LITTLE ROCK — By every criteria imaginable, Arkansas’ run to the Elite Eight (a.k.a. the NCAA tournament South Region finals) where the No. 3 seed Razorbacks will face No. 1 seed Baylor on Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis has validated a season that will surely go down as one of the 10 best campaigns ever in a rich and storied Hoop Hogs program. Now all that’s left to ponder is: How good can it still get?
The Hogs and Bears tip around 8:57 p.m. CT tonight on CBS as both teams look to advance to the Final Four. For Arkansas, it’s a chance to reach the program’s 7th Final Four and first in 26 years.
* Date in the Elite Eight. Arkansas has reached an NCAAT regional finals (Elite Eight) for the 11th time in school history, and its first in 26 years. The Razorbacks have an all-time record of 6-4 in Elite Eight games, which includes two consecutive regional finals wins to advance to Final Fours (’93-94 and ’94-95). Meanwhile, Baylor has reached the Elite Eight 3 times in the last 11 years (’09-10, ’11-12, and ’20-12), but the Bears are seeking their first Final Four berth since the ’49-50 season. The matchup between 3rd-ranked Baylor (25-2) and 10th-ranked Arkansas (25-6) will mark the Hogs’ fourth meeting of the season against a Top 10-ranked team as the Razorbacks went 2-1 against then-No. 9 Tennessee (79-74 road loss), then-No. 10 Missouri (86-81 road win in overtime), and then-No. 6 Alabama (81-66 home win). Baylor is 9-2 against ranked teams in ’20-21, including 5-2 against Top 10-ranked teams. Arkansas is the last team standing from the SEC as East Region No. 2 seed Alabama was upset by First Four play-in-game No. 11 seed UCLA, 88-78, in overtime on Sunday in a Sweet 16 matchup. Baylor was the only Big 12 team to advance to the Sweet 16, where the Bears came from behind to defeat No. 5 seed Villanova, 62-51, on Saturday.
* Down but never out. Arkansas leads the nation in number of wins (10) in games after falling behind by double-digit margins, and that uphill climb has been present in each of the Razorbacks’ four postseason victories so far in 2020-21. In its SEC tournament quarterfinals win over Missouri, Arkansas fell behind by 10 points in the first half before winning by 10 points. In their first two games of the NCAAT, the Hogs fell behind by 14 points and 10 points against Colgate and Texas Tech, respectively, before leading both games at halftime en route to winning by 17 points and 2 points, respectively. In their second game of the season against Oral Roberts — in Saturday’s Sweet 16 matchup — the Razorbacks once again had to overcome a 12-point second-half deficit to win, 72-70, as freshman guard Davonte “Devo” Davis knocked down a go-ahead 14-foot jumper with 3.1 seconds left in the game. In their first meeting during the regular-season on Dec. 20, the Golden Eagles held 12-point advantages in both halves before Arkansas pulled away for an 87-76 win at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The other teams to lead Arkansas by at least 10 points before the Hogs rallied to win: UCA, Auburn, Mississippi State, LSU, Texas A&M, and Missouri.
* Grounding the Golden Eagles, chapter two. It wasn’t easy the first time, and with more at stake in the second go-round the Hogs had to once again dig in and claw back for a victory. Golden Eagles stars Max Abmas (25 points to reach his NCAA-leading average) and Kevin Obanor (12 points and 11 rebounds for his second double-double against the Hogs) got help from Carlos Jurgens (13 points), Francis Lacis (11 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assist, 2 blocks), and Kareem Thompson (9 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists), but in the end the Hogs’ borrower a page from their dominant glass performance in the first meeting to forge another win. The Hogs were plus-26 on the glass in December, but were minus-1 on the boards at halftime on Saturday before flipping the script to finish plus-11 rebounding (46-35), which included an 18-6 advantage on the offensive glass as well as an 18-8 win in second-chance-points. The Hogs were also plus-12 in both points-in-the-paint (42-30) and points-off-turnovers (19-7). ORU came into the game leading the nation in three-point makes per game (11.2) and 13th nationally in three-point percentage (39%), but the Hogs’ defense held the Golden Eagles to 8-fo-31 from distance (25.8%). But, the Hogs were dreadful shooting from the field (37.7% overall, including only 1-of-9 from 3 for 11.1%), so an unexpected win at the free throw line in terms of efficiency was prefectly timed. Arkansas made 13-of-15 on freebies (86.7%), while the nation’s best free throw shooting team coming in (82.2%) managed only 10-of-13 (76.9%).
