LITTLE ROCK — Ultimately, the success of a college basketball team’s season will be judged by what it accomplishes in the postseason. More specifically, the NCAA tournament. For the Arkansas Razorbacks, their historic run through 2020-21 regular season has stirred echoes from the program’s mighty run in the sport in the early-to-mid 1990’s.
Sure, those Hog teams from the late 20th century had great players, lofty in-season rankings, and top-tier league finishes, but what forever cemented Naismith Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson’s teams’ legendary lore and iconic statuses were Sweet 16s (’90, ’91, ’93-96), Elite Eights (’90, ’91, ’94, ’95), Final Fours (’90, ’94, ’95), national championship games (’94 and ’95), and a national title (’94).
Fast forward four coaches later while reflecting on a 25-year chasm of ZERO advances to the second weekend of the NCAAT, and it likely will not be enough that No. 8 Arkansas (21-5, 13-4 SEC to finish second in league play) just completed a regular season that in some ways mirrored the achievements of Richardson’s two teams that eventually advanced to back-to-back national championship games.
Second-year head coach Eric Musselman has orchestrated the Hogs’ 11-game winning streak in SEC play to close out the regular season, a program feat that was previously only accomplished by the ’93-94 national championship Hogs. The extraordinary run not only pushed Arkansas into the Associated Press Top 25 poll along the way, but on Monday the program established its first top 10 ranking since the ’94-95 Hogs ended ranked No. 6 before finishing their season as the national runner-up in the NCAAT.
For those who believe that postseason is a brand new slate, a new season, and an all-that-really-matters endeavor filled with more expectations than hope, the best chance in years for the Hoop Hogs to get to that second weekend of the NCAAT will literally play out in the next two weeks. So, if you’re a March Madness must equal March Gladness kind of Hog fan, buckle up!
The new season for Arkansas starts on Friday in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., as the 2-seed Hogs will play 7-seed Missouri (a 73-70 winner over Georgia in Thursday’s second round). Just like faithful Razorbacks fans, Musselman and his team want and expect more.
“We like how we’re playing obviously, but we also understand that each game has its own identity, has its own theme,” Musselman said of his team’s upcoming postseason journey. “We want more with this team. We want more time with them, we want more games. We want more of everything. The only thing really from here on out, with the SEC Tournament it’s one game and done, and then you move to the next tournament and it’s the same thing.
“One of our themes is, ‘How do we come up with more?’”
There is no treasure map to help teams find postseason success, but for fans there is data accumulated over time that can help serve as a guide to the journey into the unknown beyond the regular season.
* Conference tournament performances are not reliable predictors for NCAAT success. That’s true throughout college basketball, and all you have to do is look at Richardson’s teams at Arkansas to illustrate the point. The Hogs have won only one SEC tournament — Richardson’s 1999-2000 squad that HAD to win the SECT to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAAT, otherwise it was not going to the Big Dance. Once their ticket was punched, those Hogs lost to Miami in the first round of the NCAAT. Conversely, the aforementioned NCAAT-powerhouse Hog teams under Richardson’s watch (from ’93 through ’96) not only failed to win SECTs, but they mostly failed to reach the SECT finals.
These ’20-21 Hogs are locks for an at-large bid — ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s updated NCAAT 68-team field projections released this morning had Arkansas slotted as the top 3-seed — so there is no win-or-go-home-till-’21-22 pressure on this team. However, even though it sports a respectable 5-4 record in road games, this Arkansas team has not experienced a true neutral-site environment yet this season. No win-and-advance format, so this will be the first-and-last trial run before the NCAAT begins next week.
Arkansas is a team that has not wilted under the pressure of a snow-balling win streak and the lofty rankings that have come with it, but is there a school of thought that a loss this weekend might not be a bad thing? In other words, deflate any pressure that might be building as each win is piled on so you can reset for what matters most — the NCAAT. You can bet that Musselman and his team don’t view it that way, they’re in Nashville to win the SECT. And as good as Arkansas’ NCAAT at-large projections are today, they stand to get better if they can advance in the SECT. Regardless of what it does in the SECT, Arkansas should do no worse than an NCAAT 4-seed, maybe most likely to end up a 3-seed, with a legitimate shot at earning a 2-seed.
