Another year, another deep NCAA Tournament run and another buzzsaw awaited Arkansas
By night’s end in Las Vegas, there was a pretty clear takeaway.
The best version of Arkansas wouldn’t have been enough to beat that UConn team. Dare I say, that was the best version of UConn who showed up to Sweet 16.
Another NCAA Tournament run to the second weekend, and another season-ending buzzsaw. Rinse and repeat, Hog fans.
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Granted, there are far worse ways for a season to end than having 3 consecutive trips to the second weekend of March Madness. No other SEC team has an active streak of 3 consecutive NCAA Tournaments with a single victory. It’s because of that year-to-year consistency that has Eric Musselman at the top of any ranking of SEC coaches.
But yeah, we didn’t need 40 minutes of basketball to tell us that UConn was on a different level. It was pretty obvious in the first 20.
There’s a reason why Dan Hurley’s team entered Thursday ranked No. 4 in KenPom and 1 of 3 teams who ranked in the top 15 in both offensive and deficiency. The metrics loved the Huskies, and so too did the scoreboard.
This Arkansas team had holes, and UConn exploited them. For starters, a poor 3-point shooting team falling behind by 17 points in the second half wasn’t ideal. Sure, the Hogs crawled back after falling behind by 17 against Mizzou earlier in the year.
With all due respect to Dennis Gates’ squad, um, Mizzou ain’t on UConn’s level.
The unselfishness, the second-chance points, the points in the paint, the precision shooting, the ability to answer after Arkansas spurts … you name it, UConn did it.
Once the Huskies went on that 14-0 run in the middle of the first half, it was off to the races.
14-0 RUN FOR THE HUSKIES @UConnMBB has doubled up Arkansas ?#MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/xidml9TPuF
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 23, 2023
Adama Sanogo was always going to be a challenging matchup, but really, Jordan Hawkins’ game-high 24 points was the difference. Those 2 had a combined 42 points on 15-for-24 shooting. Yowza. UConn had 1.484 points per possession on 61% shooting in the first half..
Reality was, Arkansas was probably going to need another Devo Davis game to stay on the floor with that UConn team. Davis picking up 2 early fouls didn’t help.
A team who entered the night ranked No. 352 out of 363 teams in 3-pointers made per game wasn’t in a great spot to pull off a rally.
That’s not to say the Hogs didn’t go down without a fight. Anthony Black left it all on the court through a bad ankle. He had an 8-0 run by himself in a 20-point night. Musselman left the second-team All-SEC selection in the game even into the final minute of the blowout.
Anthony Black very emotional walking off the court. Man, I’m gonna miss watching him play. Thanks for being a Hog & fighting thru all the pain to lay it all out on the line.
— John Nabors (@BuzzJohnNabors) March 24, 2023
What Black’s immediate future looks like remains to be seen. Lord knows the McDonald’s All-American and possible lottery pick has a decision to make. There’ll be time for that, as is the case for the rest of a talented, but inconsistent Arkansas team.
You’re reminded why Arkansas, amidst injuries and just overall inconsistency, struggled to live up to those high preseason expectations for the majority of the year. Beating Kansas, however, will paint this season in a different light than it could’ve been for a team who went 8-10 in SEC play.
This does, however, feel like the new standard for Arkansas hoops. Davis was the lone member of all 3 teams. Even if the Hogs face significant roster turnover, Musselman’s transfer portal evaluations and recruiting have still proven to be among the best in the sport.
Musselman was a win away from 3 consecutive Elite Eight berths, which was something even Nolan Richardson never accomplished in his illustrious career in Fayetteville. It was hardly a disappointment to lose to that version of UConn. Just like losing to Final Four-bound Duke in last year’s Elite Eight or giving eventual-national champ Baylor everything it could handle in the 2021 Elite Eight, there was no shame in running into a better team.
Forget the seeds. UConn has already outperformed that in March.
UConn margin of victory so far in the NCAA tournament: Iona (24 points), Saint Mary’s (15 points) and Arkansas (23 points). Saint Mary’s and Arkansas are top-15 in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. Ain’t nobody playing better than UConn right now. Nobody.
— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) March 24, 2023
Maybe next year, Arkansas will be the buzzsaw. Or maybe it’ll be the year after that.
The beauty of Musselman’s teams is that they all have a knack for playing their best ball in March. If Musselman is Tom Izzo South, Arkansas fans should take solace in the fact that the Michigan State coach didn’t lead the Spartans to a Final Four until Year 4, and Year 5 was when he cut down the nets.
It’s not crazy to suggest that Musselman could follow a similar path. It’s also not crazy to suggest that Arkansas, at the very least, will be a brutal out every March as long as he’s on the sidelines.
It’ll take a buzzsaw.