By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.

If that’s true and you believe postseason results trump all else, then it’s important to acknowledge just how strong the Arkansas Razorbacks’ last three NCAA tournament runs have been, including the most-recent trek to the Sweet 16 following a 2022-23 season that did not live up to the expectations that came attached at the hip of preseason national Top 10 rankings.

Three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances (2020-21, ’21-22, and ’22-23), two of which were springboards to back-to-back Elite Eights (’20-21 and ’21-22), speak plainly enough to the success of the Hoop Hogs’ brand on the biggest of national stages in college basketball.

But drill down a bit more, and the spoil of Big Dance riches that Arkansas has accumulated and enjoyed in the past three seasons might come as a surprise given the Razorbacks did not make a single Final Four in that span.

Consider  …

– Arkansas’ aforementioned back-to-back-to-back NCAAT Sweet 16 runs that included two consecutive Elite Eights marked only the second time in program history the Hogs managed that accomplishment (Richardson’s ’92-93, ’93-94, ’94-95, ’95-96 went to four straight Sweet 16s, with ’93-94 winning a national title and ’94-95 finishing as national runner-up).

– After tumbling out of the national Top 25 rankings in ’22-23 — both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls — in January following a 1-5 start in SEC play, Arkansas would not author more near-spotless runs through February and March like it did in the previous two seasons, and thus the Razorbacks did not make a return to the national rankings in the regular season. BUT, a 2-1 NCAAT finish including that Sweet 16 berth was enough for the Hoop Hogs to ascend back into the USA Today Coaches Top 25 for a final ranking of No. 21 (the Coaches poll is released AFTER the NCAAT, while the AP has its final poll PRIOR to the Dance). A big part of that post-postseason credibility was Arkansas’ 72-71 upset of West Region No. 1-seed and defending national champion Kansas in the Round of 32 (more on that later), but also splitting games against the eventual national-title-game participants, UConn and San Diego State (more on that later, too), likely also played into the Hogs earning their way back into the national rankings. The Razorbacks have finished ranked in the Top 25 in each of the last three seasons (No. 6 in Coaches and No. 10 in AP in ’20-21, No. 10 in Coaches and No. 17 in AP in ’21-22, and No. 21 in Coaches in ’22-23). Prior to that stretch, the last time Arkansas men’s basketball had three consecutive final national Top 25 rankings were in the 1990s under Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson.

– For an Arkansas team that suffered 14 losses in ’22-23 — the team was 22-14 overall — while finishing two games below .500 in SEC matchups (8-10 in the SEC regular season for 10th place, and 9-11 when including the SEC tournament) as the league placed 8 teams in the NCAAT, the fact the Razorbacks finished as the third-highest ranked team out of four SEC teams in the final Coaches poll (Alabama at No. 4, Tennessee at No.  16, and Texas A&M at No. 25) makes it clear that a small sample-size of NCAAT results can carry more weight than large chunks of games in the regular season.

– Peeling back Arkansas’ ’22-23 campaign even more while looking at it with full end-of-season context, the Hogs were: a) 1-1 against the national-title game-participants [a 78-74 overtime win over now-No. 2 and national runner-up San Diego State at a neutral site in November, and an 88-65 loss to now-No. 1 and national champion UConn at a neutral site in the NCAAT West Region Sweet 16 in March]; b) 1-2 vs. NCAAT No. 1 seeds [the aforementioned 72-71 win over West Region No. 1 seed Kansas at an NCAAT neutral site in March, and two losses to overall No. 1 seed Alabama during home-and-away SEC play during the regular season]; c) 0-1 vs. an NCAAT Elite Eight team [Hogs lost by 3 points to now-No. 12 Creighton at a neutral site in November]; and d) 6-8 vs. 9 other NCAAT teams [neutral-site win over Illinois in NCAAT first round, neutral-site win over Auburn in the SECT, home win over now-No. 25 Texas A&M, road win over Kentucky, home win over Missouri, and a non-conference home win over UNC-Wilmington; and two losses away from home to now-No. 25 Texas A&M, on the road against now-No. 16 Tennessee, on the road against now-No. 19 Baylor, home loss against Kentucky, on the road against Missouri, on the road against Auburn, home against Mississippi State].

– That’s an 8-12 record against the NCAAT field of teams the Hogs played, and of those 20 games Arkansas was home for only 6 contests. It was clearly the most-challenging schedule — both non-conference and SEC — in Head Hog Eric Musselman’s four seasons at Arkansas, and when factoring in the Razorbacks’ significant injury issues that kept star players Nick Smith, Jr., and Trevon Brazile out of the lineup for most of the season, it speaks to the leveling-up responses by players and coaches alike to forge ahead for another successful, nationally relevant season. All the adversity and losses along the way were part of a growing-pains process for a team that came out on the other side prepared to make a run in the NCAAT.

