Photo: Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Ultimately only one team exits the NCAA Tournament with a victory. Every other squad heads home with a loss. To me that’s the greatest and the most devastating aspect of the tournament.
No doubt, the Arkansas Razorbacks feel devastated in the throes of their 72-65 loss to top-seeded North Carolina in Sunday’s second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. How could they not?
Mike Anderson’s Arkansas squad came so close to pulling off what would have been a shocking upset, one that would go down in Razorback lore as one the biggest upsets the Hogs ever earned on the basketball court.
The Razorbacks’ exit from the tournament had to be crushing in the moment for seniors Dusty Hannahs, Moses Kingsley and Manny Watkins. No doubt they wanted to dance longer.
The senior trio and the rest of their teammates have the empathy and the respect of the entire Razorback nation for the way they played not only in that game but also in the last third of the basketball season.
On Feb. 7 when the Razorbacks had lost three of the last four games, the season seemed like a disaster, but the Hogs pulled themselves together and made great improvement over the last six weeks.
Few outside the team at that time expected the Razorbacks would turn their season around enough to reach the NCAA Tournament. Taking a top-seeded team like North Carolina down to the final seconds of a game was unimaginable, not only then, but also Sunday morning.
My expectation going into Sunday’s game was for the Razorbacks to play hard but for North Carolina to win comfortably. I wasn’t surprised when the Tar Heels took a 17-point first-half lead, but it was thrilling to watch the Hogs erase that lead and take a five-point advantage in the second half.
Arkansas’ weaknesses showed up at the end of the game, but the Razorbacks improved so much over the season to get to that point that I’m not sure as a fan I could be much more proud of them even if they had actually won the game. Happier, for certain, more proud I don’t know.
The passion and desire they played with on defense and the composure they displayed despite being down by double digits was inspiring.
Anderson, his staff, and the players are still licking their wounds, today but they can be proud of the outstanding progress they made over the course of the season.
A 26-10 record may not be elite, but it is a strong statement for this team that won nine of its final 12 games. The three losses were to North Carolina, Kentucky and Florida. All three made the Sweet 16.
Five of the Razorbacks’ 10 losses came to Sweet 16 squads. Only two of their losses came to opponents — Mississippi State and Missouri — that did not make the NCAA Tournament. That is a strong accomplishment for a team that had to integrate seven new players into a system that can be very difficult to learn.
For two-thirds of the season, the Razorbacks were spotty at best on defense, but the Razorbacks developed into a very good defensive team by the end of the season.
The Hogs gave North Carolina fits much of the game, and the chaos they caused was reminiscent of Anderson’s best teams at Alabama-Birmingham and Missouri, as well as some of the Razorback squads under Nolan Richardson.
With the possibility of 10 Razorbacks returning next year, the integration of the Hogs’ recruiting class shouldn’t be as difficult for next season. The Hogs could be a better team earlier in the season, maybe even one that can legitimately challenge for the conference crown?
Sunday’s loss was tough, but the prospect of an even better year next season offers some consolation. Razorback basketball is on the upswing, and that’s exciting.
Officials Give UNC a Boost
There’s no shame in getting outdanced by Fred Astaire, but when he’s allowed a dance partner and you’re not, that’s a bit of a different story.
Astaire was one greatest hoofers of the golden age of Hollywood, and as far as the Big Dance is concerned, the North Carolina Tar Heels are an apt comparison. Few have danced as well as Astaire on the silver screen, and few programs have danced as well as North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament.
It may be going a bit too far to compare the officials from the second-round NCAA Tournament game between the eighth-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks and the No. 1-seeded Tar Heels to Astaire’s silver-screen dance partner Ginger Rogers, but if the dance slipper fits, wear it.
North Carolina enjoyed the benefit of the doubt from the refs throughout the day with the Razorbacks being whistled for 20 fouls to the Tar Heels’ 10, but a highly questionable call and a even-more-questionable no-call in the late minutes of the game proved detrimental to Arkansas’ upset chances.
The Razorbacks were robbed of a possession when Carolina tipped Daryl Macon’s three-point attempt and the ball hit the baseline. It should have been Arkansas’ ball out of bounds on the baseline, but instead the refs sent it the other direction with North Carolina leading, 66-65.
Seconds later, UNC guard Joel Berry traveled before slamming into Razorback freshman forward Adrio Bailey and hoisting up a shot that UNC forward Kennedy Meeks tipped in for a 68-65 lead with less than a minute to play.
Some call was warranted prior to the tip-in on that play. Berry’s travel came before the contact, but when there is that much contact between a dribbler and a defender, the whistle needs to be blown.
That stretch of questionable officiating didn’t beat the Razorbacks, but it certainly helped North Carolina shut the Hogs down for the final 3:31 of the game. Over the course of the season, North Carolina proved they are one of the best teams in the nation. The Tar Heels really didn’t need that kind of help.