Arkansas basketball: 5 reasons the Razorbacks can upset Duke and earn that Final Four spot
It’s a long time coming for Razorbacks fans. The Razorbacks haven’t been to the Final Four since 1995. But after taking down No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga, all that stands between the Hogs and that destination is a Duke team with some aging coach you may have heard of. Vegas has installed Arkansas as roughly a 4-point underdog … considerably less than the 9.5-point line the Hogs busted against Gonzaga.
Here are 5 reasons Arkansas has another upset left in the tank.
1. March is about winning in unusual ways, and that’s what Arkansas has done
In 3 victories so far, Arkansas has seen a little bit of everything. They had to hold off an underseeded Vermont team that made 9 3-pointers, committed only 6 turnovers, and tried to patiently handle them. They couldn’t make a shot against New Mexico State (28% shooting), but forced 17 turnovers and shot 88% from the free-throw line. Against the top offense in the nation, Gonzaga, they were outrebounded, gave up 25 points to the opposition’s best player and had their own star shoot 9-for-29. Again, a reminder: they’re 3-0 in that span.
Duke wins in one way: with offense. They’re KenPom’s 2nd-best offense in the nation. They’re 47th in defense, which falls right between Wichita State and Penn State. Duke made its living in a conference where nobody finished above 41st in the nation in defense (Wake Forest). By comparison, 8 SEC teams finished in the top 40 in that category. Duke has not shot below 51.7% so far in the NCAA Tournament or scored less than 78 points. Arkansas has an edge because they’ve got so many more ways to win. For instance …
2. Duke doesn’t play well when they turn the ball over, and Arkansas can force turnovers
Duke is a precise offensive machine, but it’s not a machine that reacts well to pressure. When turning the ball over 14 or more times this season, the Blue Devils are 2-3. Arkansas forced, you guessed it, 14 turnovers from Gonzaga. And 17 turnovers in a sloppy win over New Mexico State before that. Not that it’s unusual for Arkansas — they have forced 14+ turnovers 20 times this season, including 7 times against NCAA Tournament teams.
3. Meanwhile, Duke doesn’t force turnovers, which helps Arkanas’schances
On the other hand, Duke forced 14+ turnovers just 7 times all year, and the only time they did it against an NCAA Tournament team was against Gonzaga in November. Meanwhile, in 6 games Duke only forced 5 turnovers. They went 2-4 in those games, including losses to non-NCAA Tournament Virginia and Florida State teams. Arkansas was 22-1 when they committed fewer than 14 turnovers and has averaged just 8 in their first 3 NCAA Tournament games. So combine Arkansas’ aggressive defense, which is something Duke hasn’t seen much of, and the Blue Devils’s own “hang on the by their fingernails” defensive style, and you’ve got two ingredients for an upset.
4. Notae again
One big advantage that Arkansas has is that their best player doesn’t even have to shoot particularly well to come up huge. JD Notae barely shot 30% against Gonzaga, but he made enough plays to deliver the win. Let’s note that Notae also was huge against streaky Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard. Duke freshman Trevor Keels has shot the ball terribly in their losses, and would be a great candidate for the same thing. Coach K has wisely kept Keels on the bench more and more, but Notae will blanket Jeremy Roach and use his quickness advantage to get into the paint and draw fouls.
5. Trey Wade is the hidden key
Arkansas’ surprise element might well be Trey Wade, who was phenomenal in the Gonzaga win. Wade did it all — a near season-high 15 points, a trio of 3-point shots, and making Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren work for every close shot or every rebound was massive. Mark Williams is Duke’s silent assassin. While everybody chases around Paolo Banchero and worries about him raining in jump shots, Williams hangs out at the rim and shoots 71%. If Wade can make Duke’s post players chase him, first, he’ll help Jaylin Williams be effective and second, he’ll throw Williams out of his usual comfort zone.