By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — The 8-seed Arkansas Razorbacks are one win away from securing a third consecutive NCAA Tournament Elite Eight berth, which would be a program first, but standing in their way is 4-seed UConn as the two teams will meet in a West Region semifinals matchup (a.k.a. the Sweet 16) on Thursday in Las Vegas, Nev.
The Hogs (22-13) and Huskies (28-7) will meet at 6:15 p.m. CT on Thursday in a game that will be televised nationally by CBS. The winner will face the winner from the other West Region Sweet 16 matchup between 2-seed UCLA and 3-seed Gonzaga (8:45 p.m. CT, Thursday, CBS) in the regional finals (a.k.a the Elite Eight) on Saturday with that winner punching its ticket to the Final Four.
In their NCAAT Round of 32 game against defending national champion and No. 1-seed Kansas on Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa, 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) — with huge contributions from Jordan Walsh, Kamani Johnson, and others — were on a second-half mission to will the Hogs back from a 12-point deficit, and their efforts paid off in a dramatic 72-71 win as Arkansas earned a return to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for a third consecutive season and for the 14th time in program history (game story linked here:https://forums.hogville.net/index.php?topic=753934.0).
The Hogs topped 9-seed Illinois, 73-63, in the NCAAT first round on Thursday before de-throning Kansas, which marked only the second time that Arkansas had 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). The ’22-23 Razorbacks are only the fourth Division 1 program in NCAAT history to defeat two No. 1 seeds in the their own region in back-to-back seasons (Arkansas defeated overall No. 1 Gonzaga in ’21-22).
Arkansas is 8-2 spanning the past three NCAATs. The Hogs have won 3 of their last 4 games as they are 7-2 in neutral-site games on the season.
UConn had wins over 13-seed Iona (87-63 in the first round on Friday) and 5-seed St. Mary’s (70-55 in Round of 32 on Sunday) to advance to the Sweet 16. The Huskies and Hogs had two common high-major opponents in the regular season — Alabama and Florida. UConn defeated the Tide, 82-67, at a neutral site in November in the Phil Knight Invitational while the Hogs were swept by ‘Bama in their SEC home-and-away series. The Huskies (by 21 points) and Hogs (by 19 points) each defeated the Gators.
Arkansas is 1-3 all-time against UConn, and the Hogs’ lone win, 102-67, was earned the last time the teams met in the Phil Knight Invitational third-place game in ’17-18. The teams have never met in the NCAAT, but the Huskies did defeat the Hogs, 74-64, in the postseason NIT third-place game in ’96-97.
Arkansas finished with a NET ranking of No. 21 and the Hogs are currently ranked No. 19 in KenPom.com‘s ratings (includes No. 15 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 51 in adjusted offensive efficiency). UConn finished ranked No. 8 in NET and the Huskies are currently ranked No.4 in KenPom (includes No. 3 in adjustd offense efficiency and No. 14 in adjusted defensive efficiency).
UConn ranked 30th in Division 1 in scoring (78.7 points per game), 5th in assists (17.5), 8th in offensive rebounds (13.2), 30th in made three-pointers per game (9.1), 66th in three-point field goal percentage (36.4%), 46th in free throw percentage (75.4%), 50th in made field goals per game (27.8], and 70th in overall field goal percentage (46.3%) while giving up 12.9 turnovers per game.
Defensively, the Huskies rank 39th in points yielded per game (64.9), 3rd in opponents’ made three-pointers per game (4.9), 27th in opponents’ three-point field goal percentage (30.6%), 20th in opponents’ two-point field goal percentage (45.4%), 39th in opponents’ overall field goal percentage (41.0%), 23rd in opponent’s made field goals (22.3), and 18th in blocks (4.9).
Two-time Big East all conference first-team big man Adama Sanogo (6-9 junior) had 24 points and 8 rebounds in the win over St. Mary’s. He’s averaging 17.3 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 60.5% from the field, including 17-of-48 from 3 for 35.4%, and 78.2% from the free throw line.
Sophomore 6-5 guard Jordan Hawkins has 12 points (4-of-5 from 3) against St. Mary’s and he’s averaging 15.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 40.5% field goals, including 95-of-251 from 3 for 37.8%, and 88.3% free throws. Senior 6-5 guard and East Carolina transfer Tristen Newton has 13 points, 5 assists, and 3 rebouns against St. Mary’s and he’s averaging 10.1 points, 4.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 37.8% field goals, including 41-of-111 from 3 for 36.9%, and 81.0% free throws.
The Huskies go 9-deep with 6-8 forward Alex Karaban, 7-2 center Donovan Clingan, 6-6 guard Andre Jackson, Jr., 6-3 guard Joe Calcaterra, 6-4 guard Naheim Alleyne, and 6-2 guard Hassan Diarra all factoring into the rotation with production and impact.
The Hogs have come alive with all-region performances from Davis and Black, Walsh has become a two-way X-factor, Johnson has been an offensive-rebounding enforcer, and as a team Arkansas has been solid on the glass and in the turnover game while vastly improving its lowly free throw shooting efficiency. UConn will present inside-out challenges for an Arkansas team that tends to foul a lot, and the matchup may be as challenging for the Razorbacks as Tennessee was late in the regular-season when the Vols crushed the Hogs, 75-57.
But if any 8-seed has the combination of talent, physical and athletic tools, and intangibles to survive-and-advance this late in the NCAAT it’s Arkansas (a la 8-seed North Carolina a season ago when the Tar Heels won their way to the national title game where they lost to Kansas).