If Arkansas’ come from behind win over Kansas had been in the national championship game what took place over the next few days would have been remembered by Hog fans forever. But the season wasn’t over. Devo Davis would have go out five days later and try to match the unbelievable intensity and leadership he displayed in that game. The entire team would have to come down from the high of a memorable Saturday evening in Des Moines.
I thought about this situation a lot over the last few days. The fans and most of us in the media elevated Davis to superstar status, comparing him to some of the all time greats in Arkansas basketball history. This team, which had so frustrated its fans during an up and down season, was also put on a pedestal.
As the Razorbacks began preparing for the next opponent in what would hopefully be a third straight trip to the Elite Eight and possibly beyond, there was talk that Muss’ guys had finally come together. They had figured it out, Davis told us. Muss himself marveled that his 2023 team was still adding new pieces to its game strategy, still getting better this late into the season.
Taking all of this in, I could not keep Nick Saban out of my head. I kept hearing him saying it. “Rat Poison.”
We all know what that is, right? Players sitting around for several days hearing how wonderful they are when there is another opponent waiting for them, an opponent that doesn’t care about your accolades. The next time out they play like they’ve taken a big swig of the bad stuff.
So is that what happened to these guys in this game? A little bit maybe but a lot of it had to do with the team they played. For about 30 minutes of a 40 minute game UConn played about as well as any team I’ve seen in an NCAA Tournament game. They scored inside and when Arkansas worked to plug that up the Huskies bombed shots from three point range. On the rare occasions when they missed they dominated the offensive glass. Four of their nine three’s came off second chance points. They piled up the assists as Arkansas defense fought but came up empty on possession after possession.
Then there was UConn’s defense. They shut the Hogs out of the paint so completely that Arkansas’ players had no choice but to put up too many jump shots, jump shots that weren’t falling. The Huskies transition defense was just as intimidating. Both Anthony Black and Nick Smith Jr. found themselves racing down the court in one-on-one, fast break to the basket situations but instead of taking it in, in mid-air they both passed the ball back out and both times a turnover resulted.
Could Arkansas have played better? Sure. Davis managed just three points, 22 less than he had against Kansas. The Hogs did not rebound as a team the way they had in their first two tournament games. But take the mistakes away and even though the final score would have been closer, Arkansas still loses this game.
The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups. Get paired against the wrong team at the wrong time and you are gone.
And so a season which started with more hype than perhaps any since Corliss, Scotty and company returned after a national championship year, comes to an end. Hog fans have learned that five-star freshmen still make a lot of mistakes. They see what happens when you struggle to hit jump shots even with loads of talent on the team. They’ve learned the importance of making free throws and they got an up close look at the results when you don’t have enough experienced leaders in your lineup.
Eric Musselman is, no doubt, trying to resolve those issues as he searches the transfer portal for players to add to a mix of returning players and at least a pair of incoming five-star freshmen. Over the coming weeks or maybe days we will learn who is coming back, who is leaving and who is coming in. When Muss’ recruiting is done fans will begin studying the new roster and speculating about next season.
In four years on the Hill he has jumped expectations. Arkansas’ 8-3 March Madness record in that time has stirred old memories of Nolan and deep NCAA Tournament runs. Can Muss, like Nolan, take it the rest of the way?