LITTLE ROCK — There’s always lots to digest in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament as 68 teams will play 34 games in the first 48 hours of the Big Dance, and with 3-seed Arkansas’ 85-68 win over 14-seed Colgate on Friday in the South Region in Indianapolis the storylines are already circling inside the NCAAT bubble faster than a racecar at the Indy 500.
* Old SWC foe up next. Arkansas will face 6-seed Texas Tech in the Round of 32 on Sunday at a time yet to be determined. Tech, the defending national runner-up based on a loss in the last national championship game that was played in 2018-19, defeated 11-seed Utah State, 65-53, on Friday to advance. The No. 21 Red Raiders (18-10) are looking for their third consecutive berth into the Sweet 16 while the 10th-ranked Razorbacks (23-6) are looking for their first Sweet 16 in 25 years (’95-96). The Hogs trail the all-time series against the Red Raiders, 39-40. The last two times the teams met were in the annual SEC / Big 12 Challenge, with Tech winning 67-64 at home in January 2019 and Arkansas winning 75-68 in overtime at home in January 2016.
* It’s good to be ranked! Arkansas improved to 7-1 on the season as a ranked team with its win over Colgate. Prior to finishing No. 10 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll of ’20-21, the last time the program had an AP poll top-10 finish was 26 years ago when the national runner-up Hogs entered the NCAAT ranked No. 6. Arkansas is 1-3 against ranked teams this season, but the Hogs are 1-0 as a ranked team playing against a ranked team (then-No. 20 Arkansas defeated then-No. 6 Alabama, 81-66, at home on Feb. 24).
* Dirty South Region looking more and more familiar to Hogs. Arkansas entered Friday morning as the third-highest seed in the South Region and by Friday afternoon they were the second-highest seed still standing based on the biggest upset thus far at the Dance: 15-seed Oral Roberts’ 74-71 overtime win over 2-seed Ohio State. The Razorbacks trailed the Golden Eagles by 10 points at home before scoring 57 second-half points for an 87-76 win in December. ORU advances to play 7-seed Florida, a 75-70 winner Friday over 10-seed Virginia Tech, in the Round of 32 on Sunday. If Arkansas defeats Texas Tech on Sunday, the Hogs would advance to the Sweet 16 next weekend where it would play the Florida-ORU winner. The Hogs are 2-0 this season against Florida and ORU, which includes the aforementioned 11-point home win over the Golden Eagles followed by another 11-point home win (75-64) over the Gators in February. Also in the South Region, another mid-major that was conquered by Arkansas in regular-season non-conference play — 13-seed North Texas — upset 4-seed Purdue on Friday, 78-69 in overtime, to advance to the Round of 32 where the Mean Green will face 5-seed Villanova on Sunday. The South Region’s top seed, Baylor, defeated 16-seed Hartford, 79-55, on Friday.
* Muss in March. Second-year Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman improved to 3-2 coaching in the NCAA tournament with the Hogs’ win over Colgate on Friday. In his four seasons at Nevada before coming to Arkansas, Musselman’s Wolf Pack earned 3 NCAAT berths, going 0-1 in both ’16-17 and ’18-19 sandwiched around a Sweet 16 run in ’17-18. Arkansas is 21-5 this season (includes Friday’s win over Colgate) when Musselman has roughly 72 hours or more between matchups to gameplan and prepare, and the Hogs are 1-1 when the turnaround time between games is 48 hours or less. When including his postseason record at Nevada, Musselman was 2-3 in Mountain West tournament play with a 24-hour-ish turnaround between games and 1-0 in NCAAT play with a 48-hour-ish turnaround between games. Maybe too small a sample-size to draw conclusions, but you can bet the college basketball talking heads will be chopping up the upcoming chess match between Musselman and Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard as both are considered two of the best game-planners and in-game strategists in college hoops.
* In-game adjustMUSS! He’s proven to be a master on-the-fly shape-shifter of his team, and Musselman was at it again on Friday when he spared only 12 minutes of combined playing time for his three centers — Connor Vanover, Jaylin Williams, and Ethan Henderson — while opting for a small-ball lineup that flipped a 14-point first-half deficit into a 17-point win. That’s a 31-point in-game turnaround that was forged with Justin Smith dominating the action around the basket at both ends — 27 points and 12 rebounds — while the Hogs as a team enjoyed landslide wins in the turnover battle (22-10), points-off-turnovers (34-15), points-in-the-paint (36-18), and fastbreak points (21-5). Arkansas limited the nation’s second-best scoring offense (at 86.3 points per game) to 18 points below its season average while holding the Raiders to just under 40% overall field-goal shooting. In a game that saw Colgate — the nation’s top three-point field-goal-percentage defense and third-best three-point field-goal-percentage offense — have its way from beyond the arc at both ends of the floor, the Hogs locked up nearly every other meaningful statistical category.
