Legendary Razorback track, field and cross country coach John McDonald regularly said that there was no such thing as perfection in athletics, but that athletes and a team could pursue excellence.
Eric Musselman’s Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team chased excellence for 40 minutes Tuesday night and caught it against a Kentucky Wildcat basketball squad that had won six consecutive Southeastern Conference basketball games, including an upset of No. 6 Tennessee at Knoxville.
The Hogs whipped the Wildcats, 88-73, in what was the best performance of the season for the Razorbacks, who have know won five SEC games in a row, including their last two on the road. The Hogs moved up four slots in the latest Net Rankings from No. 28 to No. 24.
The victory was Musselman’s 200th as a college coach and his 90th with the Razorbacks. It’s also the third consecutive Arkansas victory over the Wildcats, which junior guard Devo Davis pointed out after the game, saying he had never lost to Kentucky.
That’s speaks volumes for Musselman’s program — and perhaps John Calipari’s — particularly considering two of those Razorback victories have been in Lexington, Ky.
Now, this isn’t a vintage Calipari Kentucky squad.
Going into this game, the Razorbacks and Wildcats had been labeled by ESPN Bracketology guru Joe Lunardi as among the last few teams that would make it into the NCAA Tournament if the field were picked today.
However, Musselman did get a vintage performance from his Razorbacks that had the Rupp Arena faithful losing their religion as they filed out of the historical and hallowed hardwood hall with five minutes left in the game.
Musselman’s Hogs played so tenacious on defense and so smart offensively that they chased some of the most faithful basketball fans in America away their secular temple.
The margin of the Razorbacks’ victory was just 15 points, but it had to feel like a soul-crushing loss to the Blue Grass faithful.
I’ve witnessed and watched several stunning Razorback victories at Rupp Arena. Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, Oliver Miller, and Co. ran the Wildcats out of the gym in 1991, the Hogs’ first season in the SEC.
A few years later in 1994, the Razorbacks’ national title team fought back from a double-digit deficit to grind the Wildcats so thoroughly that Rick Pitino walked out of his press conference in total disgust after answering just one question.
Tuesday night’s victory deserves mention with those and might just top them in my mind, at least for the moment.
The Hogs played so well that they set a new standard for this much ballyhooed squad that has been dealt some hard blows by injuries and inexperience this season.
The team we saw topple the Wildcats Tuesday isn’t the one that was pegged as a Top-10 squad or a potential Final Four participant in the preseason, but it is a formidable Razorback squad that dotes on playing defense and one that has learned to play within its considerable skills on the offensive end of the floor.
The Razorbacks dug in defensively against the Wildcats, and Davis and his doggedly persistent fellow Hogs never let up until the game was in hand. The Hogs made 10 steals and forced a total of 15 turnovers that were so crucial in a game where the Wildcats shot 46.8% from the field.
The Razorbacks countered with a superlative 62.7% shooting percentage, which they likely will not match again this season. However, it shows how effective the Hogs can be when they play in sync. The Razorbacks totaled 19 assists, which is a fine showing any night.
Early in the second half, guard Anthony Black channeled Razorback All-Americans of the past. When he pickpocketed a steal from near the 3-point arc and took it in for a dunk, it was a flashback to the handsy play of Darrel Walker or Mayberry.
On the very next trip down the court, he sliced into the passing lane, tapped the ball toward his basket, reeled it in and then slammed it home like Sidney Moncrief and Alvin Robertson were so good at doing.
It was an All-American type performance from Black.
“The anticipation that Anthony had to start the second half was great. He did a great job on-ball. He did a great job blowing up some dribble-handoffs as well,” Musselman said following the game during a Zoom teleconference.
“Defensively, when you look at the blocks and look at the steals and then you look at the limited amount of turnovers that we had, all those are really good recipes.”
Later in the game, Makhel Mitchell made a series of soul-shrinking, super-clean blocks on Wildcats who ventured into his territory. The senior who is coming into his own playing with and without his twin Makhi made 7 blocks in the game. The Mitchell twins are so gifted with their hands defensively and offensively, and it’s paying off for the Razorbacks now game after game.
The Hogs’ interior defense was decisive, holding Kentucky muscleman and last year’s Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe to 7 points and 7 rebounds. For anyone else that’s a decent night, but not for Tshiebwe, who is a walking double-double machine.
“We’re playing really good basketball at the right time,” Musselman said. “I think we’re a team that continues to improve. I’ve seen some great growth defensively the last two games. (We got) some crucial stops at crucial moments in the game… Just really, really proud of how the team has continued to evolve and continued to improve.”
The Hogs had a balanced scoring night with Ricky Council IV, leading the way with 20 points, followed by Black with 19, Davis with 15, Makhel Mitchell with 15, and Jordan Walsh with 13. Davis had 7 assists with Black adding 5 and Council 4. Makhi Mitchell led the way with 9 rebounds.
The Hogs moved to 17-6 overall on the season and above .500 in SEC play for the first time this season at 6-5. Kentucky dropped to 16-8 overall and 7-4 in league play.
After collecting their first two conference road wins, the Hogs return to the friendly confines of Walton Arena to face Mississippi State at 5 p.m. Saturday for a game televised by ESPNU. The Bulldogs are 15-8 overall and 3-7 going into their home game tonight with LSU.
The Razorbacks then move into a very interesting part of their schedule with a trip to College Station to play Texas A&M on Feb. 15, Florida and Georgia at home on Feb. 18 and Feb. 21, then trips to No. 3 Alabama on Feb. 25, and No. 6 Tennessee on Feb. 28. The Hogs then close out the regular season with a rematch against Kentucky on March 4 at Walton Arena.
There’s a lot of opportunity in that block of games for a Hog team that is catching its stride, but make no mistake that is a super-tough stretch of games with road contests against the three best teams in the league in Alabama, Tennessee and Texas A&M, according to the standings.
There is also the potential of last year’s No. 1 recruit Nick Smith Jr. returning to the team, “very soon” according to ESPN color analyst Jimmy Dykes, who is of course a former Razorback. Any team could use the infusion of that kind of talent at this critical point in the season.
In fact, this afternoon, Musselman reiterated that sentiment Wednesday afternoon when he revealed that Smith has been practicing with the team, and will return to game action “in the near future.”
Some may worry how Smith’s return might affect the chemistry of a relatively young team who is playing so well, but Musselman’s time as a head coach in the NBA and maybe more so in lower professional leagues gives him an almost unique experience in dealing with similar situations among college coaches.
Tuesday was a special night with a fantastic performance by the Hogs. It will remained etched in the memory of many Razorbacks fans for life. However, what’s important is how Arkansas advances from here.
Was Tuesday night’s stellar victory a peak for these Hogs or a launching pad?