Arkansas rolls into Las Vegas riding high on the energy of ousting West Region top seed Kansas in the second round, but the Sweet 16 spot is nothing new to the Razorbacks.
For the second consecutive NCAA Tournament, Arkansas and Eric Musselman eliminated the top seed in the region to advance. Musselman piloted Arkansas to the Sweet 16 each of the previous two years, but the No. 8 seed finding a path back seemed implausible at the outset of the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
“This has been as challenging and up and down season as I’ve ever been a part of,” Musselman said. “For these guys to be rewarded for sticking with it and being able to go to Las Vegas and participate with only 16 teams still standing … it’s really hard to make this tournament. It really hard to win a game in this tournament. It’s really hard to beat defending champions, No. 1 seed. We did it, proud of us. I keep telling our guys and our coaches — because of all the circumstances that have happened, we’re still evolving, we’re still adding offensive plays, we’re still adding defensive coverages. We’re an evolving basketball team and I feel fortunate these guys buy into the prep.”
No. 4 seed UConn cruised through the first two rounds of the tournament. While many might’ve expected the Jayhawks to be waiting in a 1-vs-4 matchup, the Huskies don’t seem to be sweating the opponent after handling Saint Mary’s in Albany, N.Y.
“It feels like we’re unbeatable,” UConn guard Jordan Hawkins said of the team vibe entering Vegas. “The last two games in the second half, we just took off. When we’re playing like that, I think we have a really good chance to win it all.”
UConn coach Dan Hurley has depth for days, but Arkansas isn’t light on bench options, either. In terms of top-end talent, the Razorbacks received pristine play from junior Davonte Davis against Illinois and Kansas, including 21 points in the second half before fouling out against the Jayhawks. Without Davis, regular-season leading scorer Ricky Council IV — a physical and confident guard built more like a linebacker — nailed the critical free throws to seal the win over Kansas.
But defense has been the difference for Arkansas in the postseason. The Razorbacks have erased the season trend of losing tight games, including 86-83 to No. 1 overall seed Alabama on Feb. 25, by focusing on stops, not shots.
In the first round, Arkansas forced 17 turnovers to take down Illinois. All-Big 12 freshman guard Gradey Dick was harassed with chest-to-chest defense every step he took and scored just seven points for Kansas in the second round.
It’s part of the plan to peak in March.
“We told everybody, don’t listen to the noise,” Musselman said. “Worry about what’s going on internally in this locker room and let’s just keep getting better. Like I said, I thought our Illinois game was as good of a game we played. I thought tonight in the second half we played as good of a game as we have all year.”
UConn has size, depth and defends with intent, which made the Huskies a popular pick on television bracket shows since Selection Sunday. Hurley said he’s known quite a bit longer than most that this Huskies team could be special. It dates to the offseason scrimmage with Virginia. With two starters dealing with injuries, UConn laid it on the Cavaliers.
“We knew what we were capable of. It was about reaching our potential and staying true to ourselves and staying true to the work honestly,” UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr. said.
Even with Kansas home for the start of spring, there are bigger names in the West Region semifinals remaining on the other side of the bracket — No. 3 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed UCLA.
While dominant guard play is expected from both teams, the Huskies have an edge in the middle with Adama Sonogo. The junior from Mali is a load at 6-foot-9, 245 pounds, and put up 24 points and eight rebounds against Saint Mary’s and torched Iona with 28 and 13, respectively.
Arkansas has size, including high-energy sub Kamani Johnson, who likes the Razorbacks’ matchup Thursday night.
“I think we match up well with them. I think it’s going to be another war,” Johnson said. “(Sonogo) is a super-active big, he’s kind of (Oscar Tshiebwe)-like the way he crashes the boards but he’s also skilled offensively.”