– The win over Kansas helped Arkansas achieve historic prestige on both the national and program stages. By beating an NCAAT No. 1 seed for a second consecutive season in their own region (NCAAT overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga was the victim in the Sweet 16 in ’21-22), the Razorbacks became 1 of only 4 Division 1 programs all-time to have back-to-back wins over No. 1 seeds in their own region (Duke, UCLA, and Butler are the other three). And by beating the defending national champion Jayhawks in the NCAAT, it marked only the second time in school history that the Hogs accomplished the feat (Arkansas icon U.S. Reed’s famous buzzer-beating halfcourt heave to defeat defending national champion Louisville in the ’80-81 Dance was the other). In the prior NCAAT in ’21-22 when the Hogs’ upset overall No. 1 seed and AP top-ranked Gonzaga, it marked the first time a Division 1 team had defeated a No. 1-ranked team in both the regular-season (the Hogs knocked off No. 1 Auburn at home in February 2022) and the postseason. These facts only become trivial if not used strategically to sell and market your program to recruits and on social media platforms, which Arkansas does aggressively and effectively.

– Peeling back a bit more to include the Hogs’ back-to-back NCAAT Elite Eight runs in ’20-21 and ’21-22, Arkansas was 1-3 against the last three national champions spanning the last three seasons — the win over ’21-22 champ Kansas; two losses to ’20-21 champ Baylor (a neutral-site loss to the No. 1 seed Bears in the ’20-21 Elite Eight, and the road loss against the Bears in ’22-23); and the loss to ’22-23 champ UConn in the ’22-23 Sweet 16. Using those results and expanding a bit more, Arkansas was 3-3 spanning the past three seasons against 5 of the last 6 national-title-game participants, with all 5 of those games played at neutral sites. That record includes the aforementioned wins against Gonzaga (Zags played in ’20-21 title game) and San Diego State (SDSU played in ’22-23 title game). The only national-title-game participant from the last three seasons that Arkansas did not play in the same span was North Carolina, which played in the ’21-22 national title game where it lost to Kansas.

– Arkansas has gone deepest twice (Elite Eights in ’20-21 and ’21-22) and as deep once (Sweet 16 in ’22-23) in the last three NCAATs compared to the other 13 SEC teams. Valid bragging rights in a league that boasts that it’s the best in the land in most sports, and certainly it has become respected more now than ever in college hoops (eight SEC teams making the Dance in ’22-23 is proof of concept).

– Oh yeah, Arkansas has already placed its first one-and-done in the NBA (home-grown guard Moses Moody, a 2021 lottery pick after leading Arkansas to the first of those Elite Eights) with at least two more (the aforementioned Smith and yet-to-announce Anthony Black, both freshmen guards from ’22-23) receiving their share of 2023 NBA Draft lottery-pick projections. Junior guards Ricky Council IV and Davonte “Devo” Davis are in the draft as well (Davis is leaving the door cracked for a possible return), and Council has multiple late-first / early-second round draft projections. If three Hogs from the ’22-23 team get drafted, it will mark only the second time in program history that a trio of Hogs were selected in the same draft (Richardson’s trio of Toddy Day, Oliver Miller, and Lee Mayberry were all first-round picks in 1992).  Jaylin Williams last year (2022 early-second-round pick after being a key piece in those back-to-back Elite Eights), and even third-year NBA veteran Isaiah Joe (second-round pick in 2020) need to be included in the Hogs’ recent success getting players to the league (although Joe was on Musselman’s first Arkansas team four seasons ago, he helped set the stage for a program moving the needle as a developer of pro prospects).

SUMMARY: The point is NOT that Razorback nation should wildly celebrate or pound its chest like a delusional fanbase, but it should continue to want, even expect, the program to hang banners — whether in Bud Walton Arena or the basketball performance center — for deep NCAAT runs even when not advancing to the Final Four.

Those NCAAT accomplishments and the finer-point details of the individual battles, struggles, and triumphs along the way are not mutually exclusive, they’re intertwined while standing as a bold reflection of the Hogs’ recent stability as a top-tier program in college basketball.

Knocking off NCAAT No. 1 seeds — one a defending national champion and the other a national runner-up — matters. Going .500 playing all but one of the national-title-game participants over three consecutive seasons matters. Being arguably the best SEC team when you add everything up for three years running matters. And most of all, three straight journeys to the second weekend of the NCAAT matters.

All of those things are relevant and valid narratives when promoting your program to the masses and selling recruits on getting them to the biggest stages of college basketball for elevated exposure and further development.

Maybe nothing validates the notion more than ESPN having already tabbed Arkansas as the No. 12 team in its first “way-too-early” Top 25 poll that came out just hours after UConn defeated SDSU in the national championship game on Monday.

Sure, it’s way too early to take that poll / opinion seriously, but at the same time when you consider Arkansas will lose the vast majority of its roster talent and production to the 2023 NBA Draft from a team that just lost 14 games while finishing 10th in its own league, it speaks volumes to the perception and credibility of the program.

You can thank the banked clout of making huge postseason splashes in the last three years for that, because Big Dance success has tipped the Hoop Hogs’ favorability scales more than anything else.

For my deep-dive recap of Arkansas’ 42 games in ’22-23 — includes pre-season exhibition, non-conference, SEC, SECT, and NCAAT — plus my postseason individual awards, click the link to my recent Hogville article …