Hogs need ‘elite’ performance to challenge Gonzaga

The Arkansas Razorbacks will travel coast to coast in less than a week for the opportunity to upend the No. 1 team in the nation and top-seeded squad in the NCAA Tournament, the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the NCAA West Regional.

That’s not really news today. We’ve known that since late Saturday after the Hogs survived a defensive rock fight with New Mexico State, 53-48, in Buffalo, N.Y., and Gonzaga won a more offensive-minded slugfest against Memphis, 82-78, in Portland.

Certainly, facing Gonzaga is a daunting task for the Razorbacks, but it has to excite Hog fans for their favored team to have a shot at the biggest dog in the hunt.

Razorbacks in the Sweet 16

Opponent: Gonzaga
When: 6:09 p.m. Thursday, March 24
Where: Chase Center, San Francisco
Tournament Bracket: NCAA.com

Arkansas fans were ecstatic when the Razorbacks upset No. 1 Auburn, 76-73, in overtime in Walton Arena on Feb. 8. No doubt the party on Dickson Street will be just as big — despite students being on spring break — this Thursday night should the Razorbacks score another upset.

“This team is really talented and is as good as any team in the country,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said Monday of Gonzaga. “We are going to have to play at an elite level to give ourselves a chance to win.”

The Razorbacks are enjoying a three-night layover in Fayetteville before jetting off Tuesday to the West Coast for the Sweet 16.

Musselman gave the Hogs the option of flying straight out to San Francisco from Buffalo, but his Razorbacks chose to touch down in Northwest Arkansas for an extended layover before flying out to San Francisco where the Hogs (28-8) will meet the Bulldogs (28-3) at 6:09 p.m. Thursday in the Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors, a team Musselman coached for two seasons (2006-07).

The game holds the featured time slot on CBS.

During his Zoom media conference Monday, Musselman seemed thrilled to be heading back to the Bay area where he has roots and many friends. He even revealed that it will be the first time that his mother, who lives in his hometown of San Diego, will get to attend a Razorback game since he took over the program three years ago.

He stated his allotment of tickets were already spoken for and that he’s had to point good friends to internet ticket vendors in an attempt to track down seats. It’s a happy problem for Musselman.

Thursday’s other games:

11 Michigan (19-14) vs. 2 Villanova (28-7) at 6:30 p.m. on TBS
2 Texas Tech (27-9) vs. 2 Duke (30-6) at 8:39 p.m. on CBS
5 Houston (31-5) vs. 1 Arizona (33-3) at 8:59 p.m. on TBS

Friday’s games:

15 St. Peter’s (21-11) vs. 3 Purdue (29-7) at 6:09 p.m. on CBS
4 Providence (27-5) vs. 1 Kansas (30-6) at 6:29 p.m. on TBS
8 North Carolina (26-9) vs. 4 UCLA (27-7) at 8:39 p.m. on CBS
11 Iowa State (22-12) vs. 10 Miami (25-10) at 8:59 p.m. on TBS

The more difficult task is preparing his Razorbacks for coach Mark Few’s Bulldogs whom most experts consider the best team in the land and the oddsmakers have deemed the most likely squad to win the national championship.

Gonzaga is currently an 8.5-point favorite over the Hogs, which is the largest point spread of the Sweet 16 games other than Cinderella Saint Peter’s matchup with Purdue. The Boilermakers are a 12.5-point favorite.

“They have a lot of weapons,” Musselman said of the Zags. “That’s why they are a team that everyone considers to be a championship contender. Certainly, they have been ranked No. 1 or in the top-five a lot of this season and deservedly so.”

Arkansas and Gonzaga have only one common opponent in Alabama, which coincidentally beat them both. The Crimson Tide tagged the Bulldogs with one of their three losses, 91-82, on Dec. 4 at Seattle. Alabama beat the Hogs, 68-67, at Tuscaloosa on Feb. 12.

Gonzaga’s other two losses were 84-81 to Duke on Nov. 26 in Las Vegas, and 67-57 to Saint Mary’s at Morgana, Calif. on Feb. 26. This is Gonzaga’s seventh straight appearance in the Sweet 16, which is the longest active streak and the third longest all time.

