Go back to Dec. 20.

Arkansas picked up a ho-hum win against a 3-5 Summit League team who fell to 0-5 on the road. Oral Roberts was 13 years removed from its last NCAA Tournament berth in program history. It was 47 years removed from its only NCAA Tournament victory in program history.

The last thing anyone could’ve expected that night was that Oral Roberts would even reach the NCAA Tournament. Anyone predicting it would get an Arkansas rematch in the Sweet 16 would’ve been laughed out of the room.

Sure, Arkansas wasn’t exactly a 21st century blue blood. At the time, it was still searching for its first trip to the Sweet 16 in 25 years. Even though that win clinched a 7-0 start, the Hogs were in the midst of getting criticized for their nonconference schedule.

My how the tables have turned.

When Arkansas and Oral Roberts meet again on Saturday night, it’ll be with an Elite 8 berth up for grabs. Oral Roberts is coming off a pair of stunning wins against Ohio State and Florida. Arkansas, on the other hand, went from a team with a 2-4 start in SEC play to earning a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Both have come a long way since their run of the mill December matchup.

But here’s why Arkansas will earn a shot to move on even further:

1. Let’s start with history working against Oral Roberts

Florida Gulf Coast and Oral Roberts. That’s the list of 15-seeds who reached the Sweet 16.

Here’s the list of 15-seeds who reached the Elite 8:

Oh, that’s right. There is no list. Nobody has ever done it before, which isn’t to say it’s impossible. FGCU had a double-digit lead on Florida in the Sweet 16 in 2013, but then the superior team controlled the rest of the game. Once upon a time, a 16-seed had never beaten a 1-seed. Then UMBC happened. Why can’t Oral Roberts carry that mojo against Arkansas?

It’s pretty simple. You’re asking a team to pull off 3 massive upsets in basically an 8-day stretch. Arkansas is going to be a double-digit favorite with nearly a full week to prepare. That’s probably a big reason why that line is at Arkansas -11.5. Now is the time when Oral Roberts is supposed to fall back to earth.

Again, that’s not a guarantee. But sustaining some of that confidence and beating 3 teams with legitimate NBA talent isn’t so easy for a Summit League team who had a 13-10 record in the last week of February.

2. Think of the deficits Arkansas has been in during the tournament already

I like when a team gets to the Sweet 16 having already dealt with a little bit of that in-game adversity in the tournament. It shows whether a team panics and starts taking bad shots.

Arkansas fell behind by double digits in each of its first 2 games. That 14-point deficit to Colgate was the exact time when you’d expect a team without tournament experience to tighten up, especially when Moses Moody went to the bench. Arkansas casually went on a 17-0 run in the final 4 minutes of the first half, and then cruised to a 17-point win.

Against Texas Tech, it was a 10-point deficit 10 minutes into the game. Arkansas then closed the half on a 20-8 spurt.

In both instances, the defensive intensity picked up. The Colgate turnaround was sparked by forcing turnovers (6 in that 4-minute stretch) while the Texas Tech turnaround was sparked by forcing difficult shots in the half court (the Red Raiders were 3-for-19 shooting to end the first half). So not only has Arkansas rallied back after falling behind by double digits twice in the tournament, it did so in 2 different ways.

File that one away if the Hogs fall behind early to the upset-minded Golden Eagles.

3. The late-game experience isn’t lacking, either

Let’s relive this another time, shall we?

That Texas Tech game might’ve taken years off the lives of Razorback fans, but it should’ve added a much needed element to this team — confidence to close games. That came via a defensive stop, yes, but there wasn’t a breakdown. It was a pressure moment, and Arkansas avoiding fouling or leaving a shooter wide open.

Devo Davis face-guarded Max McClung and made sure he didn’t get a touch, Justin Smith got beat off the dribble but recovered enough to make that a difficult layup and JD Notae crashed the glass. That’s the type of stuff that can be the difference this time of year.

If Arkansas gets in that spot again, it’ll have an extremely valuable defensive moment to fall back on. You better believe Davis would be asked to face-guard Max Abmas, who led the nation in the regular season with 24.2 points per game.

4. Moses Moody hasn’t really gotten rolling yet

I mean that in a good way. That aforementioned comeback against Colgate happened when Moody went to the bench. He made some key shots early in that one, and it’s not that he struggled from Texas Tech, but he never really took over. Other guys stepped up.

Think about this. Against Texas Tech, at least 2 other Razorbacks had as many or more points than Moody. Against Colgate, that number was 4. When Smith is out there, this offense isn’t Moody-dependent at all. It feels like we’re due for a stretch when he puts the team on his back and gets them out of a hole.

