Photo: Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
There’s not a better sporting event for television than the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
There just isn’t.
Sure, the Super Bowl garners better ratings and Super Bowl Sunday has become an unofficial holiday, but that’s just one day.
The Big Dance is a three-week journey that starts with an explosion of 48 games over a four-day weekend and ends with a single, outright champion, crowned with one shining moment just as springtime begins to kick into high gear.
My thoughts obviously don’t do the tournament justice. It is the destination every Division I basketball player, coach and fan sets their sight on each season, and it truly is an event that makes some dreams come true while crushing others.
It’s poetic that every team that gets its dance card punched has a chance to win the title, but that no matter what a team accomplished in the regular season, it is 40 minutes away from being all over. Only one team returns home without a loss. The urgency is palpable. The euphoria of winning is like a drug, and the disappointment in losing is final for a season.
Stars — even if they only glow brightly and burn out shortly — will emerge in the tournament. No matter how well versed we think we are in the college basketball, there will be a player that surprises us, who comes into his own during the tournament and leaves and indelible, unforgettable mark on our collective memory. And there will be certified all-stars who come up short.
Some of those players went on to be stars in the NBA like a Magic Johnson or a Michael Jordan, while others like a Keith Smart from Indiana, a Miles Simon from Arizona or a Lorenzo Charles of North Carolina State. All three captured our imagination for a moment, but outside of their program’s fan bases they aren’t remembered by and large until this time of year.
On March 14, it was the 36th anniversary of Arkansas’ U.S. Reed’s buzzer-beating, just-beyond-half-court shot to sink Louisville, 74-73, in the second round of the 1981 NCAA Tournament. And of course the 23rd anniversary of Razorbacks assistant coach Scotty Thurman’s game-clinching basket in the 1994 national championship game against Duke is just around the corner on April 4.
While Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks aren’t expected to make a great deal of noise in this year’s tournament as an eighth seed, you just never know what might happen.
The Hogs’ matchup with Seton Hall at 12:30 p.m. Friday is one that could go either way. The Pirates (21-11) aren’t going to want to play at the pace the Razorbacks (25-9) hope to establish, but they aren’t exactly a slow-down team. Their 73.3 points-per-game average is just 6.5 points less than the Hogs’ 79.8 scoring average. But the difference is in the way that they do it.
However, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard’s not going to want his team to get out of control against the Hogs. Limiting Arkansas’ possessions by slowing the game down and making the Razorbacks defend them on the half court will be to the Pirates’ advantage with All-American-type center Angel Delgado holding down the middle. The Pirates run their offense through their 6-10 big man, who is the nation’s leading rebounder.
The Razorbacks have rebounded better in recent weeks, but they have to limit Delgado’s opportunities at offensive rebounds. Delgado’s not only makes a living off put-backs, but he does an excellent job of finding open shooters after snaring an offensive board. It will take group effort to contain him and the Pirates other two scorers Khade Carrington and Desi Rodriguez, who do their work more on the perimeter.
Look for the Razorbacks to attempt to frustrate Delgado with their quickness by collapsing on him when he gets the ball in the paint. The Pirates are a streaky outside shooting team, and the Hogs might risk giving up some open outside shots if it keeps Delgado from having his way inside.
However, if Delgado passes easily out of the double team or begins drawing fouls, expect the Razorbacks to sink into a more traditional zone.
The most important stat for the Hogs, though, is their own shooting percentage. Daryl Macon, Dusty Hannahs and the rest of the gang need to be on target with their three-pointers, but more importantly the Razorbacks need to score some cheap baskets in transition and off their defense. That’s the key to a good shooting percentage.
Attacking the basket will also yield more free-throw attempts. The Hogs team free-throw shooting percentage of 76.2 percent is a huge weapon, if they can draw fouls.
If the Razorbacks can shoot in the mid 40s or better percentagewise from the field they should have a chance to win despite the advantage Seton Hall is likely to enjoy on the glass.
Should the Razorbacks defeat Seton Hall, Arkansas would likely play top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday. Many commentators feel the Tar Heels are the team to beat in the entire field despite their loss to Duke in last weekend’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
On paper, the Razorbacks don’t have a chance against North Carolina, but Sunday would be a great day for modern retelling of David and Goliath.