* Hogs-v-Red Raiders, inside the numbers. Arkansas is 18-0 this season when it holds opponents to 75 or fewer points and 5-6 when its opponents score more than 75 points. Meanwhile, Texas Tech is 17-6 when it holds opponents to 75 or fewer points and 1-4 when its opponents score more than 75 points. The Red Raiders are in the top 30 nationally in scoring defense (63.4 points per game) while Arkansas is well outside the national top 50 in scoring defense (70.6). According to KenPom.com, Arkansas is ranked No. 10 nationally in adjusted defensive rating while Tech checks in at No. 20 in the same metric. Offensively, Arkansas is 7th nationally in scoring offense (82.4 points per game) with the 36th-best adjusted offensive rating in the nation according to KenPom, while Tech falls well outside the national top 50 in scoring offense (73.0) with the 30th-best adjusted offensive rating in the nation according to KenPom.com. Using unscientific and hypothetical logic, if both team’s could split the difference in what they average in scoring offense relative to what the other team is averaging in scoring defense, the Hogs would score 73 points and the Red Raiders would score 72 points on Sunday. For so many reasons, this game looks like a gambler’s classic pick ’em dilemma.
* Tasmanian Devo! No Razorback fan should ever take for granted freshman combo guard Davonte “Devo” Davis’ inate ability to flip on his high-energy playmaking at both ends of the floor, especially when the chips appear to be down for the Hogs. With his team trailing 33-19 in the first half, Davis reached into his positive impact bag and passionately pulled out steals, slashing finishes, dimes, rebounds, and lockdown on-ball defense while serving as a menacing force on both sides of the ball. It’s the stuff that inspires and sparks more of the same from his teammates who seem to follow Davis’ lead. His 12 points (on 6-of-11 field goal shooting), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks do a pretty good job of telling the story, and now through 29 games it seems to be true that when the going gets tough, Devo gets going.
* Buh-bye and good riddance, Tar Heels! Even though North Carolina was on the other side of the South Region bracket with an unimpressive resume as an 8-seed, Hog fans might have taken notice of the Heels making the same 16-team bracket field as the Hogs given UNC’s 3-0 record against Arkansas in Round of 32 games dating back to the ’07-08 season. No worries, because 9-seed Wisconsin demolished UNC, 85-62, on Friday to earn a Round of 32 date against top-seeded Baylor on Sunday.
* What’s in a stat? Upon further review — or rather, a postgame review — the Razorbacks’ sports information department announced via Friday night media release that a basket that was originally credited as a Justin Smith tip-in was actually a field goal scored by Jalen Tate. So, Smith officially finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds (not the 29 and 13 he was originally credited with) while Tate finished with 17 points (not the 15 he was originally credited with).
* Drilling down a bit more on Arkansas’ mid-major opponents playing in this NCAAT. In addition to the aforementioned upsets by 15-seed Oral Roberts and 13-seed North Texas over two Big 10 teams in the NCAAT South Region on Friday, the third and final mid-major playing in this NCAAT that Arkansas put down in non-conference play is Abilene Christian. The 14-seed in the East Region, ACU will get its chance to upset 3-seed Texas on Saturday night. These were always good mid-major teams, but in the regular season that trio combined for a 0-9 record against high-major opponents with a combined losing margin of 11.3 points in those games. None were in line to receive NCAAT at-large bids and had to win their conference tournaments to earn automatic bids. The point is made not as a slight to those teams, because historically mid-majors with similar resumes and circumstances find ways to rise up and pull upsets in the Big Dance. It happens every year, and what separates the mid-majors’ regular-season struggles from their postseason upset surprises against high-majors is that the former are games almost always played on the high-major’s homecourt while the latter are neutral-site games where the win-or-go-home pressure is often felt more profoundly by the higher seeded teams. Regardless of those factors, the eye test suggests that ORU and North Texas were simply the better teams on Friday.