Nothing is inevitable in sports. Teams aren’t guaranteed anything.
We had another lesson in that Monday night in the NCAA Tournament Championship Game.
It seemed like you couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t a Baylor grad or fan that would have given the Bears a shot against No. 1 Gonzaga going into the game.
The entire panel of CBS experts picked the Bulldogs to win after the Zags had dodged a bullet against 11th seed UCLA when freshman phenom Jalen Suggs sank the shot of the tournament to buzzer beat the Bruins in overtime last Saturday night.
Everyone just figured Baylor would make another Bear pelt for Gonzaga to hang on its wall by the championship trophy for its inevitable undefeated season. Most gave the Bears no chance to beat Gonzaga, even after Baylor had annihilated Houston, 78-59, in the semifinals.
I mean, wasn’t Houston a No. 2 seed?
The Bears rolled over the Cougars in the Final Four, but Gonzaga struggled to get past one of the last teams to squeeze into to the tournament.
All the love for Gonzaga just didn’t add up.
But the media loves to crown champions before the deed is done, particularly in college sports, and most of the time, they do end up being right. Most of the time what is expected by everyone happens in college sports.
That’s why it’s so fun when the unexpected happens.
I have to admit I like it when the “sports intelligentsia” get it wrong. I always have dating back to the 1984 Orange Bowl when Sports Illustrated crowned Nebraska as the best college football team ever before Miami shucked the Cornhuskers, 31-30, to everyone’s surprise.
While I’ve never been a Duke fan, it was interesting to watch undefeated and unchallenged UNLV melt down in the 1991 NCAA Tournament semifinals and fall, 79-77, to Duke, who went on to beat Roy Williams’ Kansas Jayhawks, 72-65, for the national championship.
Incidentally, Kansas upset Arkansas in the Elite Eight that season. It was the same year UNLV whipped the Hogs in Barnhill Arena in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in which Larry Johnson famously told Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson to go get him some men.
But I digress.
Sports Illustrated had also crowned Pete Carroll’s 2005-06 USC football squad as the best team ever prior to Texas upsetting the Trojans, 41-38, in the Rose Bowl to snatch the national title away.
That’s just a few examples of other times when pundits put the cart before the horse in naming an all-time great team before the deed was actually done. I’m sure there are many other examples.
So here’s a salute to Scott Drew and his Bears for not only beating Gonzaga, 86-70, but also proving all the experts wrong once again.
That’s what is so great about college sports. Even when you think you know what is going to happen, there’s always a chance for shock and awe.
I have to say I enjoyed watching the Bears play. Their guards were like streaks of lightning blitzing down the court, and their forwards were like granite blocking out for rebounds and the transforming into to jumping jacks to keep the ball alive off the glass. It’s not dissimilar to how Eric Musselman envisions his Razorbacks of playing.
Gonzaga was a fun team to watch, too, but it just felt like the Bulldogs were being stuffed down our throats with all the adoration heaped upon them and their excellent coach Mark Few.
Baylor’s style of play and their “underdog” status had my sympathies throughout the game.
Baylor winning the title also made be feel a bit better about the Arkansas Razorbacks bowing out of the tournament to them, 81-72, in the Elite Eight.
I joked with some friends that the Razorbacks deserve to be ranked No. 2 since they only lost to Baylor by nine, while Houston fell by 19 and Gonzaga by 16.
One of the highlights of the NCAA title game every year is the “One Shining Moment” video played at the end of the telecast.
The Razorbacks’ Elite Eight run was honored with clips of Devo Davis’ football-snap pass between his legs for an assist and his chin-up dunk. Musselman and Moses Moody made the video, too.
I have a feeling this won’t be the last time Muss and the Razorbacks will earn some time in that video.
The Razorbacks’ success this season is still really just sinking in to me. Arkansas’ always had a proud basketball program, but for the hardwood Hogs to be legitimately nationally relevant again is a fantastic feeling.
As we learned from the outcome of last night’s game, nothing is guaranteed, but I think it is safe for Hog fans to once again walk with pride as far as the basketball program goes.
The Razorbacks’ run to the Elite Eight this season reminds me a bit of the Hogs’ 1993 Sweet 16 run. Just like eventual national champion Baylor ended the Hogs’ season this year in the Elite Eight, in 1993 eventual national champion North Carolina nipped the Razorbacks, 80-74 in the Sweet 16.
Of course that Razorback team returned the next season and won Arkansas’ lone national title. Members of that team like Corey Beck, Clint McDaniel, Scotty Thurman, and Corliss Williams said afterward that how well they played against the Tar Heels gave them the confidence they needed to know that they could win the national title in 1994.
One hopes the returning members of this year’s Razorback squad have that same feeling. I firmly think a team has to believe they can win a title before they can make it happen on the floor.
Certainly, the Hogs will be losing key figures from this team with seniors Justin Smith and Jalen Tate moving on hopefully to professional basketball opportunities. It’s likely Moody will also seek his fortune in the NBA Draft.
However, the return of Davis, J.D. Notae, Jaylin Williams, Connor Vanover, and Ethan Henderson gives the Razorbacks a solid returning nucleus for Musselman to work his transfer portal magic around.
I’m not saying we should expect anything like the magical year that was 1994 for the Hogs next season, but the experience of making the Elite Eight this year should engender confidence for the returning Razorbacks and also provide the hunger it takes for a team to push itself to its limits to reach for all the success they can attain.
The returning Razorbacks know what it takes to be competitive in the SEC and to push their way into the Elite Eight. It’s no longer foreign ground.
Maybe the taste they got this season will fuel another NCAA Tournament run that all Hog fans can be proud of.