In some ways, it feels like the old days. Arkansas will play a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night and will use tenacious defense and outstanding scoring to try to wear down the No. 1 team in the country, led mostly by a pair of outstanding senior guards.

But holy Gonzaga, Batman. This isn’t Eddie Sutton or Nolan Richardson’s backcourt. Yes, the Razorbacks start a pair of well-tested senior guards who will largely decide Thursday’s game. But those senior guards with their 9 combined seasons of college basketball … well, 6 of those seasons were spent at South Dakota and Jacksonville.

JD Notae and Stanley Umude have less combined experience at Arkansas than a single guard from Sutton or Richardson’s best teams. In the transfer portal era, Arkansas’ veteran — transfer — backcourt is the new normal. Might as well get used to it.

Notae was the first of the two to arrive. A 6-1 guard who largely overlooked recruit who played his high school basketball in Georgia (with former Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans), Notae had only a handful of D1 offers and chose Jacksonville University. He made his mark right away, scoring over 15 points per game in each of his 2 seasons, before deciding to transfer. Notae moved schools in the dark ages when players still had to sit out a year, plus he sustained a broken wrist, so his redshirt at Arkansas in 2019-20 was well-timed. On Eric Musselman’s first Arkansas team, Notae was 1 of 5 transfers, 3 of whom sat out the season. The transfer market was lucrative for Musselman (and it was) — and even more so now that transfers, like grad transfers, don’t have t0 sit.

That was the situation with Umude, who played his full 4 years at South Dakota before becoming a graduate transfer last year. Umude was an underrecruited Texas high school product who went from averaging 1.1 points per game as a freshman for the Coyotes to finishing 4 seasons with a total of 1,520 points and 548 rebounds. A 6-6 wing, Umude could shoot the 3-pointer (101 treys as a Coyote) or drive to the basket. But he had pretty much exhausted the possibilities for a South Dakota program that has never been to the NCAA Touranment (at the Division I level anyway). When Arkansas one-and-done prep star Marcus Moody departed for pro basketball after the 2020-21 season, Umude seemed like a solid fit to help replace him.

Mussleman’s 2021-22 team had 5 transfers, counting Umude. The Razorbacks signed only 1 high school recruit in the class, freshman guard Chance Moore, who has contibuted 1.0 points per game this season. Why spend your time and energy trying to grab one-and-done kids who may or may not be ready to contribute? Instead, the Razorbacks are going into battle this March with the 23-year-old Notae and the 22-year-old Umude … and 9 years of college basketball experience.

The results have been impressive. Notae is the creator, the improvisor, the guy with a little Allen Iverson in his giddy-up. Like a basketball Will Rogers, he never met a shot he didn’t like … and he’s made most of them. Last year, he was a 6th man, scoring 12.8 points per game and winning SEC honors for the top bench player in the league.

This year, as a starter, he’s been a first-team All-SEC selection. Not only has he done more (18.4 points per game), but he’s been smarter and craftier– improving his shooting percentage from 38 % to 40%, shooting more free throws and making more, and nearly doubling his assist total while improving his assist to turnover rate. That said, even when his efficiency isn’t peak — as in his 5-for-16 and 5-for-18 shooting games so far in the NCAA Tournament, Notae makes things happen. He had 8 steals against New Mexico State, took 8 free throws in each of the Hogs’ 2 NCAA Tournament wins, and was the engine that kept Arkansas humming.

Umude has been the shooting star. He liked the 3-pointer at South Dakota — averaged 2.9 attempts per game and made 34% of them. But at Arkansas, he’s taken 3.9 treys per game and connected on 38% of the shots. He’s found many ways to chip in — finishing 3rd on the team in rebounding and steals and 2nd in blocked shots. In Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament wins, he has played all 80 minutes and has contributed 17 rebounds. A smoother, more careful player than Notae, he seems to wait for an opening before pouncing for a big basket or a defensive play. But he has certainly delivered.

And the good news for Musselman is that there’s no reason this strategy won’t continue even beyond these excellent guards. Arkansas is diving back into the high school recruiting waters, having signed 2 5-star standouts for next fall, along with 3 other prep products. But don’t bet against the Razorbacks scouring the transfer portal again. Because after the Jabari Smiths and TyTy Washingtons have finished their (likely) lone seasons of college basketball, the unrecruited guys from South Dakota and Jacksonville are the last SEC backcourt standing, and they’ve been great the whole way.