Handed a tough draw. Sent to a bad location. Given very little respect.
Those are just a few of the comments heard this week about the Arkansas Razorbacks’ first-round NCAA Tournament game against the Butler Bulldogs at approximately 2:10 p.m. in Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena.
Some or all of that may be true, but it’s not the point.
The point is that Arkansas coach Mike Anderson has his Razorbacks’ dancing, and from the comments made by the Head Hog and his players, they intend to leave their mark on the Motor City this weekend.
Arkansas vs. Butler
Date: Friday, Mar. 16
Time: 2:10 p.m.
Location: NCAA Tournament, Detroit
The Razorbacks are actually excited to be playing in the newest NBA arena and aren’t caught up in their seeding or odds makers and analysts’ thoughts about their matchup with the Bulldogs. The Razorbacks are just ready to play the game.
That’s good news to hear as a Hog fan. Teams that mope about where they are playing, how they are seeded, and view postseason play as an entitlement tend to struggle. They aren’t focused on what will help them to survive and advance.
That’s not this Razorback team, though. Anderson, who has guided three different programs to at least three trips to the NCAA Tournament trips, won’t have any of that. It appears he has his team focused on playing their best basketball at the most important time of year so they can make the most of this opportunity.
If the Hogs do that, then they still will be dancing on Sunday regardless of what the experts think about their chances against Butler today.
The Razorbacks simply are the better, more accomplished basketball team with frankly a more experienced and better coach.
First-year Butler coach LaVall Edwards may have a great future ahead of him at his alma mater, and he had a fine resume as an assistant coach at Butler and Michigan, but with all due respect, his credentials don’t come close to matching Anderson’s. Experience matters on the bench and on the court this time of year, and the Razorbacks have both.
A year ago, the Razorbacks were just a few plays away from advancing to the Sweet 16 against the eventual national champion North Carolina. The Razorbacks know how close they were, and it’s been pushed in their faces all season long.
Daryl Macon, Jaylen Barford and other Hogs have been answered questions all year long about letting that game slip away from them after leading the Tar Heels by 5 with three minutes left to play. They are savvy enough to know that the only way to quiet such talk is to win today and keep winning.
Now, just because the Razorbacks are the better team going into the game, it doesn’t mean they will win easily or that they will win at all.
Just as the Razorbacks stepped up their game in the last half of their SEC schedule and just as they cranked up their play another notch to knock Florida out of the SEC Tournament, 80-72, last Friday with their best performance of the season, the Razorbacks have to raise their game again for Butler.
Play less than their best today and the Hogs will be back home in time for spring break with regrets that will last a lifetime.
It’s that way for all but the very top seeds who draw games against squads that are frankly out of their league, but deserve one shining moment for winning their conference’s automation bid.
So, though the Hogs should win, there is nothing automatic about beating Butler. Like the Razorbacks did against Florida, they need to smother the Bulldogs’ three-point shooters. If the Hogs do that, the Bulldogs don’t have the inside game to make Arkansas pay.
Like he did against the Gators, Macon needs to put his defensive effort ahead of his offensive output. In fact, that needs to be the mindset for Barford and and Anton Beard as well for their entire NCAA Tournament stay. Each of the three are accomplished enough scorers that the points will still come. Playing their A-level defensive game will only make their points more meaningful.
Today’s game could be another party in the paint for 6-11 freshman Daniel Gafford. The Bulldogs really don’t have an answer for the combination of his size, quickness, and athletic ability on either end of the court. Gafford’s skills are still raw, but one thing you never have to worry about is his effort. Gafford makes opportunities for himself and his team with his stellar athletic ability and his relentless effort.
He makes NBA scouts drool by the way he sprints past everyone after making a play at the other end of the floor, and then does it time and time again. That type of effort will serve him well not only against Butler, but also in a probable matchup against Purdue on Sunday.
The Hogs can’t look ahead to the second round, but as fans we certainly can.
Now, the Boilermakers have proven to be better than the Razorbacks over the course of the season. In the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee’s judgment, Purdue is one of the top eight teams in the tourney.
However, should an Arkansas-Purdue matchup come about on Sunday, all bets are off. The Boilermakers will be in the race of their season because no doubt the Razorbacks’ plan will be to run their legs off.
At 7-2, 190 pounds, Purdue senior center Isaac Haas is a mountain of a man. He looks like he’s made of granite, and he is a skillful big man. But if the Hogs can push the tempo, there is no way he can keep pace with Gafford. The more Gafford makes him work in transition and on defense, the less effective Haas will be.
Defense is always important, but hitting shots so that the Razorbacks can control the tempo will be the big key should they face Purdue on Sunday.
Today’s game with Butler will be a tough game; But, it’s the NCAA Tournament. It should be tough; however, Arkansas won’t have to push the Bulldogs to play with them. They like to get up and down the court as well. It should be an entertaining game.
If the Razorbacks do advance to Sunday, they have to rest Saturday so they can turn Sunday’s game into a track meet or even a street fight as legendary coach Nolan Richardson would call it.
The Hogs probably couldn’t take Purdue in a traditional-styled, Big 10-like game, but in a track meet or a street fight, they might have a chance to play their way into the Sweet 16..
Diamond Hogs host No. 5 Kentucky
Postseason trumps the regular season in importance, even when comparing to different sports. The Hogs’ NCAA Tourney game against Butler does take precedence over the Arkansas Razorbacks’ home baseball series with No. 5 Kentucky (14-3) this weekend, but not by much.
While it is only the first SEC series of the season, each game with the Wildcats means so much to the Razorbacks’ future. Again it’s early, but if the Razorbacks are to be the team they were predicted to be, this series is pivotal.
Teams that win conference titles win this type of series. Teams that stick in the top 10 win this type of series. Teams that garner National Seeds and host NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals win this type of series.
Now, losing this series won’t deny the Razorbacks (13-4) any of the above, and winning the series won’t guarantee any of it either.
However, that team that wins this series will be off to a great start in league play, while the loser will be fighting an up-hill battle just out of the chute.
The first pitch is at 6:30 p.m. with both squads throwing their aces against each other’s formidable lineups. Sean Hjelle (1.35 ERA, 4-0) will be on the mound for the Wildcats, while Blaine Knight (0.78 ERA, 3-0) will pitch for the Hogs.
Saturday’s game is at 2 p.m., and first pitch for Sunday’s finale is at 1 p.m. It should be a big weekend at Baum Stadium.