The national media is having a hard time getting a peg on Eric Musselman’s Arkansas Razorbacks going into this weekend’s Regional Semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, commonly known as the Sweet 16.
You see, every team needs a storyline for the national media to deem it juicy. It’s something they can latch onto that makes the team interesting or relatable to a broader audience than their natural fanbase.
As a No. 3 Seed, the Hogs have made it exactly as far as the NCAA Selection Committee projected they would based on their seeding.
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
So, the Razorbacks can’t be considered an underdog at this point, especially when their opponent at 5:25 p.m. Saturday on TBS is this year’s underdog of underdogs, the 15th-seeded Oral Roberts Golden Eagles (18-10). ORU has won five straight elimination games to reach the Sweet 16.
But then again, the Hogs, the 24-6 SEC runner-up, can’t really be classified as one of the favorites either in this year’s seemingly top-heavy bracket.
Despite showing drastic improvement since midseason, going on a 12-game SEC winning streak, and finishing ranked 10th in the Associated Press poll, the Razorbacks are still deemed to be a long shot to make the Final Four much less vie for it all in the national championship game.
ESPN broadcaster and former Duke Blue Devil Jay Bilas ranked the Razorbacks as the 10th best team in his reseeded Sweet 16.
Remember, the NCAA deemed Arkansas the highest No. 3 seed, but Bilas ranked No. 7 seed Oregon, No. 4 seed Florida State, No. 6 seed USC, and No. 8 seed Loyola, Chicago ahead of the Razorbacks in his readjusted seeding this week.
He also pegged ORU as the worst team left in the tournament, despite the fact the Golden Eagles knocked off No. 2 seed Ohio State and No. 7 seed Florida to advance to the Sweet 16. One could easily argue that ORU beat the best pair of opponents to make their way into the Regional Semifinals.
So, again the Razorbacks stand in no-man’s land once again in terms of respect by the national media going into the Sweet 16. It’s a familiar tune to longtime Hog fans, one Nolan Richardson’s 1994 Razorbacks turned into an anthem on the way to the program’s lone basketball national title.
Most will pick Arkansas to advance past ORU, but whether the Razorbacks are matched against No. 1 seed Baylor or No. 5 seed Villanova, expect the Hogs to be underdogs Monday if they advance to the Elite Eight.
Should the Hogs play either, there is some history against each program. Baylor and Arkansas were of course members of the old Southwest Conference and had many hardwood battles over the decades.
The Razorbacks lost, 82-74, to Villanova in the 1988 NCAA Tournament. It was the Hogs’ first Big Dance appearance under Nolan Richardson in his third year as coach. Villanova legend Rollie Massimino coached that squad.
In 1986 — just a year after the Wildcats upset Georgetown for the national title — Massimino was rumored to be interested in the Arkansas head coaching job that Eddie Sutton vacated to “crawl” to Kentucky.
Basically Massimino’s interest in the job was to prompt Villanova into sweetening his deal, which the Fathers did. A day or two later, Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles named Richardson head coach, and thankfully history was made.
However, talking about Baylor or Villanova as future opponents is taking a lot for granted. Despite ORU being so lightly regarded by Bilas and other national pundits, the Hogs would be foolish to take the Golden Eagles lightly.
Musselman knows that. He knows how dangerous his own Nevada squads were when opponents looked past them.
Seeds are just numbers at this point. If a team isn’t ready to go when the ball is tipped, they could wind up eating dinner at home or sleeping in their own bed before the day is through, as Musselman has become fond of saying.
Musselman said Wednesday the Hogs have already reviewed their Dec. 20 game with ORU, which the Hogs won, 87-76, at Walton Arena and moved forward.
That game’s not a great barometer for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that both squads are much different and playing much better today. That game also was played just after final exams on the UA campus when the Hogs had sporadic schedules due to finals.
ORU led the Hogs by 10 at halftime, and despite Arkansas taking control of the game in the second half, the Golden Eagles did not go down quietly.
The Razorbacks will have all they want in trying to smash the Cinderella Golden Eagles’ magic pumpkin.
Max Abmas not only leads ORU in scoring but also the nation. He averaged 24.2 ppg. in the regular season, but has upped that mark to 27.5 ppg. in his two games in the NCAA Tournament.
The 6-1 point guard is a big reason why ORU leads the nation in three-pointers made at 11.2 per game as well as why they lead the nation in in free-throw shooting at 82.2 percent.
The Razorbacks held him to just 11 points and 4 assists in their first game, but that opened the door for other Golden Eagles like 6-8, mobile center Kevin Obanor. He went for a 21-point-, 10-rebound double-double against the Hogs.
“We’ve gotta play a full game,” Abmas says. “We only played half a game [in the first meeting]. We want to win more games. For the outside people, it’s kind of a surprise, but for those guys in the locker room we’ve put in work all season. We go into every game with confidence, and we’ll do the same thing against Arkansas.”
Early in the season, the Razorbacks struggled with covering the pick and roll. The Hogs have adjusted defensively since, but it will be interesting to see how effective the Hogs’ trio of guards Devo Davis, Jalen Tate, and JD Notae will be at slowing down Abmas and his teammates.
Likewise the Golden Eagles and Obanor will see a lot of a much improved Jaylin Williams in the paint whether he starts or comes off the bench. Williams did not play in the first meeting.
ORU averages 81.5 ppg and the Razorbacks average 82.0, so the game should be entertaining in terms of pace and scoring.
As strong a tandem Abmas and Obanor are offensively, the Razorbacks have developed into a fine defensive squad since the teams met in December. If the Hogs can defend without fouling, their overall talent should give them an advantage.
Just as Arkansas proved last December, a double-digit deficit doesn’t mean the Hogs are out of the game. Arkansas’ fallen behind by 10 or more in 10 of their victories this season, including their wins over Colgate and Texas Tech in this tournament.
My expectation is to see Arkansas in the Elite Eight against Baylor or perhaps Villanova on Monday, but no doubt Ohio State and Florida expected to advance against ORU, and the Golden Eagles sent them home.
Nothing can be taken for granted in the Big Dance, not even smashing Cinderella’s dreams.