The Muss Bus came to a halt, and like the rest of the SEC, it just wasn't on that Final Four level
When Jared Butler attempted to drive through the teeth of the Arkansas defense, Jalen Tate stripped the ball away and pushed up-court. It looked like the Hogs were set up with numbers in a transition bucket opportunity, which wasn’t exactly an easy thing to come by against a relentless Baylor squad in the first 16 minutes of Monday night’s Elite Eight showdown.
Tate, however, couldn’t even make a pass because Matthew Mayer cut him off and fired an outlet pass the other way to MaCio Teague. To the naked eye, it appeared it would be quite the feat for Teague just to save the pass from going out of bounds. He instead did one better. In one motion, Teague corralled the pass and from under the hoop, put it off the glass and in for a Baylor basket.
If you couldn’t stay up late to watch Arkansas-Baylor battle for a Final Four spot, well, that’s pretty much a sum of how things went for the Hogs. That play was a microcosm for the SEC’s last remaining team in the NCAA Tournament. It was good, but just not on the level of the Baylors of the world.
Consider that the SEC’s March story. Good, not great.
It was the only Power 5 league that had a team sweep the regular-season title and the conference title, yet the selection committee said, “ya know what? We don’t think you’re as good as these 1-seeds.” And hey, it’s not like Alabama proved them wrong. If that were the case, the Crimson Tide would have been playing in an Elite Eight game instead of watching 11-seed UCLA play for a chance at the Final Four.
The Baylor team that Arkansas played on Monday night had the look of a national champion. Scott Drew’s squad was the first team Arkansas faced in the NCAA Tournament that didn’t blow a double-digit lead. And believe me, a lesser team could have.
Down 18 early, the Hogs should have wilted. Instead, JD Notae and Devo Davis kept Eric Musselman’s team afloat. And sure, it helped that former Auburn transfer Davion Mitchell went to the Baylor bench with 3 fouls and totally swung the momentum of the game.
On a different note, does the SEC get to take credit if Baylor wins it all? I mean, Mitchell was an Auburn freshman, Butler signed his Letter of Intent with Alabama and then got his release so … no? OK, just thought I’d ask. As great as some the SEC’s backcourt duos are, every last one of them would sign up to have Butler and Mitchell running things. That’s the type of backcourt you could see playing for a national title.
Arkansas just wasn’t quite on that level. Tate could take over games, but that usually included being able to back down a smaller guard to create high-percentage looks around the basket. There wasn’t that type of matchup against Baylor, and especially not with an elite defender like Mitchell.
All tournament long, Arkansas was streaky. Like, historically streaky. We probably should have known that’d be the case when it fell beyond by 14 to Colgate. Arkansas was the first team in the NCAA Tournament since 2014 UConn to overcome 3 double-digit deficits and win. Of course, 2 of those wins came thanks to last-second stops. It could have easily been a much different story with a much more abrupt ending.
Musselman’s team was indeed a fun story down to the final buzzer. Who would’ve thought 2 1/2 months ago that a 2-4 start to SEC play after what appeared to be a cupcake nonconference slate — it wasn’t by season’s end — would turn into Arkansas giving Baylor everything it could handle to decide a Final Four berth? Even the most eternal optimist couldn’t have foreseen that the Hogs would reach their first Elite Eight since the Bill Clinton administration.
It wasn’t 40 minutes of hell to play against the 2020-21 version of Arkansas, but it certainly didn’t look like much fun. Ask Baylor about that. Usually when the Bears come out firing like that, it’s over. But just as Arkansas always did, it found a way to adjust and make a run. The Hogs got the deficit down to 4 with a chance to make it a 1-possession game with 7 minutes left. That in itself felt like a small miracle considering the game couldn’t have started worse for Arkansas.
There just wasn’t enough left in the tank.
The Muss Bus went as far as it could. It couldn’t carry the SEC to a sweep of the football and men’s basketball titles — that hasn’t happened since 2011-12 — though that probably was a bit too much to put on a team who had 1 player with previous NCAA Tournament experience. This Final Four won’t feature an SEC team. There will be neither a 2017 South Carolina nor a 2019 Auburn-type team in the field. The last time the league had consecutive years with a team in the Final Four was 2014 and 2015 when Kentucky did the heavy lifting both years.
It finally feels like a time when the SEC doesn’t need Kentucky to lead the pack. Obviously, the Cats weren’t capable of that in a historically down year. Instead, it could be Alabama, Arkansas or Auburn that takes that challenge on. Who knows? Maybe if Will Wade can somehow avoid NCAA punishment …
You know what. I’m gonna punt on that one.
What’s clear is that the SEC basketball brand is strong. Six teams made the NCAA Tournament, 4 of which won a game. It was an opportunity missed in a way because 4 of those teams lost to seeds 8 or worse. Even though it didn’t get a crowning achievement of a team playing for a national title — something it still hasn’t had since 2014 — the pieces are in place for that brand to continue to grow. They’ll be even more in place once Musselman signs that long-term deal to stay in Fayetteville. Now, there’s a bit more free time to figure that out.
This won’t be the ultimate bragging rights year for the SEC, but it could very well have been a monumental foundation year for the future. Time will tell if that proves to be the case. If the “new bloods” are here to say, that would wipe away the “Kentucky and everyone else” narrative, which had some merit in the middle of the 2010s.
The SEC lacked that truly dominant team in 2020-21. It also didn’t have the depth of the Pac-12 or Big Ten, one of whom chose to display that in March while the other chose to brag about the regular season.
Whatever the case, a strange, herky-jerky year of SEC basketball is in the books. It came to a close in fitting fashion on Monday night.
It refused to give into more powerful forces, it entertained and it came up just short. Ultimately, though, it did 1 thing that we can all agree on.
It beat the heck out of last year’s ending.