How sweet it is for the Arkansas Razorbacks to be back dancing in the Sweet 16 again after a quarter-century absence.
Some of us have gone from young to middle-age or even old since we last experienced the Hogs escaping from the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
After such a draught, it might be hard for younger Hog fans to believe that for a shining time from 1989-1996 the Razorbacks advancing to the Sweet 16 was almost a rite of spring. Nolan Richardson guided the Hogs to Regional semi-finals six out of seven seasons back in the hey days of Hawg Ball.
Next up for the No. 3 Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. No. 15 Oral Roberts
When: 6:25 p.m. Saturday, March 27
Where: NCAA Tournament – Indianapolis, Ind.
Current Record: 24-6
For Razorback fans who experienced those hallowed days, the Hogs are finally back to where they belong, thanks to a phenomenal coaching job by second-year head coach Eric Musselman and his staff and the ever-improving play by the Razorbacks.
Much was made of the struggle the Razorback football team had playing through a pandemic. Take nothing away from coach Sam Pittman, his staff, and players. They showed a ton of heart and fight last fall.
However, Musselman’s Hogs have shown just as much grit to grind their way through a full basketball season — minus a couple of games lost to Covid conditions at other schools — and to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Just being in the NCAA bubble in Indianapolis is a challenge for players, coaches, and staff members who have been physically isolated from family and friends since March 14. The Hogs haven’t slept in their own beds since leaving for the SEC Tournament on March 9.
In the Indy Bubble, the players, coaches, and staff are confined to their hotel rooms except for practice, media obligations, meals, and an hour-a-day of outdoor time. It’s not prison, but it’s not exactly the freedom and experience players in the past have enjoyed while competing in the NCAA Tourmanet.
Athletes are in general disciplined people, who actually do well under regimented circumstances. So the Hogs and the other teams quarantining for the NCAA Tournament are likely functioning better under the circumstances than those of us who live less regimented lives would. But it still ain’t easy.
It has to be great for some of the Razorbacks to know that their parents and possibly other loved ones are getting to see them play. However, they really can’t visit with them in person because of the quarantine conditions.
So often athletics and military service are compared. The roots for the conditioning we see in most collegiate sports were derived from the physical training for soldiers from World War I and II. Coaches took what they learned in military service and tied it to athletic training. It’s been passed down and greatly refined ever since, but the boot-camp roots are still there.
The Razorbacks and the 15 other teams left standing in the NCAA Tournament are getting a very real sense or feel for what military life is like if only to a small degree.
It’s going to be interesting to see exactly which teams thrive under these conditions and which teams don’t.
There have been some stunning upsets in the tournament this year, few that anyone would have predicted. Possibly the way the players are living in the NCAA bubble is having an effect on the outcome of games?
Life in the NCAA bubble is demanding a level of mental toughness that has never been present before.
One thing we’ve heard from the Razorback players over and over the last few weeks is how “connected” they feel while playing. I’m guessing that bond reaches beyond the basketball court, too.
For the lack of a better term, perhaps the Hogs have become a band of Razorback brothers throughout this season, forging closer bonds because of Covid-19 precautions and conditions.
Maybe that bond is paying off at just the right time.
What I find most compelling about this team is that they have continued to improve throughout the season. It was evident from the first time we saw this bunch play that they are skilled and talented.
However, the success the Hogs have had this season comes from how well Musselman and his staff have gotten them to play together. That didn’t come easily. Remember the Hogs started 2-4 in SEC play against a brutal early season schedule.
After back-to-back blowout losses to Alabama and LSU in mid-January, myself and others were beginning to wonder if Musselman could pull this team together.
However, Musselman and his staff held this group of grad-transfers, transfers, and freshmen together, and they began to improve. As I’ve said before, I’ve been watching Razorback basketball closely since 1977 as a fan and a reporter, and I have not seen a team improve within a season as much as this one has.
The Hogs have done a great job of mixing together to create a formidable team.
Moses Moody is one of the most complete players to step on campus in years. His demeanor reminds me of Joe Johnson. He’s not as long or as tall as Johnson, but he plays within himself much like Johnson did. The Hogs may need him to exert himself if they want to keep dancing.
Jalen Tate is a natural leader with a lot of skills. I love how he has coached up some of the younger guards through the season like Devo Davis and K.K. Robinson before his injury. His toughness, grit, and skill is on display every time the Hogs play.
Likewise Justin Smith has become a force for the Hogs, playing his natural forward spot and center when Musselman goes with a smaller lineup. He’s a do-it-all guy, clamping down with great defense and getting his points without the Hogs having to run plays for him. I love his jump hook, and when he jumps a passing lane for a steal, he shows his overall athletic ability.
Davis reminds me of a coiled spring. He is a bundle of energy that the Hogs feed off. The freshman seems to be just scratching the surface of his potential. He is a pure pest on defense. When he becomes as adept going to his right as he already is to his left, watch out. He follows well in the lineage of great Razorback guards from Ron Brewer, Sidney Moncrief, Alvin Robertson, and Lee Mayberry.
J.D. Notae is known for his scoring, but like Tate and Davis, he makes things happen on defense, too. His ability to break down defenses with the dribble and make something for himself when the Hogs’ offense stagnates is valuable. Sometimes he does take bad shots, like that late trey against Texas Tech, but often they go down. His pluses far outweigh his minuses.
Like Davis, Jaylin Williams is a freshman who keeps getting better and better. His presence was greatly missed by the Hogs in the SEC Tournament. He’s a fine defensive player who is uncommonly strong for a young guy. He controlled the glass in the second half against Texas Tech. He has really nice hands for a big man and has excellent vision. I loved seeing him work on the high post, dishing to cutters, reminding me of Oliver Miller from years gone by. He also is a fine outlet passer when he clears a rebound, getting the break started. He nailed a three-quarter court pass that set up a layup that was a thing of beauty.
Throughout the season Desi Sills, Connor Vanover, and Vance Jackson have had their moments. Maybe they will again before the Hogs’ run is over.
It’s hard to know how long the Hogs will dance this season in the tournament. Most feel they will advance to the Elite Eight over ORU when they play the Golden Eagles at 6:25 p.m. Saturday, but in the NCAA Tournament, nothing can be taken for granted.
I’m sure Ohio State and Florida fans thought their squads would get past ORU, too. When you look at it, ORU might have the most impressive two victories in the tournament.
If the Hogs take them lightly, ORU will send them home.
However, taking the Golden Eagles for granted is the last thing Musselman and his staff will do.