Despite Baylor loss, Razorbacks return to national relevance with Elite 8 appearance

One second you’re dancing; the next, the season is over.

It seems to happen in a blink of an eye. The music stops. The balls are bagged up for the season, and it’s all just a memory.

That last 40 minutes in the NCAA Tournament can be cruel. It is final, and it, no doubt, hurts.

The longer a team dances, the more painful it is when the music stops.

All that sweat, strain, hustle, and grit poured into a season, and then, it’s just over.

Sometimes there’s a feeling of relief. Other times it’s regret for what might have been. Sometimes it’s disbelief. But there is always a numbness in the moment. It almost doesn’t seem real.

A team, its coaches, the staff, even the fans can’t help how they feel as individuals. Everyone’s season is a personal journey, viewed through a singular lens.

There’s always thoughts of what might have been or even should have been.

The NCAA Tournament is a fickle mistress for every team but one every single year.

That is what is so special about a healthy run in the Big Dance, and make no mistake, the 2021 Arkansas Razorbacks had a long, healthy stay in the tournament.

Are there regrets?

I’m sure, there are some, but the Hogs played hard and ultimately were beaten by a better team, the Baylor Bears, 81-72. There is no shame in that.

Could the Hogs have played better?

Sure, but the Razorbacks, the youngest team to make the Elite Eight, busted their tails for 40 minutes and just succumbed to a better team. That is the nature of sport. The better team usually wins and that’s what the Bears (26-2) did.

While the outcome of Monday’s game was difficult for the Razorbacks and their fans, it does not negate anything the team accomplished this season. There are many teams that would trade places with the Hogs, who finished 25-7 on the year, and had THE BEST season Arkansas’ storied program has enjoyed in a quarter century.

That’s significant.

Hog fans will remember the contributions of graduate-seniors Justin Smith and Jalen Tate for a lifetime. The two young men started their journey at other programs, but finished their careers leading the Razorbacks back to national significance.

Likewise Moses Moody, who will likely be the first one-and-done in the program’s history, made a significant impact on the program even though he played his best basketball in the regular season rather than in the NCAA Tournament.

Moody literally could have gone to any school in the nation, but he chose his home-state Razorbacks, and that choice along with a similar ones made by Devonte Davis, Jalen Williams, and Khalen Robinson, who missed the bulk of the season with an injury, catapulted the Razorbacks’ program back on the national scene.

There have been others who could have played that role in the past, but opted to go another way. Moody’s choice made it cool to be a Razorback again, just like The Triplets — Marvin Delph, Ron Brewer, and Sidney Moncrief — did back in the late 1970s when coach Eddie Sutton first thrust the Razorbacks program into modern significance. That trio put their trust in Sutton, just like Moody put his in Musselman.

Moody was a marked man in the NCAA Tournament. He became the focal point of every team’s scouting report. Moody may not have played up to his potential in the NCAA Tournament, but his presence opened up the game for his teammates.

And they played well. Davis had a phenomenal freshman season. He developed into a game-changer for the Hogs. His play was key in comeback victories over Cologate, Texas Tech, and ORU.

Williams played some strong basketball down the stretch. His toughness, skill, and size helped the Hogs turn the tables on LSU and Alabama in their second meetings of the regular season

The sky is the limit for both of them if they continue to be coachable and put in the work.

J.D. Notae, the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year, accepted his role and flourished where some players would have balked and given up. He disciplined himself, took better shots, and became a pest on defense. Lookout for his senior season.

A midseason injury changed Desi Sills’ role with the team, but even though he saw his minutes decreased, he played well in the Hogs’ Sweet 16 victory over Oral Roberts and against Baylor. His defensive prowess, shot, and experience will be valuable for the Hogs next season.

It truly was a pleasure to watch the Razorbacks progress and play this season, particularly during their 12-game SEC winning streak from late January through early March.

Few teams go throughout the entire month of February without a loss. That made the coldest month of year a lot warmer for all Razorback fans, who like everyone else have had a rough and strange year because of Covid-19.

Though every Hog fan wanted the Razorbacks to dance a little bit longer, these Razorbacks restored a sense of pride to the program that had been missing for too long.

Not every team can advance as far as the Elite Eight, but Arkansas is a truly proud program with a storied history, and the Razorbacks should be a factor every season in the NCAA Tournament.

While it is just the second season of head coach Eric Musselman and his staff’s tenure with the Hogs, it certainly feels like the best is still yet to come for his Razorback regime. Making the Elite Eight should only open doors for his program going forward.

Musselman and his Hogs took Razorback fans on a wild ride this year, and while Monday’s loss to Baylor still feels like a body blow, Hog fans will grow to appreciate the significance of this season as that bitter taste ultimately dissolves into what will be sweet memories of this this season, these players, and coaches.

The Razorbacks are once again relevant on the national college basketball scene. It’s been a long while since Hog fans have been able to say that and swell their chests out with pride.

Even after a stinging loss, it’s a good feeling for Hog fans to be able to bask in that type of pride again.