Arkansas has faced Gonzaga only one other time, a 91-81 loss to the Bulldogs in the the 2013 Maui Classic. Bobby Portis scored 18 for the Hogs in the losing effort.

This Bulldog squad is considerably more talented, starting with the inside tandem of junior Drew Timme (6-10, 235) and freshman phenom Chet Holmgren (7-0, 195). Gonzaga has uncommon size that will tax the Hogs’ smaller lineup.

“They have a potential No. 1 lottery pick in Holmgren, and Timme has been as good of an interior player in the entire country,” Musselman said. “Those two run a great high-low game together.”

Andrew Nembhard (6-5, 193) runs the point for Few’s Bulldogs. His height allows him to see passing angles some smaller guards miss.

“At the point guard position, we played against Nembhard when he was at Florida and when I coached at Nevada in the NCAA Tournament,” Musselman said. “We’ve seen him, and what he can do in pick-and-roll packages. He does a great job of advancing the ball, even after made baskets. He’s one of the smartest guards in college basketball and has really improved as a 3-point shooter.”

Swingman Julian Strawther (6-7, 205) and guard Rasir Bolton (6-3, 185) are also dangerous from the 3-point line, which just leaves the paint wide open for Timme and Holmgren, who also has 3-point range, to do their business. Anton Watson (6-8, 225) comes off the bench with a solid inside-outside game.

“Strawther, they bring him off screens,” Musselman said. “He’s got deep, deep range. He can catch and shoot with quickness, and then Bolton is a really good 3-point shooter who has good range. They come off the bench with Watson, who can play multiple positions.”

Expect the Razorbacks to attempt to frustrate the Bulldogs with their man-to-man pressure, but Gonzaga’s height will be a challenge for the Hogs inside and at the point.

Jaylin Williams (6-10, 240) is Arkansas’ lone legitimate big man, who plays much. Kamani Johnson (6-7, 230) has been a spot player this season, who has the toughness to battle inside, but is giving up 3 to 5 inches to either of Gonzaga’s big men.

Connor Vanover (7-3, 225) has not played much the last two months during the period when the Hogs improved as much within a season as any Razorback squad in my memory.

Size will also be an issue at the point with Nembhard holding a 2- to 3-inch advantage on JD Notae (6-2, 190), who struggled mightily with his shooting (5 of 18) against New Mexico State before fouling out with just over a minute to play. Four of his five fouls came off charges.

Notae’s play has to be a concern going into the game. The senior has led the Hogs all season. He did score 18 points, make 8 steals, grab 4 rebounds, and dish 3 assists against the Aggies, but he also forced the issue on drives too often and had 6 turnovers. Gonzaga punishes teams who are loose with the ball.

Notae averages 33 minutes a game, and he is the Hogs’ primary ball handler. One wonders if he might be wearing down in a similar fashion as Moses Moody appeared to in the Hogs’ Elite Eight run last season?

Hopefully that comparison is more my imagination than reality. Arkansas’ game with New Mexico State was rugged with neither team shooting near their season average. The Aggies shot 34 percent from the field and the Hogs 27.5 percent.

Arkansas will have to shoot much better to stay in the game with Gonzaga. It will be interesting to see what type of defensive plan Musselman deploys against the Zags. Arkansas can’t let their outside shooters go off, but that leaves the middle open for Timme and Holmgren.

It will be interesting to see which Razorback guards Holmgren, assuming Williams’ primary assignment is Timme. Trey Wade seems the most likely candidate to start on him.

The Razorbacks are the lone SEC team standing in the Sweet 16 with earlier-than-expected exits by Kentucky, Auburn, and Tennessee, and Alabama and LSU also not advancing.

A victory over Gonzaga would be a huge boost for the Razorbacks. A second trip to the Elite Eight in as many seasons would solidify the Hogs’ as the top program in the SEC for the moment, and Arkansas’ No. 2 ranked recruiting class this season would give them a shot at remaining at the top next year as well.

Hog hoops fans have a ton to be excited about win or lose Thursday, but a victory would be sooie sweet for a fan base that hasn’t experienced this type of success since the mid 1990s during the hey days of the Nolan Richardson era.

This article is sponsored by First Security Bank. For more great stories of Arkansas food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.