* All hands on deck. Injuries and the added uncertainty of players’ availability during the covid-19 pandemic will assuredly play a role in any team’s success in the postseason. After all, it’s a win-or-go-home proposition so going in shorthanded can be the leak that sinks the ship before it gets out of the harbor. Case in point is this Arkansas team that has played its last two games without freshman big man Jaylin Williams (6-10, 245), who may not be available to play at all this weekend at the SECT. Williams’ emergence into the top 6-7 rotation after the Hogs started league play 2-4 was a significant piece to the just-look-at-the-Hogs-now puzzle. Arkansas went 7-1 in SEC games when Williams played at least 20 minutes. Sure, Arkansas went 2-0 last week with Williams out of action, but that was against league bottom-feeders South Carolina and Texas A&M — two teams that were dispatched of immediately this week in the SECT. Compound that with Missouri’s playing style and effectiveness when senior big man Jeremiah Tilmon’s in the lineup, and the Tigers present arguably the toughest matchup for this Arkansas team. But any postseason success will forged while handling some measure of adversity, and it’s better to be tested this way now than next week when the NCAAT begins.
Certainly the Hogs can win with Williams out, but that will require other Hogs’ taking the all hands on deck theme to heart. It starts with SEC Freshman of the Year and All SEC first team pick Moses Moody, the team’s leading scorer (17.5 points per game) and arguably the best player in the SEC. Next up are seniors Justin Smith and Jalen Tate, both all-league worthy despite postseason award snubs and both serving as glue guys for the Hogs. Freshman Davonte “Devo” Davis (energy translating to production and impact) and junior JD Notae (two-way value of late) join Moody to give Arkansas playmaking ability at both ends of the floor while Connor Vanover (especially with Williams out) and Desi Sills are capable of big production and impact. There’s veteran frontline depth with junior forward Ethan Henderson and senior Vance Jackson, Jr., both getting opportunities in recent games in Williams’ absence.
The key for all is to continue to play their games, continue playing within roles and to their strengths, continue playing the right way. It’s obvious they’ve collectively been doing this, otherwise there would be no historic winning streak still in play. The goal now is to stay true to what got them here, because being a go-to guy does not mean playing hero ball.
“I think that we’ve had so many different leading scorers and I think it’s because we’ve done a good job of sharing the basketball,” Musselman said. “I think when you share the basketball that means you respect the defense. If somebody is overhelping on one player, you turn one shot into a better shot for a teammate. You don’t force shots. There’s no secret that really Moses is our go-to player, but that doesn’t mean your go-to player necessarily has to take shots.
“With your go-to player, I think you want the ball to have eyes and find the open guy, then you’ve got to trust that open guy because some nights we posted Jaylin Williams up against Alabama when we needed baskets, and we’ve gone to Moses off of single-double screens, and JD Notae has been in isolation situations, we’ve had games where we’ve posted Justin Smith and we’ve had games where we’re struggling and Devo Davis breaks off plays with his bounce game, and Desi played so well at South Carolina knocking down threes. The great thing about this team is we’re not one dimensional on either side of the basketball.”
* Defense and rebounding travel and mean more in the postseason. This is usually an accurate statement. The Hogs finished the regular season as the SEC’s second-best rebounding team (40.0 boards per game) and as the 23rd-best defensive team in the nation according to KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive ratings. The point is, even when shots aren’t falling teams that can rebound at a high level tend to do better with second-chance scoring, scoring in the paint, and getting to the free throw line. Obviously, a strong defensive effort can help mask struggles on the offensive end while keeping teams in games till the finish. Just looking back at Arkansas’ 11-game league winning streak, the Razorbacks did a good job of competing (and winning their share) of battles on the glass while doing the same in the other aforementioned blue-collar categories, and defensively Arkansas — identified by Musselman as being lateral-movement challenged before the season began — simply got better and better as the season progressed. This is the time of year that when all else fails, good rebounding teams with stingy defenses find ways to grind out wins more often than not. Will Arkansas have carryover when it comes to doing both at a high level in the postseason?
