By Kevin McPherson

Junior guards Davonte “Devo” Davis (25 points, including 21 in the second half) and Ricky Council IV (21 points, including 11 of the Hogs’ final 13 points) were on a second-half mission to will the 8th-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks back from a 12-point deficit, and their efforts paid off as the Hoop Hogs will return to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for a third consecutive season thanks to a riveting 72-71 win over defending national champion and No. 1-seed Kansas on Saturday in a West Region Round of 32 matchup in Des Moines, Iowa, giving Arkansas’ men’s basketball program its 50th NCAAT win all-time.

Arkansas (22-13) halted Kansas’ 7-game NCAAT winning streak going back to last season and has now upset 1-seeds in back-to-back NCAATs (last season it was a Hogs’ win against overall No. 1 Gonzaga in a Sweet 16 matchup). Arkansas became only the fourth team in NCAAT history to defeat No. 1 seeds in their own region in back-to-back seasons (Duke 1988-90, UCLA ’06-07, Butler ’10-11).

Only once before had Arkansas knocked off a defending national champion in the NCAAT — it was U.S. Reed’s famous buzzer-beating half-court shot in the second round that lifted the Hogs to a 74-73 win over Louisville in ’80-81.

This ’22-23 Arkansas team improved to to 8-2 spanning the past three NCAATs. The Hogs have now won 3 of their last 4 games as they improved to 7-2 in neutral-site games on the season. The Jayhawks lost for the first time in 27 games this season when they held a lead coming out of halftime.

The Razorbacks’ opponent next week in the Sweet 16 (a.k.a. regional semifinals) in Las Vegas will be the winner of the West Region Round of 32 matchup between 4-seed UConn (26-8) and 5-seed (St. Mary’s), teams that will play on Sunday.

“Well I’ve been coaching a long time, that’s as great of a win as I’ve ever been a part of,” fourth-year Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “Again, because of the history of Kansas, because of some of their veteran players that were part of a championship team last year. You know, a lot of people didn’t think we were going to win our first-round game, and I’ve continued to tell the guys internally, and I’ve continued to tell the staff, that we are a team that conintues to get better.

“That just doesn’t happen this time of year. But because of all the circumstances that have happened, we’re still evolving, we’re still adding offesnive plays, we’re still adding defensive coverages. We’re an evolving basketball team. I feel fortunate that these guys really buy into the prep. We went hard preperation-wise, these guys did not hardly have any time off.”

Davis had 8 rebounds and 1 assist to go with his game-high 25 points (9-of-15 field goals, including 1-of-4 from 3, and 6-of-7 free throws), which included a stretch in the second half when he scored 14 of the Hogs’ 18 points). He moved into ninth-place all-time at Arkansas in NCAAT scoring (129 points in 10 NCAAT games). Council had 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block to go with his 21 points (5-of-18 field goals, including 1-of-6 from 3, and 10-of-11 free throws).

Each authored his share of big plays at both ends of the floor in the second half as Arkansas overcame a 46-34 deficit with 15 minutes to play.

Freshman combo forward Jordan Walsh was huge at both ends, too — 10 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and game-high boxscore plus-12 — and it was his three-pointer capping an 11-0 Arkansas run that put the Hogs up, 52-51, with 8:51 to play, their first lead since 2-0 to open the game. Senior forward Kamani Johnson was blue-collar effective with his 4 points and 10 rebounds, and his putback with 47 seconds remaining gave the Hogs a 67-65 lead.

Kansas’ first-team All American and 20.2-points-per-game leading scorer Jalen Wilson made two free throws with 39 seconds to play to tie the game at 67-all, but Council drove hard to the cup, was fouled, and after making his first free throw he missed the second but cleaned up a 50/50-loose-ball to secure the offensive rebound (off a timely deflection by Walsh) when he was fouled again. His 2-of-2 free throw effort with 20 seconds to play resulted in a three-point possession for the Hogs and a three-point lead, 70-67.