* Pick a Hog, any Hog! In a game that saw Arkansas’ top three scorers on the season — Moses Moody, Justin Smith, and JD Notae — combine to shoot only 11-of-40 from the field, the Hogs got huge offensive outings from guards Jalen Tate (22 points on 9-of-17 field goals and 3-of-4 free throws to go with 6 assists and 4 rebounds) and Davonte “Devo” Davis (16 points on 7-of-13 field goals and 2-of-2 free throws to go with 8 rebounds and 2 assists) as head coach Eric Musselman put Tate in isolation sets to use his long 6-6 frame to score over the 6-1 Abmas, especially lat in the game when the teams were trading baskets in a one-possession-margin game. Smith (12 points and a game-high 14 rebounds, including 11 offensive boards) and Moody (10 of his 14 points in the final 20 minutes, plus 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 1 steal) each picked up their play in the second half. Junior guard Desi Sills came off the bench to have his most productive game in weeks as he contributed 2 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in 28 minutes. Notae and freshman big man Jaylin Williams combined for 6 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals. In the end, it was the combo of Tate and Davis that did the Golden Eagles in as Tate milked the shot and game clocks before driving in the paint and kicking out to the wing to Davis, who did the rest with a head-and-shoulders fake to freeze his defender before taking a dribble to his left and launching his lefty game-winner. In the final 3.1 seconds, Abmas smartly got to the right wing on ORU’s end of the floor but was just short as he hit the rim with the ball skipping over the other side of the hoop as time expired.
* Record spin. Arkansas (25-6) is one of only three Hog teams in the last 26 years to win at least 25 games in a season: the ’14-15 Hogs finished 27-9 and the ’16-17 Hogs finished 26-10. Arkansas is now 20-0 in games when it holds its opponents to 75 or fewer points, 9-5 in games played away from home, 9-1 in games played as a ranked team, and 3-3 in games played against ranked teams (includes a 2-0 mark as a ranked team playing against ranked teams). Arkansas is 45-32 all-time in the NCAAT, which includes a 4-1 record as a 3-seed and a 32-8 mark in games played when Arkansas is the higher seed.
* Postseason Muss. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but second-year head coach Eric Musselman’s postseason winning percentage at Arkansas (5-1 record combining SECT and NCAAT for 83.3%) is greater than his regular-season winning percentage as Head Hog (40-17 regular-season record for 69.0%). Combining his 6 seasons as a Division 1 head coach — first 4 at Nevada before the last 2 at Arkansas — Musselman has a 5-3 record in the NCAAT with two first-round exits, two Sweet 16 appearances, and now an Elite Eight.
* How to beat Baylor. Arkansas has seen some prolific three-point shooting teams this season — Alabama (twice), Oral Roberts (twice), and Colgate — but Baylor is a notch above from distance. Consider: the Bears are the most efficient three-point shooting bunch in the nation (40.8%) as the team’s top 5 scorers shoot anywhere from 39.4% to 45.0% from distance, and Baylor ranks 13th nationally in number of triples made per game (10.0). Baylor — 83.0 points per game ranks 6th nationally, and 17.0-point average winning margin ranks 3rd nationally — is a strong slash-and-finish squad, too, as it shoots at an overall clip of 49%, but the Bears are average at the free throw line at just over 69%. On the defensive side of the ball, Baylor ranks 9th nationally both in steals (9.0 per game) and turnovers forced (17.4 per game), and third in turnover margin (plus-5.6 per game). The best both-sides-of-the-ball comparison with an Arkansas opponent is ‘Bama, which produced mixed results for the Hogs in two games (a 31-point road loss followed by a 15-point home win). Like the Tide, the Bears are backcourt deep and talent-rich with guards that can shoot from 3, create off the bounce, and use quick hands to turn live-ball turnovers into fast-strike offense. Arkansas is the superior rebounding team compared to Baylor, and if the Hogs can win the glass and paint scoring while hanging close in the turnovers / points-off-turnovers / fastbreak-points departments, they’ll have a great shot at winning. Of course, the Hogs must shoot better than they did against ORU while finding a way to at least minimize Baylor’s three-point shooting and dribble-drive shot creation to levels below its season averages and efficiency. If Arkansas once again resorts to small ball like it did against Colgate and ORU, the Hogs can play that way but it may not be the best way to handle Baylor. It’s the first time in this NCAAT that the opinion here is the opponent has the edge on paper and should be favored, but Arkansas can absolutely win this game.
