Hogs send Gonzaga to the showers, seek to do the same to Coach K and Duke

After knocking off the top seed of the NCAA Tournament Gonzaga, 74-68, Thursday night in the NCAA Tournament West Regional at San Francisco, the Arkansas Razorbacks face the dubious task of sending legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to the showers for good.

Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks (28-8) will meet the No. 2-seeded Duke Blue Devils (31-6) in the Elite Eight at approximately 7:49 p.m. Saturday on TBS after both Arkansas and Duke earned victories Thursday in two thrilling matchups.

After going with an uncharacteristic zone defense much of the night, Krzyzewski listened to his players and switched back to man-to-man defense to upend third-seeded Texas Tech, 78-73, in the second semifinal of the West Regional. Duke made three defensive stops in man-to-man that pushed the Blue Devils over the top.

Razorbacks in the Elite Eight

Opponent: Duke
When: 7:49 p.m. Saturday, March 26
Where: Chase Center, San Francisco
Tournament Bracket: NCAA.com

Krzyzewski, 75, announced earlier in the year that he would retire after 42 years as the head coach of the Blue Devils when this season concludes. Against the Hogs Saturday, Coach K will be seeking his 13th trip to the Final Four, where his squads have won five national titles.

With all due respect to one of the greatest college basketball coaches ever, the Razorbacks and their fans would like nothing better than to end his historic run in the City by the Bay to advance themselves to New Orleans and the Final Four for the first time since back-to-back trips to the Final Four in 1994 at Charlotte, N.C. and 1995 at Seattle during the height of the Nolan Richardson era of Razorback basketball.

Led by Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson, the Hogs won their lone basketball national title and capped a “dream season” against Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils thanks to the high-arcing trey by Scotty Thurman. Dwight “Big Dog” Stewart set up the shot with his assist, and the Razorbacks went on to a 76-72 victory in the 1994 championship game.

However, it was Coach K’s Blue Devils who stopped the Hogs in their 1990 surprise run to the Final Four at Denver when Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, and Oliver Miller were sophomores. Duke gassed the running Razorbacks in the high altitude of the national semifinal game, 97-83.

But that’s enough reminiscing. THE story is about the Razorbacks of the here and now.

Musselman has done a masterful job of guiding his Hogs to the Elite Eight for the second season in a row in just his third season as the Razorbacks’ head basketball coach.

In late December and early January, this Razorback squad looked like it was going anywhere but to the Elite Eight after losing five of six games from Dec. 11 through Jan. 8, but Musselman and his staff got this team — composed primarily of a few key returning players from 2021 and four graduate transfers — to work their way to the cusp of the Final Four with a tenacious brand of basketball that leaves team’s scratching their heads.

Since turning that corner, the Razorbacks have gone 18-3 against one of the toughest schedules in the college game.

With the victory over Gonzaga, the Razorbacks became the first team to beat an AP No. 1 squad (Auburn 80-76 in overtime) on Feb. 8 and the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament during the same season, according to an ESPN Stats & Info Twitter post.

Thursday night’s victory over Gonzaga cannot be minimized.

It’s simply one of the biggest victories in Razorback basketball history. It’s up there with the 1978 squad’s victory over UCLA — just off its decade-long dominance of the game under John Wooden — that sent Eddie Sutton and the Hogs to their first Final Four since the 1940s, and the 1984 Hogs’ regular-season upset of No. 1 North Carolina and Michael Jordan in Pine Bluff.

Richardson had so many dominating victories over so many prominent teams, but other than the aforementioned national title win over Duke, it’s hard to point to a bigger single-game victory than the one Musselman and his Hogs pulled off Thursday night.

With Gonzaga’s earlier than expected exit from the tourney, some will question if the Zags were overrated.

Maybe? However, no one would be questioning Mark Few’s Bulldogs if they had advanced with a four-point win over the Hogs, so it’s futile to question that now. We’ve seen many great teams fall short of a championship. The fickle nature of March Madness is one of the reasons we enjoy it so much.

The Zags were among the favorites if not THE favorite to win the national title prior to the Razorbacks’ victory. The upset shouldn’t rewrite history no matter how recent it was.

As all Razorback fans have certainly realized by now, Musselman is a gem of a coach, who draws the best out of his Hogs.

He and his staff formulated an excellent plan for defeating a very skilled, long, and smart Gonzaga squad, but better yet his Razorbacks executed it if not to perfection then certainly to victory.

Au’Diese Toney, who scored 9 points, had 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal, smothered Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard, who went 2 for 11 from the field and suffered an uncharacteristic 5 turnovers, but all the rest of the Hogs did their defensive work, too.

The Razorbacks forced the Zags into 15 turnovers — four more than their average — and held them to 9 assists — 9 under their average of 18.

The Bulldogs came into the game leading the nation in scoring average per game at 87.5 points, but the Hogs stifled the Zags, holding them to just 69. The Bulldogs led the nation in field-goal shooting at 52.6 percent, but the Razorbacks locked them down to just 37.5 percent for the game.

As Few said in his CBS postgame interview, “That defense was real.”

Gonzaga 6-10 All-American big man Drew Timme got his with 25 points, but it took him 19 shots to do it. He also suffered 5 turnovers. His fellow All-American freshman Chet Holmgren was even more effective when on the court with his 7-1 length, but Arkansas sent him to the showers with 11 points and 5 fouls after 23 minutes of playing time.

The Razorbacks didn’t shoot much better from the field themselves at 37.5 percent. JD Notae led the Hogs with 21, but made just 9 of 29 shots and 2 of 12 three-pointers. Notae, a great all-around player, also had 6 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocked shots.

The surprise offensive hero of the game was Trey “Big Game” Wade with 15 points and 7 rebounds. He canned 3 of 4 three-pointers to keep Gonzaga on their heels and did a wonderful job on Holmgren much of the night despite giving up 7 inches to the possible first pick of this summer’s NBA Draft.

Jaylin Williams was again the Hogs’ backbone with 15 points and 12 rebounds. He set a new Arkansas single-season rebounding record of 354 rebounds and counting. He topped Derek Hood, who previously held the record at 349 in 1999.

If he stays four years, Williams could challenge the all-time rebounding mark held by the great Sidney Moncrief, who was 6-4. Moncrief, who is also Arkansas’ second all-time leading scorer, had 1,015 rebounds from 1976-79. Hood, who was 6-9, is second on the list with 1,015 rebounds.

Devo Davis also gave the Hogs a shot of adrenaline playing great defense and scoring with 6 points, 2 assists, a steal ,and block. Stanley Umude was strapped with foul trouble, but he hit three key baskets for 6 points and an assist.

Duke will be a difficult matchup for the Hogs with their size, talent and depth. Musselman only has a day to game plan, too, which is a factor.

One has to wonder about the Razorbacks’ stamina. Four of the five Razorback staters played at least 33 minutes with Toney playing 39:27, Notae 37:38, Williams 36:06, and Wade 33:51.

A day is short rest and a short prep time for a squad like Duke, but Coach K’s Blue Devils are at the same disadvantage against the Hogs.

I’ve been caught doubting these Hogs too often this season to do it again. I thought Gonzaga’s size and offensive proficiency would be too much for the Razorbacks, but they proved me wrong. I won’t count them out against Duke.

The Razorbacks have done a great job of forcing teams considered better than them to play the Hogs’ gritty and grinding style of basketball since turning the corner in mid January.

I expect they’ll do the same to the Blue Devils, though all the national sentiment will be with Coach K in what very well may be his final game as coach.

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