Shirtless, Candy 16’s sweaty Arkansas run survives on the razor-thin margins of March Insanity

DES MOINES – It is simple for a cynic to consider {that a} celebration was premeditated, and maybe it was. When the ultimate bell rang and the No. 8 seed Arkansas did the unthinkable—eliminating the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks within the thirty second spherical of the 2023 NCAA Males’s Event—Razorbacks head coach Eric Musselman knew precisely the place he was going.

Musselman discovered his household sitting within the entrance row of the world, jumped onto the media desk and ripped off his pink polo shirt. The coach led the Razorback devoted in a delirious rendition of the college music “Woo Pig Sooie”, however he could not do it with out breaking character. Musselman appeared into the eyes of his spouse Danyelle and daughter Mariah mid-tradition and began laughing – seemingly recognizing how ridiculous it was for a 58-year-old man to face shirtless on a desk, hooting and yelling in the midst of Iowa.

The defending nationwide champions have been knocked out of the event the primary weekend and Arkansas headed to Las Vegas to proceed the dance.

The Candy 16 run wasn’t going to be that stunning for this specific Arkansas group. Musselman led the Razorbacks to the Elite Eight in every of the final two years and had essentially the most gifted group of his school teaching profession that season. Arkansas began the yr within the high 10 within the preseason polls, supported by the nation’s second recruiting class. There are not less than 4 NBA gamers on this roster, probably extra. However simply because the group can recruit plenty of five-stars and make important transfers on Portal doesn’t suggest the season can be simple. This Razorbacks marketing campaign was one thing else, and the Kansas recreation was the essence of that.

It did not appear to be Arkansas was the higher group on Saturday. On the night time, the Hogs shot 3 of 15 from three-pointers. They fouled three gamers. They needed to make up for a 12-point deficit within the second half. Kansas was main or tied for your complete recreation aside from 1:47.

If Kansas takes just a few extra free throws, if Kansas catches one or two extra unfastened balls, if the umpires make or miss one or two extra round-trip judgments, it is a completely different recreation. In fact, simply getting the sport to the purpose of a coin toss in opposition to a program like Kansas is an achievement in itself.

“They seem to be a group that is nonetheless rising,” Musselman stated after a decent first-round win over Illinois. “There have been different bands which have reached a plateau. Perhaps we have been previous veterans on a few of our Nevada groups, or possibly we have been simply making an attempt to save lots of our legs sooner or later. Nevertheless it’s a group that is nonetheless evolving.”

Two days after Arkansas misplaced to Coach Ok’s last-ever group within the Elite Eight final season, Musselman tweeted a photograph of himself in entrance of three McDonald’s burgers with the “let’s eat” hashtag. One of many high 10 highest-paid coaches within the nation wasn’t hungry for junk meals — as a substitute, he simply landed his third McDonald’s All-American within the class of 2022.

Arkansas already had commitments from Nick Smith Jr.’s five-star recruits. and Jordan Walsh. The third “burger boy” he joined was Anthony Black, a 188cm Dallas defenseman with super defensive versatility, a powerful sense of the sport and a profitable pedigree coming from Duncanville Excessive in Dallas. The Razorbacks must change virtually all of their rotation from the earlier yr, however catching three McDonald’s All-People is an efficient solution to begin. The addition of two superb signings with Trevon Brazile from Missouri and Ricky Council IV from Wichita State additionally helped.

Sadly for Arkansas, adversity hit virtually instantly. Smith – thought of the NBA’s high school basketball prospect for the approaching yr – injured his proper knee within the preseason and was sidelined indefinitely at one level. Brazile tore his cruciate ligament in December, selecting up the season’s most gifted participant. Arkansas misplaced 5 out of six to open the SEC recreation and by no means actually recovered. They completed convention play with an 8–10 shedding report and completed tenth within the 14-team league on the finish of the yr.

Nonetheless, the SEC was adequate and Arkansas’ non-conference roster was spectacular sufficient to convey the Razorbacks into the event with the #8 seed.

A group with as a lot expertise on paper as Arkansas ought to be an offensive powerhouse. As an alternative, the one cause Arkansas continues to be dancing – the one cause it made the event in any respect – is due to its protection. It is uncommon for a five-star rookie to offer extra on protection than offense, however that is definitely the case with Black and Walsh. Whereas their report in opposition to the Jayhawks was modest, their contribution was enormous.

Walsh took on one of many hardest assignments within the nation with All-American Jalen Wilson’s first group. Wilson launched the Jayhawks’ assault early on Saturday, not less than till Walsh checked in. The freshmen’s protection was so spectacular that Wilson may solely gather subject targets for the primary quarter-hour of the second half. Walsh coated one of many nation’s high scorers together with his size (7.2 ft wingspan), velocity, and self-discipline—even when he continued to foul to the top.

In the meantime, Black took on fellow McDonald’s All-American freshman and future lottery decide at Gradey Dick. Dick is among the high three-pointers within the nation at 6’8, and his skill to bend defenses with the gravity of taking pictures by working round screens makes him an extremely powerful cowl. Black principally eradicated him, battling for the highest of the display screen at one level within the second half and getting a clear block on Dick’s three-point try. What number of different gamers within the nation may hit that shot?

“It means lots to maintain him,” Walsh stated after the sport in protection of Wilson. “For the group, that is greater than only a stopover. In case you sacrifice your self to cease him from scoring, even for those who do not rating on the opposite facet, it reveals you might be sacrificing on your group and contributing to the win.

Whereas the freshmen have pushed so many headlines for this Arkansas group, a number of veterans have taken the brunt of the scoring. Davonte Davis, the one remnant of final yr’s rotation, scored 25 factors on 9-of-15 photographs with slick paint hits. Rada scored 21 factors regardless of making solely 5 of 18 subject targets. He is such a strong driver that Kansas needed to outplay him to maintain the waltz from over the sting. Once they fell, the Council fired mid-distance jumpers, together with some huge ones through the disaster. His offensive rebound from a missed free kick with lower than 30 seconds left was the most important play of the sport.

“We’re celebrating there as a result of now we have unbelievable respect for Kansas, defending champion, their league’s No. 10 MVP, Jalen Wilson,” Musselman stated after the sport. “It is a powerful, powerful, powerful group to arrange for.”

The catharsis that Musselman confirmed standing on the media desk comes solely by surviving the razor-thin margins of March Insanity. On Saturday, he was fortunate to be on the correct facet of destiny. All he may do was let America see his naked chest.

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