Hey, it’s the NCAA Tournament. If you’re going to dream, dream big.
Getting into the tournament was a necessity for the health of the Arkansas’ basketball program. Ticket sales will be better next fall, and fans in general will have a more positive outlook going into the season.
A win over Seton Hall shouldn’t be taken for granted by Hog fans, but it is the stepping stone Arkansas and Anderson needs for the program to improve.
Play-by-play man Brian Anderson and analysts Chris Webber and Lewis Johnson will handle the broadcast chores for TNT’s coverage of the Arkansas-Seton Hall game. Webber, of course, is the former NBA star who first came to notoriety as part of Michigan’s Fab Five.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, google it.
While there have been many heroes in NCAA Tournament history, the event also has had its share of goats, and I don’t mean “greatest of all time.”
Webber made one of the most memorable gaffs in Big Dance history when he called a timeout late in the 1993 title game against North Carolina when his Wolverines did not have one. The result was a technical foul that helped the Tar Heels win the title.
How does that relate to Arkansas?
It doesn’t directly, but Webber opted to leave Michigan after that season and enter the NBA Draft. On their way to the national title in 1994, coach Nolan Richardson’s Razorbacks ran into Michigan in the Elite Eight. The Hogs whipped the Wolverines, 76-68, despite a monster game by Juwan Howard.
As great as the 1994 Razorbacks were, I’m not sure the Hogs or any other team could have taken out the Wolverines if Webber had returned for his junior season.
So thanks for heading to the NBA early, Chris.
AFTERMATH OF VITALE SPAT
After Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson had his say on the “John Finebaum Show” on Monday and defended the reputation of his senior center Moses Kingsley after ESPN color commentator Dick Vitale went overboard with his criticism of Kingsley’s late-game hard foul in the SEC Championship game, the spat is over.
Anderson and Vitale reportedly spoke to each other, and Anderson said his and his team’s focus is now only on Seton Hall.
That’s how it should be, but the repercussions unfortunately may not be put to bed, just yet.
Mike Anderson had words for Dickie V after yesterday's game. pic.twitter.com/jGLRNOaVgA
— Razorbackers (@RazorbackersFS) March 13, 2017
Whether it’s before or during the game, there is little doubt TNT’s broadcasting team will mention the incident on Friday. The storyline is just too juicy for them not to use. If something happens in the game that gives them a chance to blow it up, they probably will.
Vitale absolutely took his criticism of Kingsley and Arkansas, too far. Anderson absolutely did the right thing in taking up for Kingsley and the rest of his players on Finebaum’s show. Frankly, Finebaum wouldn’t have asked Anderson to be on the show if the incident had not have happened.
However, don’t think that coaches didn’t take note of the Razorbacks’ chippiness against the Wildcats, and if they did further research, they will notice that the Hogs do get upset at times.
Kingsley does get frustrated on the court more easily than a senior should. Jaylen Barford can’t be described as having a short fuse because he has held himself in check, but he has gone chest-to-chest with opponents several times this season.
Sturdy screens are part of the game, but Dusty Hannahs put something extra into the one that garnered him a Flagrant 1 foul.
It’s also difficult to know if Daryl Macon’s shoulder to Malik Monk’s chest on an open-court charging call was just part of normal play or if there was something more to it.
Because of the situation with Monk, who isn’t exactly a choirboy with his on-the-court swagger, who down the Razorbacks to play at Kentucky, that wasn’t a normal game. Emotions ran higher than normal.
However, the Razorbacks shouldn’t be surprised if upcoming opponents don’t challenge their discipline and mental toughness in the NCAA Tournament and perhaps next season, too.
Former Hog offensive lineman Dan Skipper got a reputation as a hothead during his sophomore season and his cool was challenged routinely there after.
When a team or a player shows a mental or physical weakness, opponents are going to attempt to exploit it.
In a closer game, the two flagrant fouls could have cost the Hogs the game. No doubt, Anderson, though he took up for his players publically, made that clear to his squad on Monday.