After a timeout, Wilson was fouled by Walsh and made two more free throws to cut the Arkansas advantage down to 70-69 with 8 seconds left in the game. Council was immediately fouled after receiving the ensuing inbounds pass and he stepped to the line to make both free throws as Arkansas went back up by 3, 72-69, with 7.1 seconds to play. Wilson was fouled by Black with 0:03 to play, but he made both free throws (he attempted to miss the second intentionally for an offensive putback to tie the game, but uninentionally banked in the second free throw) as the Hogs led 72-71 when they inbounded the ball and ran out the final three seconds of the game.

Council’s 10-of-11 free throws against Kansas gave him a 21-of-23 combined freebie effort (90.4%) in two NCAAT games this weekend. As a team against the Jayhawks, the Hogs converted 21-of-26 at the line (80.8%) for the game, which included 15-of-18 in the second half (83.3%) and 7-of-8 in the final three minutes (87.5%).

Defensively, the Razorbacks held Kansas without a field goal in the final 3:48 of the game.

The Razorbacks dominated the glass (36-29, including 15-7 on the offensive boards for a 15-2 advantage in second-chance-points) and bench scoring (18-5), and they won the turnover battle (12-11 for a 13-9 advantage in points-off-turnovers). After finishing the first half minus-8 in points-in-the-paint and minus-6 in fastbreak scoring, the Hogs flipped the script in the second half to finish the game only minus-4 in points-in-the-paint (34-30) and minus-2 in fastbreak scoring (6-4).

The Hogs shot 24-of-58 from the field (41.4%), including 3-of-15 from 3 (20%). But, after going 2-of-13 from distance in the first 28 minutes of the game, Arkansas shot only two triples in the final 12 minutes (with Walsh making one of those) as the team opted to instead play to its strength of attcking the paint and rim. The Jayhawks shot 24-of-50 from the field (48%), including 5-of-13 from 3 (38.5%), and 18-of-25 from the free throw line (72%). The Razorbacks were more efficient than Kansas shooting in the second half, both in overall field goals and free throws.

Arkansas’ two projected NBA Draft lottery picks — Anthony Black and Nick Smith, Jr. — were dealing with injuries and did not have their typical production. Black finished with 4 points (1-of-6 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block in 37 minutes. Smith was held scoreless (0-of-4 field goals) and had 1 reboud and 1 assist in 16 minutes.

Arkansas improved to 6-8 in the all-time series against Kansas. The last time the teams met in the NCAAT was in ’90-91 when the Jayhawks upset the Hogs in the Elite Eight.

Kansas (28-8) was the Big 12 regular-season champion but lost in its conference tournament before going 1-1 in the NCAAT. Playing without their head coach Bill Self (health) in both NCAAT games, the Jayhawks got 20 points from Wilson, 14 points from sophomore forward KJ Adams, 13 points from senior guard Kevin McCullar, Jr., and 12 points from point guard Dajuan Harris, Jr. Freshman wing Grady Dick, the team’s second-leader scorer coming in, was held to 7 points.

Arkansas improved to 50-34 all-time in the NCAAT.

Musselman moved to 8-2 in the NCAAT at Arkansas and 95-41 overall as Head Hog. His Razorback resume includes two Elite Eights (so far) plus the current Sweet 16 berth.

Musselman started the combination of Smith, Black, Davis, Council, and Johnson for the second consecutive game.

The Hogs fell behind 11-2 but Council’s triple capped a 9-4 Arkansas spurt that closed the gap to 4 points, 15-11. A bit later, Council found Walsh underneath the basket for an uncontested dunk as Arkansas pulled within 3 points, 22-19. But the Jayhaks pieced together a 9-2 run to take their biggest lead, 31-21.

Kansas led 35-27 at the break.

Countil led the Hogs with 10 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists in the first half while Walsh chipped in with 7 points and 2 rebounds.

Arkansas shot 10-of-28 from the field (35.7%) in the first half, including 1-of-9 from 3 (11.1%), and 6-of-8 at the free throw line (75%). Kansas hit 14-of-28 on field goals (50%), including 1-of-7 (14.3%), and 6-of-8 at the free throw line (75%).

The Razorbacks were plus-2 on the boards (17-15) but minus-1 in turnovers (7-6) in the opneing half, while Kansas owned both points-in-the-paint (22-14) and fastbreak scoring (6-0) in the first 20 minutes.