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It’s spring break throughout Northwest Arkansas this week, and even if you’re not a student or don’t have school-aged kids, the week is better and brighter because of the Razorbacks’ success last weekend in the NCAA Tournament’s first round at Des Moines, Iowa.
Our hard-luck Hogs shook off the up-and-down nature of the regular season, and won a pick-em game over Illinois, 73-63, last Thursday. They followed it up with one of the program’s best wins ever, defeating the Kansas Jayhawks, the West Region’s top seed, in a thrilling 72-71 game for the ages.
I’ve followed the Razorback basketball program as a fan, reporter, and columnist since I was a kid in 1977, and that game was up there with any I’ve watched in terms of emotionality.
If we want to nit-pick, the conclusion might not have been quite as dramatic as U.S. Reed’s half-court buzzer beater to top Louisville in the 1981 NCAA Tournament or as colossal as the upset of No. 1 North Carolina and Michael Jordan on a baseline jumper by Charles Balentine at Pine Bluff in the 1984 regular season. There might not ever be another Razorback game to match the 1994 victory over Duke for the national title, which Scotty Thurman secured on his late-game 3-pointer, and Clint McDaniel sealed at the free-throw line.
My personal favorite Razorback basketball game was the 1978 victory over UCLA on the way to the Final Four. It came in the shadow of the Bruins’ dominance just three years after the retirement of John Wooden. The Hogs’ 74-70 victory over No. 2 UCLA in the West Regional put the Razorbacks program, coach Eddie Sutton, and “The Triplets” — 6-4 guards Marvin Delph, Ron Brewer, and the great Sidney Moncrief — on the national map. It was THE game in which many long-time Hog fans first fell in love with the basketball program. Former Marquette coach and NBC color man Al Maguire stamped The Triplets nickname on Delph, Brewer and Moncrief at that point.
It was the genesis of the success we enjoy today. Without Sutton’s success, Nolan Richardson would not have been able to mastermind the program’s glory years in the 1990s that still benefit coach Eric Musselman and the program he is currently cultivating.
Musselman has Hog fans riding high with this trip to the Sweet 16, the third in three seasons. Only Richardson topped that with four in a row from 1993-96.
While expectations were great for this season before injuries began to pile up, few expected a run to the Sweet 16 when the Hogs lost five of their last seven regular-season games to finish two games below .500 in regular-season SEC play.
When the Razorbacks fell behind by 12 points in the second half to Kansas, the season appeared over. But Davonte “Devo” Davis, a junior from Jacksonville, wasn’t going to have it. Davis, who had his struggles at times this season, put his teammates on his back and carried them to the doorstep of victory.
Devo Davis drives for a basket versus Kansas / Photo: Courtesy, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Scoring 10 consecutive points on daring drives to the basket that were giving me flashbacks to the determined play of Sidney Moncrief — the program’s greatest player — Davis willed the Hogs back into the game. Devo fouled out, but his dogged determination sparked a fire in his teammates. They weren’t going to let their leader down. They fed off Devo’s confidence and determination.
Ricky Council IV made play after play. He hit an amazing turn-around jumper that was a dagger. He kept wounding the Jayhawks at the free-throw line, and on one that he missed, Council grabbed a tap-back rebound from Jordan Walsh and drove to the basket to draw two more free throws. He sank both.
Speaking of Walsh, the freshman hit a pivotal three-pointer that gave Arkansas the lead with around 5 minutes left that was ice-water clutch. Likewise, Kamani Johnson went to war on the glass with 10 tough rebounds, setting a physical tone for the Hogs. Arkansas out-rebounded Kansas 36-29, which proved to be key, as did the Hogs sinking 21 of 26 free throws.
It took everything the Razorbacks had to upset the Jayhawks. Anything less in any area and Kansas would still be dancing, and the Hogs would be on spring break.
But Davis was the catalyst for that victory. His game-high 25 points were critical, but his leadership, grit, and never-say-die attitude are what lifted up his teammates and encouraged them to lift their own performances up a notch and secure that victory. The hug Devo and Muss shared in the post-game interview, and Davis’ tear-filled answers to CBS reporter Allie LaForce’s questions, showed us Davis’ heart and emphasized what is truly great about the NCAA Tournament every year.
Researching the UConn Huskies (27-8) is a little bit scary. UConn, which entered January 14-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation before going 2-6 in January, is arguably playing as well as any team in the Sweet 16. Yes, even Alabama, which the Huskies whipped by 15 on a neutral floor on Thanksgiving weekend in the Phil Knight Invitational held in Portland, Ore.
Now, a lot of water has run under the bridge since then for the Razorbacks and the Huskies, but UConn is a 4.5-point favorite over the Hogs, and from a novice scouting viewpoint, the Huskies are one of the most complete teams Arkansas has faced this year. The Huskies are talented, long, big, and quick athletically. They have a solid inside game and a tough outside game. Their bigs can score and defend. Their guards shoot the three-pointer well and know how to take the ball to the hole. Their backcourt is solid defensively. They are a fine free-throw shooting team, hitting nearly 76%, and they have quality depth through 10 players.
Coached by Dan Hurley, the Huskies are a squad that has legitimate hopes of cutting down the nets in Houston.
While the Hogs were fighting for their lives with Illinois and Kansas in the first two rounds, the Huskies were on cruise control, shellacking Iona, 87-63, in the first round. Former Iona coach Rick Pitino must have already been packing to take over the St. John’s job. Saint Mary’s put up a bit more of a fight before falling 79-55 to the Huskies in the second round.
But Uconn’s NCAA experience so far has been a walk in the park. “It feels like we’re unbeatable,” UConn sophomore wing Jordan Hawkins said to “Sports Illustrated.” “The last two games in the second half, we just took off. When we’re playing like that, I think we have a really good chance to win it all.”
Hawkins is the Huskies’ second-leading scorer at 15.9 points a game from his guard spot. Adama Sanogo leads UConn in scoring and rebounding at 17.3 ppg. and 7.5 rpg. Point guard Tristan Newton averages 10 ppg., 4.7 rebounds, and leads the Huskies in assists at 4.7 per game and steals at 1.1 per game.
Forward Alex Karaban averages 9.4 points and 4.3 rebounds. Center Donovan Clingan blocks 1.8 shots a game while chipping in 7.1 points and 5.8 rebounds.
The Huskies like to play fast-paced, similar to the Razorbacks. Both squads average just under 13 turnovers a game.
From looking at a stat sheet, the biggest differences between the two teams are three-point and free-throw shooting percentages, where the Huskies have a clear advantage.
The Huskies hit 35.7% of their treys and 75.4% of their free throws. The Hogs hit 31% from the three-point line and actively try not to count on them. Arkansas shoots just 69% from the free-throw line.
The Razorbacks play better in a free-flowing game, but so do the Huskies. I’m sure Musselman and his staff will devise a great plan for UConn, but looking at the stat sheet, there is a reason why the Huskies are favored despite the momentum and confidence Arkansas gained in the first two rounds.
This game reminds me of Arkansas’ Final Four matchup with Duke in the 1990 NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks were really good, but Duke was just a bit better. But games aren’t won on paper or in sports columns. I’ve been wrong in my predictions about this Razorback squad for much of the season, and hopefully, I’ll be wrong again on Thursday.
Win or lose, we know this Hog squad is going to play with a ton of heart. The Razorbacks proved that last week by advancing to the Sweet 16 when few thought they would.
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