Arkansas looking for another sweet NCAA Tournament run after years in the wilderness
Scattered throughout Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Arkansas fans rose to their feet and shimmied their arms through their air, celebrating an 86-68 win over Colgate with a Hog Call, the iconic cheer that used to be a staple of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“Woooooooooo, Pig! Sooie!”
“Woooooooooo, Pig! Sooie!”
“Woooooooooo, Pig! Sooie!”
In case, you forgot, that’s how it goes. Hey, a quarter-century is a long time.
Arkansas, one of the nation’s dominant programs from the late 1970s through the mid-90s, is now just 40 minutes away from ending one of college basketball’s most confusing droughts. Now that the No. 3 seed Razorbacks have survived a bit of a first-round challenge from Colgate, they need to win just one more game to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996.
“You know what, there was no celebrating in the locker room tonight,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “The other tournaments we’ve been able to advance in there’s a lot of celebration, even after Game 1. There was none when I walked in and asked if they were happy and alright. They said, ‘Coach, we were supposed to win.' We know this next game is going to be even more of a challenge."
The Razorbacks, to be sure, have the kind of team that can reach deeper in this tournament than the Sweet 16. A break here or there, and they could absolutely find themselves winning the South region and making a Final Four.
But first things first, and for Arkansas, breaking this 25-year hex is a requirement for returning to national prominence. It might look good on paper for the Razorbacks against No. 6 seed Texas Tech on Sunday, but sometimes these historical hurdles can be trickier than they seem.
And there's no great explanation for why it happened.
Though the acrimonious way Arkansas parted with Nolan Richardson during the 2001-02 season can be debated, nobody could have foreseen on the day he was fired that the program wouldn’t reach the Sweet 16 again by 2021.
Under Eddie Sutton, Arkansas turned into one of the best programs in the country. Under Richardson, it became a durable power that reached the second week of the NCAA Tournament six times in a stretch of seven years with a national title and another runner-up finish.
Colgate's Jack Ferguson (13) and Arkansas' Justin Smith (0) fight for possession during the Razorback' 85-68 first-round win on Friday. (Photo: Albert Cesare, USA TODAY Sports)
Sure, Richardson’s program had fallen off a few degrees by the end. Those Elite Eight and Sweet 16 runs started turning into first-round exits. The era of dominance had run its course.
Still, it's been a long time in the wilderness for Arkansas. They replaced Richardson with Stan Heath, a hot young coach coming off a Cinderella tournament run at Kent State. He got Arkansas back to the NCAA Tournament but didn’t advance and got run out of town after five years. John Pelphrey came from the Rick Pitino-Billy Donovan coaching tree and had some success at South Alabama. He was pretty much a disaster, gone after four seasons.
Mike Anderson looked like a sure thing. He had been Richardson’s right-hand man during the glory years and had taken UAB to the Sweet 16 and Missouri to the Elite Eight. He was going to bring the Hogs back to the “40 Minutes of Hell” style of play and restore tradition. Instead, it was mostly underwhelming with three NCAA bids in eight years and no deep runs.
Now Musselman, in only his second season, has Arkansas on the cusp after a regular season in which the Razorbacks won nine straight games before losing to LSU in the SEC Tournament.
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For a moment, it appeared Arkansas’ tournament nightmares were about to haunt them again Friday. They were down 14 points early to Colgate, playing sluggishly, settling for shots that did not need to be taken given their athletic advantage.
"I thought that maybe our inexperience in the tournament showed the first 10 minutes of the game, so many young players,” Musselman said. “I thought we got a little bit settled in after the nerves of that first 10 minutes.”
The reason? Musselman went to a smaller lineup and cranked up the pressure. Not exactly an all-out, Richardson-style 40 minutes press but just enough to get Colgate playing faster and out of its comfort zone. Suddenly, Colgate went 5 1/2 minutes at the end of the first half without scoring, allowing Arkansas to take the lead into the locker room.
Then after a brief flurry of threes by Colgate early in the second half, the Razorbacks locked in again on the defensive end, forcing 22 turnovers as they ran away down the stretch.
“The next game is going to have a different complexion,” Musselman said. "Somebody will have to step up. We’ll probably have to play bigger than we did tonight. We heard everybody talk about how circle this game we were going to get upset. I’m just happy we’re advancing and moving on to the next game.”
Over the next couple days, Arkansas is going to hear a lot about the chance to end 25 years without a Sweet 16. If the Razorbacks handle that challenge as well as they did in the first round, that drought will be history.
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