The shot-making is too good for the SEC Freshman of the Year to play second fiddle offensively. His big tournament moment is coming, and it could come against an Oral Roberts team who hasn’t really had to defend someone with his size and skill set in the first 2 rounds:

5. There should still be a massive advantage inside

I don’t want to lean on that Dec. 20 game too much because of how much better Oral Roberts has gotten, but there are a few things that seem like they should carry over.

One of that is Arkansas’ advantage inside. In the first meeting, the Hogs held a 58-32 rebound advantage, including a 24-7 advantage on the offensive glass. Shoot, Smith had 10 offensive rebounds by himself that night (and 17 total boards). Arkansas overcame a dreadful 4-for-24 clip from the 3-point line (16.7%) because of what it did down low.

Oral Roberts doesn’t play a particularly big lineup by any means. The Golden Eagles really only go about 7 deep with a fast lineup that can slash and shoot from deep, and only 3 of those guys are 6-7 and above. Of course, Arkansas doesn’t have a particularly deep rotation, but it at least has the 6-10 Jaylin Williams and the 6-7 Smith, who can defend several different positions (the 7-3 Connor Vanover can also be called upon if one of those guys get into foul trouble).

Oral Roberts leading scorer Kevin Obanor is 6-8, 220 pounds and he can shoot it from deep (he has 9 made 3-pointers so far in the NCAA Tournament). He’ll make Smith guard him 25 feet away from the rim, which won’t be easy. Nobody in the remaining field is averaging better than Obanor’s 29 points per NCAA Tournament game. He and Abmas could both get their share of buckets near the rim, though that’ll be a tall task if Williams doesn’t pick up cheap fouls early.

On the other end? I’m not sure who stops Smith. There’s a reason why he had a 22-point, 17-rebound showing in the first meeting. He looks even better now than he did 3 months ago.

Between Smith’s offense and Williams’ ability to dominate the defensive boards, there’s no reason why Arkansas shouldn’t have a leg up on the interior.

6. Musselman should be motivated to avoid a 2018 repeat

That is, get to the Sweet 16 and lose to a double-digit seed. Granted, that double-digit seed was Final Four-bound Loyola, an that was when Musselman was at Nevada. It was also a 1-point game that went down to the wire. There was by no means any underestimating going on. At least it didn’t look like it. Loyola hit a dagger 3 to go up 4 in the final seconds, which happened in part because Nevada didn’t deny a catch.

Musselman said afterwards that had Nevada gotten a stop on that possession, that could’ve been the difference.

Consider that a way of saying as inexperienced as this Arkansas team was in the NCAA Tournament coming into March — Jalen Tate was the only one with any NCAA Tournament experience and that was 1 game at Northern Kentucky — Musselman’s memory is fresh. He saw a dream opportunity at Nevada go up in smoke because of the all-important attention to detail.

He might not admit it, but those are the plays that stick with a coach. If it comes down to a key play late, it’s hard not to favor the guy who has been in that spot before.

7. Water is bound to find its (3-point) level

In Round 1, Arkansas faced a Colgate team who ranks No. 1 in defending the 3-pointer. In Round 2, Arkansas faced a Texas Tech team who ranks No. 23 in scoring defense. Not surprisingly, those looks weren’t so easy to come by. The Razorbacks’ shot selection wasn’t great, and neither was a 27% clip from 3-point range through the first 2 rounds.

Now, Arkansas will face an Oral Roberts team who ranks:

  • No. 286 in scoring defense
  • No. 215 in opposing 3-point field goal percentage
  • No. 180 in opposing field goal percentage

Arkansas ranks No. 40 in America in made 3-pointers, and even though it only shoots it at a 34% clip, one has to think those shots have a much better chance of falling against Oral Roberts. Against those smaller guards, getting those looks shouldn’t necessarily be an issue.

Will Arkansas do to Oral Roberts what Alabama did to Maryland? I wouldn’t bet on that. But would I bet on this being the Razorbacks’ best tournament showing from long range? Absolutely.

8. Musselman can sell the whole “these guys actually played you tough” thing

Not only did Oral Roberts hang around with Arkansas back in December, Smith made a layup with 11 seconds left in the first half of that game to cut the lead to 10 at the break.

Why bring that up? There shouldn’t be any sort of underestimating based on that “No. 15” next to Oral Roberts. Ask Florida or Ohio State what happens when you take your foot off the gas down the stretch against this team. Ohio State led by 4 in the final 70 seconds. Florida led by 7 with 6.5 minutes left. Neither could put Oral Roberts away.

Those are 2 obvious selling points for Musselman to use. He doesn’t have to manufacture any sort of reason to believe that Oral Roberts can end his team’s season. He’s seen it. They’ve all seen it.

Now, they have to believe it.