Win or lose vs. Gonzaga, Arkansas is already a clear winner of March
As the final seconds ticked away on Auburn’s once-magical season on Sunday night, I’d like to think that Eric Musselman had a wry smile come across his face. Sure, there’s the possibility that he wanted to see as many as SEC teams as possible advance to the second weekend, even if it included an Auburn team who had emerged as a modern-day rival for Arkansas. There’s the old “rising tide lifts all boats” cliché that a coach in Musselman’s spot could default to. Or there’s the contrary.
You know, why a wry smile would make sense. Auburn’s loss meant that Arkansas is the last SEC team dancing … again.
Two years, 2 relatively different teams and 2 instances in which the Hogs got to have bragging rights over the rest of the conference. If you don’t think that’s coming up on the recruiting trail or on transfer visits, well, you’re wrong.
Arkansas instead went with this SEC brag tweet:
Only SEC school to win a bowl game and advance to the men’s Sweet Sixteen: US
THE HOG IS STRONG pic.twitter.com/lRYAr9YaTv
— Arkansas Razorbacks 🐗 (@ArkRazorbacks) March 20, 2022
(This is the part in the column where I again say, “cheers, Hunter Yurachek.”)
In this year’s case, Arkansas earned the right to get the SEC spotlight for an entire week. While questions of “what happened to the SEC” fill headlines and airwaves, Arkansas gets to be the “yeah, but.”
Arkansas is the lone SEC team who avoided a loss to a double-digit seed. Think about that. Five other SEC teams were eliminated on opening weekend by virtue of losing to a double-digit seed, which very well could’ve been Musselman’s team with that shooting performance against New Mexico State.
In that Round of 32 matchup, Arkansas:
- A) Shot 28% overall
- B) Shot 19% from 3-point range
- C) Grabbed just 3 offensive rebounds
- D) Had its worst offensive output of the season
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”
But you know who would’ve done anything for an ugly win? Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee. None of them could do what Arkansas did. Shoot, forget being the only SEC team to advance to the Sweet 16. Arkansas is the only SEC team riding a streak of consecutive years win an NCAA Tournament victory, and it’s 1 of 6 teams to make consecutive Sweet 16s (Michigan, UCLA, Gonzaga, Villanova and Houston are the others).
It’s the first time Arkansas won an NCAA Tournament game in consecutive years since 1998-99 and it’s also the first such occasion in which it made it to the Sweet 16 in consecutive years since the peak-Nolan Richardson days of 1995-96. That ’96 Arkansas team’s run came to an end in the Sweet 16 against John Calipari’s No. 1 seed UMass with All-American big man Marcus Camby. It’s extremely similar to this year’s squad, who will face another No. 1 seed from a mid-major conference (Gonzaga) with All-American big man Drew Timme.
It’s Gonzaga who carries all the pressure. Arkansas is nearly a double-digit underdog playing against the top overall seed. Nobody is making Arkansas basketball the punchline of any joke.
As for every other SEC team, well, the jokes write themselves.
- Alabama: Guess the “championship school” just couldn’t win when it mattered!
- Auburn: Remember January?
- Kentucky: You had me at “Peacocks.”
- LSU: Hope you enjoyed your brief stay in March because you won’t be allowed back for a loooooong time.
- Tennessee: Death, taxes and Rick Barnes choking in March.
And those were all off the cuff. Lord knows you can make plenty of other jokes about 5 teams who lost to double-digit seeds on the opening weekend.
Even if Arkansas loses by 20 to Gonzaga, it gets to avoid that. For all we know, this game could rival last year’s Elite 8 showdown with eventual-national champ Baylor. Arkansas gave the Bears their toughest game of the tournament. Perhaps Arkansas has the ingredients to finish what Memphis started in that thriller against Gonzaga.
For all the talk about the offensive issues, we could be setting up a scenario wherein Jaylin Williams and that interior defense make it a frustrating night for Timme and future lottery pick Chet Holmgren. Memphis got Holmgren in some foul trouble, which put pressure on Timme to rise to the occasion. Of course, he did that. That’s why he’s one of the best players in the country.
The first weekend was a reminder that nothing is a given in March. Would Arkansas beating Gonzaga even rank among the top 5 upsets in the tournament so far? Doubtful. Yet you wouldn’t know it based on the way these odds look:
Final Four odds at @betmgm:
T Tech +450
Iowa St +550
Saint Peter’s +3000
— Andrew Doughty (@DoughtyBetMGM) March 21, 2022
(To be fair, Arkansas’ odds are worse than Iowa State’s because of what remains in their specific regionals. Arkansas would get the winner of Purdue-Texas Tech if it gets past Gonzaga. Iowa State, however, faces 10-seed Miami.)
Like I said, the pressure is off the Hogs. Musselman’s team should be loose in San Francisco. They’re not the ones who will be unfairly called “frauds” by the masses if they fall short of cutting down the nets in New Orleans. That’s Gonzaga. It’s Arkansas who will leave March as a program on the rise. Again. That’s a great place to be.
Every other SEC team has legitimate program-wide questions to be asking right now. Maybe it’s whether the style of play leads to inconsistent backcourt performances like with Alabama and Auburn. Perhaps it’s questioning what led to more unfulfilled Final Four potential like with Kentucky and Tennessee. Or if we’re talking about LSU, the best question is what in the world awaits?
Arkansas doesn’t have to ask any questions. Instead, it gets to enjoy another week of dancing. Oh, I suppose there is 1 question worth asking.
Who says the Hogs are done?