“I think that our guys have gotten better defensively, and a lot of that, too, is our defensive mobility laterally is really improved with Devo Davis,” Musselman explained of his team’s defensive work-in-progress gains. “His lateral footspeed, his lateral quickness and his ability to get loose balls and rebound for his area has really helped us. And then I think JD has stepped up from a defensive standpoint from where he was early in the year. We didn’t feel like he was getting low enough defensively, and I think as of late he’s bending his knees more, as simple as that sounds. He’s got way more active hands.”
* Intangibles and luck. Many folks don’t believe in luck as a static thing, only that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. A lucky bounce in a tight game, or the luck of the draw as it pertains to brackets and matchups, are just a couple of examples of how things out of your team’s control can play into its postseason success or failures. Intangibles are things like team chemistry, poise, momentum, clutch playmaking — catchy sports phrases describing states of being that we can’t see but just know exist when we watch teams compete. Whatever you believe, you can bet the more positive intangible combinations your team has, the less luck it will likely need to win and advance. For the Razorbacks, there’s been more of a sense of a team that makes its own luck rather than relying on a few breaks falling their way. In close-call wins against Kentucky and Missouri on the road, and Auburn, Florida, and Texas A&M at home — all part of the current 11-game SEC winning streak — the Razorbacks conjured up winning plays to overcome deficits and adversity while determining their own fate. In two of those examples — the wins over Kentucky and A&M — the Hogs not only scored late to overcome deficits, but they also made big defensive plays (game-sealing steals) on ensuing possessions to completely eliminate the scenario of needing a lucky bounce on the oppositions’ final shot attempt to go their way. This is how you want the makeup of your team to be entering the postseason, and it appears Arkansas has a stable full of positive intangible combinations to play deep into the postseason.
* The X-factor. So often, it’s a player or a team strength that is unique relative to other teams. For Arkansas, a team with no true identity serving as a catalyst for winning, the X-factor is its head coach. Musselman treats the college game like the NBA game in so many facets of how he runs his program, and that includes game-to-game preparation and in-game adjustments. It’s a combination that, with all due respect to Musselman’s mass social media saturation, is his greatest strength as a coach. You know the postseason is littered with unknowns with each game equating to the sports world’s definition of life-or-death, and Musselman is wired arguably better than most with an ability to get his team prepared and confident to take on any matchup and style of play, even with a short turnaround. He not only unlocks the ways to take away what other teams like to do, he also shape-shifts his own team’s strengths while masking its weaknesses to give the opposition less to specifically target — all while getting buy-in and understanding from his players to go out and execute.
“Just because of how we do practices, there’s just kind of these two different worlds of coaching,” Musselman said. “There’s the thought process of this is who we are, this is how we play every night, we don’t spend a lot of time on the opposing team. That’s not who we are. We’re more, and I’ve said it before, but we’re more under the Patriot line of thinking with New England where you try to game plan for that particular game. I also do think maybe a little bit different than traditional college basketball or maybe if coaches came from high school and worked their way up through the college ranks, the NBA is just different. The background I’ve been surrounded by watching my dad and then spending (time there), it’s all about mismatches and trying to find a mismatch. You see it in football. Some teams, you try to get a taller wide receiver to go against a smaller defensive back or a smaller cornerback.
“For us, that’s why some nights we post up Justin Smith, then some nights we see a hole and maybe Jaylin Williams is the guy down low, or we might want to iso JD Notae because of the matchup that he has. I think that we do have a lot of different identities to play with, and I do think that makes us a little bit more difficult to scout, but I’m also smart enough to know from here on out it’s kind of a make or miss game. If you miss and the other team is making, you get eliminated. But I do think our guys are used to making halftime adjustments, our players are, where we can come in and completely change the pick-and-roll coverage if need be and they’re not shell-shocked by drastic changes from game to game, or even at halftime sometimes.”
A team identity that shape-shifts coupled with the X-factor being the mad-scientist head coach roaming the sidelines may sound like the makings of a movie script with twisting plots, but it very well may be the combination that gives Arkansas its best chance to finally make it to that second weekend of the NCAA tournament after a 25-year absence. Strap in Hog fans, away we go!