Ugly loss to UConn doesn’t diminish Hogs’ Sweet 16 accomplishment

Arkansas guard Ricky Council IV (1) goes up for a slam dunk against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Only one team a season gets a graceful exit from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

We won’t know for another 10 days who this year’s national champion will be, and maybe by then the numbness of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ bitter ouster from the Sweet 16 will have faded?

Shortly after the tipoff of the West Regional semifinal, most of the drama was gone.

The UConn Huskies clearly had the Hogs outmanned, nearly across the board. By halftime, the Huskies’ 46-29 lead was insurmountable. It wasn’t a matter of if UConn would win but by how much. With around nine minutes left in the game, it looked like the Huskies might hang 100 on the Razorbacks.

It’s odd to call an 88-65 loss merciful, but it kind of was. The game was out of hand for so long, it’s difficult to call it heart-wrenching.

The Hogs had no visible tears after the loss — at least none captured by CBS’ cameras. The outcome was set in stone so early, the hurt was internalized before the final buzzer.

Or maybe so many tears of joy were shed last weekend by the Razorbacks that the well was left dry?

Coach Eric Musselman’s hard-luck Hogs found the gumption to win their way into the Sweet 16 after a roller-coaster season to the surprise of many.

Last Saturday’s victory over top-seeded Kansas was an all-timer. Never forget these Hogs delivered one of the program’s finest moments when you start to grouse about the loss to UConn.

Still the finality of losing in the NCAA Tournament is always bleak. One second all the hope in the world is yours, but in the blink of 40 minutes, it’s gone.

It’s odd to ponder, but does getting blown out soften the blow? I mean there are no should’ve, could’ve, or would’ve thoughts this morning. Just emptiness.

That is just from a fans’ perspective.

It’s hard to imagine the healing that has to take place with the Razorbacks’ coaching staff and players in the moment of such a cruel loss.

So much time, effort, energy, blood, sweat, tears, and every emotion went into this season, and it’s over, that quick.

In the coming days and weeks, we’ll eventually learn which Razorbacks will return for next season and which won’t. Kamani Johnson’s eligibility is up, but with the NCAA’s Covid Year extension, even some senior Hogs have options.

When asked if he would return next season, junior Ricky Council IV said no comment to reporters. It was probably the best answer to give so quickly after the end of the game. One hopes both he and fellow junior Davonte “Devo” Davis will return to lead the 2023-24 Razorbacks, but it’s understandable for both to look into their options in this day and age.

It’s almost a certainty that Anthony Black, who played a whale of a game against UConn, and Nick Smith Jr. will take their talents to the NBA. That was pretty clear from the time they signed with the Hogs last year.

Are they ready for the NBA?

No, but evidently the NBA is ready to pay them guaranteed millions — life-changing money — to begin their pro careers.

Fellow freshman Jordan Walsh could join them. He has the size, athletic ability, and raw talent to perhaps be drafted in the NBA’s second round. The money wouldn’t be guaranteed, though.

What Walsh has to figure out is whether another year at Arkansas could push him into being a first-round pick in 2024, and would that investment of time pay off in the draft next year.

Injured Trevon Brazile, who looked like the Razorbacks’ best player until injuring his knee last December, has a similar decision to make. It sounds like his rehab will go into August. Even with his potential, would an NBA squad take a chance and draft him, and would he be low-balled for the risk of taking an inured player?

I’m not sure what the bigger risk is for Brazile — staying or going?

Big men Makhi and Makhel Mitchell and Jalen Graham each have a year of eligibility left. Hopefully they return.

Other Razorbacks — Barry Dunning Jr., Derrian Ford, and Joseph Pinion — who didn’t play much this season have options to weigh, too. Entering the transfer portal is one of them, but one hopes they will stick it out with the Hogs.

Musselman and his staff have already signed two freshmen for next year in center Baye Fall (6-10, 205) of Denver, Co. and Layden Blocker (6-3, 175) of Little Rock. Fall is a top-20 recruit and Blocker is top-40. Both are rated as four-star players.

As always Arkansas is active in the transfer portal. Every program is looking for an impact big man, but based on the Hogs’ key weakness this year, I’d guess Musselman would be seeking a couple of outside shooters who can also defend at a high level. One without the other really wouldn’t fill the holes that this upcoming Razorback squad needs filled.

Right now, the wound of such a harsh whipping is still fresh. Some fans are going grumble and gripe, but I think in time, this Razorback team will be remembered favorably for what they accomplished this season, particularly considering the hardships.

Injuries didn’t allow the Razorbacks to be all that we had hoped they would be at the beginning of the season, but make no mistake, advancing to the Sweet 16 is a fine accomplishment.

As proud as the Razorback program is, Arkansas went from 1997 to 2019 without advancing that far in the NCAA Tournament. That’s a lifetime for most college-age students.

Covid-19 robbed Arkansas of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, but the Hogs weren’t even a lock to make the Field of 68 when NCAA competition was called to a halt the day after the Hogs advanced past Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament.

While I’m not a smart man, what I have learned following Arkansas athletics since 1975, is to enjoy the good times.

Advancing to the Sweet 16 is something each member of the Razorback team and staff should be proud of in no uncertain terms. Hog fans should remember it favorably, too.