DES MOINES — It’s simple sufficient for a cynic to consider the celebration was premeditated, and perhaps it was. When the ultimate buzzer sounded and No. 8 seed Arkansas had performed the unthinkable — knocking off the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks within the spherical of 32 of the 2023 males’s NCAA match — Razorbacks head coach Eric Musselman knew precisely the place he was going.
Musselman discovered his household seated within the entrance row of the world, jumped on the media desk, and ripped off his crimson polo shirt. The coach led the Razorback devoted on a delirious rendition of the varsity’s “Woo Pig Sooie” chant, however he couldn’t make it by with out breaking character. Musselman locked eyes along with his spouse Danyelle and his daughter Mariah halfway by the custom, and began laughing — seemingly acknowledging how ridiculous it was for a 58-year-old man to be standing on a desk shirtless hooting and hollering in the midst of Iowa.
The defending nationwide champions have been out of the match within the first weekend, and Arkansas was going to Las Vegas to proceed the dance.
A Candy 16 run wasn’t presupposed to be so shocking for this specific Arkansas workforce. Musselman had led the Razorbacks to the Elite Eight every of the final two years, and had probably the most gifted workforce of his school teaching profession this season. Arkansas began the 12 months within the top-10 of the preseason polls, buoyed by the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class. There’s at the least 4 NBA gamers on this roster, and perhaps greater than that. However simply because a workforce can recruit a number of five-stars and land high-impact transfers within the portal doesn’t imply the season goes to be simple. This Razorbacks’ marketing campaign has been something however, and the sport towards Kansas was distillation of that.
It didn’t really feel like Arkansas was the higher workforce on Saturday. The Hogs shot 3-of-15 from three-point vary on the evening. That they had three gamers foul out. They needed to climb out of a 12-point second half deficit. Kansas led or was tied for all however 1:47 of sport time.
If Kansas makes a couple of extra free throws, if Kansas grabs one or two extra free balls, if the referees make or don’t make one or two extra calls both means, it’s a distinct sport. After all, simply getting the sport to coin flip standing towards a program like Kansas is an accomplishment in itself.
“It is a workforce that’s nonetheless rising,” Musselman stated after a decent first spherical win towards Illinois. “There was different groups which have plateaued. Possibly a few our groups at Nevada we have been previous, veteran guys, and perhaps sooner or later we have been simply making an attempt to avoid wasting legs. However this can be a workforce that’s of steady enchancment.”
Two days after Arkansas misplaced to Coach Okay’s final ever Duke workforce within the Elite Eight final season, Musselman tweeted a photograph of himself in entrance of three McDonald’s hamburgers with the hashtag “let’s eat.” One of many 10 highest paid coaches within the nation was not hungry for quick meals — as an alternative, he simply landed his third McDonald’s All-American within the class of 2022.
Arkansas already had commitments from five-star recruits Nick Smith Jr. and Jordan Walsh. The third ‘burger boy’ to affix on was Anthony Black, a 6’7 guard out of Dallas with immense defensive versatility, a robust really feel for the sport, and a successful pedigree popping out of Duncanville Excessive in Dallas. The Razorbacks would wish to switch virtually their total rotation from the earlier 12 months, however grabbing three McDonald’s All-Individuals is an efficient method to begin. Including two terrific transfers with Missouri’s Trevon Brazile and Wichita State’s Ricky Council IV helped, too.
Sadly for Arkansas, the adversity hit virtually instantly. Smith — thought of the highest NBA prospect in school basketball coming into the 12 months — suffered a proper knee harm in preseason and was sidelined indefinitely at one level. Brazile tore his ACL in December, taking away the workforce’s most gifted massive man for the season. Arkansas misplaced 5 of six to open SEC play, and by no means actually recovered. They completed convention play with a shedding report at 8-10, and positioned No. 10 within the 14-team league on the finish of the 12 months.
Nonetheless, the SEC was ok, and Arkansas’ non-conference slate was spectacular sufficient, to get the Razorbacks into the match with a No. 8 seed.
A workforce with as a lot expertise on-paper as Arkansas ought to profile as an offensive powerhouse. As an alternative, the one cause Arkansas continues to be dancing — the one cause it made the match within the first place — is due to its protection. It’s uncommon for five-star freshmen to convey extra on the defensive finish than the offensive finish, however that’s definitely the case for Black and Walsh. Whereas their field rating numbers have been modest within the win over the Jayhawks, their contributions have been immense.
Walsh took on one of many hardest assignments within the nation in First-Workforce All-American Jalen Wilson. Wilson carried the Jayhawks offense early on Saturday, at the least till Walsh checked in. The freshmen’s protection was so spectacular that Wilson might solely muster subject aim makes an attempt for the primary quarter-hour of the second half. Walsh blanketed among the finest scorers within the nation along with his size (7’2 wingspan), his quickness, and his self-discipline — even when he nonetheless fouled out by the top.
Black, in the meantime, took on a fellow McDonald’s All-American freshman and future lottery decide in Gradey Dick. Dick is without doubt one of the greatest three-point marksmen within the nation at 6’8, and his capacity to bend the protection along with his taking pictures gravity by operating round screens makes him a particularly powerful cowl. Black largely shut him down, at one level within the second half preventing excessive of a display screen and getting a clear block on a Dick three-point try. What number of different gamers within the nation might have swatted that shot?
“It means a lot simply to get one cease on him,” Walsh stated after the sport on guarding Wilson. “To the workforce it’s greater than only a cease. Should you’re sacrificing your self to cease him from scoring, even in case you’re not scoring on the opposite finish, it exhibits you’re sacrificing to your workforce and affecting successful.”
Whereas the freshmen fueled so most of the headlines for this Arkansas workforce, it was a pair veterans who carried the scoring load. Davonte Davis, the lone holdover from final 12 months’s rotation, scored 25 factors on 9-of-15 taking pictures with slippery drives into the paint. Council had 21 factors regardless of making simply 5-of-18 pictures from the sector. He’s such a robust driver that Kansas needed to play off him to keep away from letting him waltz to the rim. Once they dropped, Council popped jumpers from mid-range, together with a pair massive ones in crunch time. His offensive rebound off his personal missed free throw with underneath 30 seconds left was the most important play of the sport.
“We’re celebrating again there as a result of we have now such unbelievable respect for Kansas, defending champions, MVP of their league in No. 10, Jalen Wilson,” Musselman stated after the sport. “They’re a tough, arduous, arduous workforce to organize for.”
The catharsis Musselman confirmed standing on the media desk solely comes by surviving the razor skinny margins of March Insanity. On Saturday, he was fortunate sufficient to be on the fitting facet of destiny. The least he might do was let America see his naked chest.