiness escalated.
The coach went out a few years later, defiantly but with purpose. With him, sadly, went the Arkansas men’s basketball program’s edge. Its brand. Its standing.
Lest you think this is a giddy pronouncement of Eric Musselman’s greatness, I’m not going there yet. And I won’t be taking this opportunity to rehash which coach sucked the most (cough, Pelphrey, cough) along the way.
The Hogs have only been sporadically, teasingly good for years. They’ve had some first-class talent at times, so the appeal of the program wasn’t necessarily absent.
But the 2020-21 team now gets to definitively call itself special, as regardless of the outcome tonight against top-seeded Baylor for the South Regional championship, it has made its mark. The Hogs won their first three tourney matchups in much the way they would advance in the past, with a physical, unyielding defense and balanced scoring. And they’ve also had to grind for about 110 of the total 120 minutes played, so “battle-tested” is a badge well earned to date.
The Hogs have all the requisite parts of a championship contender. Yet they’ve curiously only captured attention so far by being unwilling to lose.
CBS pundit Seth Davis boasted that Colgate was a fashionable, smart first-round upset pick. For his part, Musselman notably delivered a zinger back at a guy named Todd Fuhrman who had taken entirely too much joy in declaring the coaching matchup with Tech’s Chris Beard to be lopsided in favor of the latter. Much of the national press about this tournament has been devoted toward Gonzaga’s quest to run the table, and a couple of preliminary “re-seedings” of the eight remaining teams have identified the Hogs as the weakest of the lot.
Who gives a damn, though, really? Arkansas proved it belongs here nonetheless, and, most importantly, that its resurgence is real. This has been a magical trip to something of a basketball Valhalla already because Musselman’s made in this far in just his second year at the helm. Eddie Sutton needed four full seasons to advance that far, and Richardson five; both made it to the Final Four.
This team has that capability as well, meshing experience and style masterfully. Baylor boasts an incredibly efficient offense and a dangerous backcourt, and if Jared Butler or MaCio Teague start burying jumpers early, this reunion of old Southwest Conference foes could get lopsided the wrong way. The Hogs have tempted fate too often this year, but especially in the tourney, where they’ve fallen into double-digit deficits each game only to rally.
That cannot happen tonight, for many obvious reasons. Fortunately, Musselman’s group has a penchant for rising to any challenge.
WPS, as ever.