Arkansas’ shirtless, sweaty Sweet 16 run survived on razor-thin margins of March Madness

DES MOINES — It’s easy enough for a cynic to believe the celebration was premeditated, and maybe it was. When the final buzzer sounded and No. 8 seed Arkansas had done the unthinkable — knocking off the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks in the round of 32 of the 2023 men’s NCAA tournament — Razorbacks head coach Eric Musselman knew exactly where he was going.

Musselman found his family seated in the front row of the arena, jumped on the media table, and ripped off his red polo shirt. The coach led the Razorback faithful on a delirious rendition of the school’s “Woo Pig Sooie” chant, but he couldn’t make it through without breaking character. Musselman locked eyes with his wife Danyelle and his daughter Mariah midway through the tradition, and started laughing — seemingly acknowledging how ridiculous it was for a 58-year-old man to be standing on a table shirtless hooting and hollering in the middle of Iowa.

The defending national champions were out of the tournament in the first weekend, and Arkansas was going to Las Vegas to continue the dance.

A Sweet 16 run wasn’t supposed to be so surprising for this particular Arkansas team. Musselman had led the Razorbacks to the Elite Eight each of the last two years, and had the most talented team of his college coaching career this season. Arkansas started the year in the top-10 of the preseason polls, buoyed by the country’s No. 2 recruiting class. There’s at least four NBA players on this roster, and maybe more than that. But just because a team can recruit multiple five-stars and land high-impact transfers in the portal doesn’t mean the season is going to be easy. This Razorbacks’ campaign has been anything but, and the game against Kansas was a good distillation of that.

It did not feel like Arkansas was the better team on Saturday. The Hogs shot 3-of-15 from three-point range on the night. They had three players foul out. They had to climb out of a 12-point second half deficit. Kansas led or was tied for all but 1:47 of game time.

If Kansas makes a few more free throws, if Kansas grabs one or two more loose balls, if the referees make or don’t make one or two more calls either way, it’s a different game. Of course, just getting the game to coin flip status against a program like Kansas is an accomplishment in itself.

“This is a team that is still growing,” Musselman said after a tight first round win against Illinois. “There has been other teams that have plateaued. Maybe a couple of our teams at Nevada we were old, veteran guys, and maybe at some point we were just trying to save legs. But this is a team that’s of continuous improvement.”

Two days after Arkansas lost to Coach K’s last ever Duke team in the Elite Eight last season, Musselman tweeted a photo of himself in front of three McDonald’s hamburgers with the hashtag “let’s eat.” One of the 10 highest paid coaches in the country was not hungry for fast food — instead, he just landed his third McDonald’s All-American in the class of 2022.

Arkansas already had commitments from five-star recruits Nick Smith Jr. and Jordan Walsh. The third ‘burger boy’ to join on was Anthony Black, a 6’7 guard out of Dallas with immense defensive versatility, a strong feel for the game, and a winning pedigree coming out of Duncanville High in Dallas. The Razorbacks would need to replace almost their entire rotation from the previous year, but grabbing three McDonald’s All-Americans is a good way to start. Adding two terrific transfers with Missouri’s Trevon Brazile and Wichita State’s Ricky Council IV helped, too.

Unfortunately for Arkansas, the adversity hit almost immediately. Smith — considered the top NBA prospect in college basketball coming into the year — suffered a right knee injury in preseason and was sidelined indefinitely at one point. Brazile tore his ACL in December, taking away the team’s most talented big man for the season. Arkansas lost five of six to open SEC play, and never really recovered. They finished conference play with a losing record at 8-10, and placed No. 10 in the 14-team league at the end of the year.

Still, the SEC was good enough, and Arkansas’ non-conference slate was impressive enough, to get the Razorbacks into the tournament with a No. 8 seed.

A team with as much talent on-paper as Arkansas should profile as an offensive powerhouse. Instead, the only reason Arkansas is still dancing — the only reason it made the tournament in the first place — is because of its defense. It’s rare for five-star freshmen to bring more on the defensive end than the offensive end, but that’s certainly the case for Black and Walsh. While their box score numbers were modest in the win over the Jayhawks, their contributions were immense.

Walsh took on one of the toughest assignments in the country in First-Team All-American Jalen Wilson. Wilson carried the Jayhawks offense early on Saturday, at least until Walsh checked in. The freshmen’s defense was so impressive that Wilson could only muster field goal attempts for the first 15 minutes of the second half. Walsh blanketed one of the best scorers in the country with his length (7’2 wingspan), his quickness, and his discipline — even if he still fouled out by the end.

Black, meanwhile, took on a fellow McDonald’s All-American freshman and future lottery pick in Gradey Dick. Dick is one of the best three-point marksmen in the country at 6’8, and his ability to bend the defense with his shooting gravity by running around screens makes him an extremely tough cover. Black mostly shut him down, at one point in the second half fighting over the top of a screen and getting a clean block on a Dick three-point attempt. How many other players in the country could have swatted that shot?

“It means so much just to get one stop on him,” Walsh said after the game on guarding Wilson. “To the team it’s more than just a stop. If you’re sacrificing yourself to stop him from scoring, even if you’re not scoring on the other end, it shows you’re sacrificing for your team and affecting winning.”

While the freshmen fueled so many of the headlines for this Arkansas team, it was a couple veterans who carried the scoring load. Davonte Davis, the lone holdover from last year’s rotation, scored 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting with slippery drives into the paint. Council had 21 points despite making just 5-of-18 shots from the field. He’s such a powerful driver that Kansas had to play off him to avoid letting him waltz to the rim. When they dropped, Council popped jumpers from mid-range, including a couple big ones in crunch time. His offensive rebound off his own missed free throw with under 30 seconds left was the biggest play of the game.

“We’re celebrating back there because we have such incredible respect for Kansas, defending champions, MVP of their league in No. 10, Jalen Wilson,” Musselman said after the game. “They are a hard, hard, hard team to prepare for.”

The catharsis Musselman showed standing on the media table only comes through surviving the razor thin margins of March Madness. On Saturday, he was lucky enough to be on the right side of fate. The least he could do was let America see his bare chest.

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