* Senior glad transfers! Musselman’s 1-2, inside-out portal haul of Justin Smith (6-7 combo forward) and Jalen Tate (6-6 combo guard) is arguably the best grad-transfer duo in all of college basketball. With his two double-doubles in the NCAAT, Smith has 6 total on the season. He’s averaging 20.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals, 1.3 assists, and 1.0 block per game in the NCAAT while shooting 58.5% from the field and 81.3% from the free throw line. Tate is averaging 15.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and only 1.3 turnovers per game in the NCAAT while shooting 41.0% from the field and 92.9% from the free throw line. It’s notable that both Smith and Tate are exceeding their season averages, and free throw efficiency, in the NCAAT.
* Moody Monday. Arkansas shooting guard and SEC Freshman of the Year Moses Moody (6-6 shooting guard, Little Rock native) comes into tonight’s game against Baylor needing just 13 points to surpass Hogs icon Scotty Thurman as the top scoring freshman in school history. Moody has so far scored 528 points in ’20-21 while Thurman finished with 540 freshman points in ’92-93. Moody is Arkansas’ leading scorer at 17.0 points per game and second-leading rebounder at 5.8 boards per game to go with 1.6 assists and 1.1 steals per outing. His 144 made free throws are 7th most in NCAA Division 1 and his 178 attempts are 10th most in D1. In the NCAAT, Moody is averaging 13.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.0 block per game. Although he struggled shooting the ball against ORU (4-of-20, including 0-of-4 from 3), he was a combined 10-of-19 shooting against Colgate and Texas Tech. He’s 10-of-14 from the free throw line in the NCAAT (71.4%).
* It’s Devo time. So often, it’s been Devo Davis’ energy and takeover mindset that has been the catalyst in Arkansas’ come-from-behind wins. After being almost an afterthought through the first 11 games of the season (Davis played in only 9 of those games), here’s Davis’ statistical impact in the last 20 games: 10.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 47.6% from the field and 75.7% from the free throw line. In the NCAAT, Davis is averaging 14.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.0 assists while shooting 51.3% from the field and 75% from the free throw line.
* How much will JWill play tonight? Also mostly an afterthought in the non-conference portion of the season (he played in only 6 of the 8 out-of-conference games that preceded SEC play), Williams has been a key for the Hogs once league games began (he played in 19 of the last 23 games, missing 4 due to covid-19 protocols). Since the start of SEC play, the Hogs are 7-1 when Williams plays at least 20 minutes, and they’re 10-5 when he plays fewer than 20 minutes or doesn’t play at all. Drilling down a little further on those numbers, the Hogs are 4-1 against NET Top 50 teams when Williams plays at least 20 minutes (wins over Florida, Alabama, LSU, and Texas Tech with a loss at LSU), but they’re only 3-5 against the NET Top 50 when he plays fewer than 20 minutes (two wins against Missouri and one against Colgate, and losses against Missouri at home, at Tennessee, at Alabama, at Oklahoma State, and against LSU in the SECT). Williams has scored in double-figures only once this season (13 points to go with 8 rebounds in the Hogs’ 81-66 win over No. 6 Alabama), but he’s recorded 10 rebounds in four different games and has led the Hogs in drawn charges this season while also proving to be a plus-passer on offense. Based on the Hogs’ won-loss results against NCAA NET Top 50 teams, Arkansas might fare better if Williams sees the court for at least half the game against Baylor.