If you’re looking for easy viewing entertainment, these basketball Hogs are not your thing. If you don’t want to be up and down in front of your TV screen, jumping for joy one minute and pulling your hair out the next, this team is not for you. High blood pressure ? Don’t watch. Afraid of scaring the dog and kids, lock yourself in your TV room solo.
Arkansas’ thrilling, exasperating, uplifting and teeth grinding 73-63 win over Illinois in the first round of the NCAA West Regional was just the latest example of something that has happened quite often this season. Arkansas has won some of these games but has also lost many of them. If, as a Razorbacks basketball fan, this gets to you, let me offer some advice. It’s not going to change. Accept the good with the bad.
Against the Fighting Illini the good was on display with 4:03 left in the first half. Ricky Council IV connected on a three-pointer, one of just three the Hogs hit in the game. But this one, coupled with some fierce defense, had Arkansas by 14 with 4:06 left until intermission. The Razorbacks had a chance to put Illinois in a huge hole at halftime but along came the bad.
With 3:38 left Jordan Walsh missed a three-pointer. With 2:48 remaining Nick Smith Jr. put up and missed a three. Council IV got the rebound and missed a power dunk. At the 2:04 mark Walsh turned the ball over and with :47 left Kamani Johnson missed a layup.
Arkansas settled for a 10 point lead at the break leaving Hogs fans wondering if they were about to witness the same second half collapse they had endured in an SEC tournament loss to Texas A&M six days earlier.
Actually, as the final half started, there was more of the good. The defense continued to be outstanding but with a patient and more patterned offense. Arkansas looked like it was running set plays as Makhi Mitchell hit a short jumper, followed by layup with 11:02 left in the game. Illinois appeared to be down for the count as the Razorbacks jumped the lead to 17 points.
But that lead would go from comfortable to decidedly uncomfortable as Illinois scored eight unanswered points and eventually cut that once hefty pad to just five with 2:30 to go.
I found myself wondering what was going through Eric Musselman’s head as during that stretch as he’d watched Nick Smith Jr. race toward the Illinois goal for what could have been a fast break layup and possibly an and-one situation. Instead Smith Jr. got fancy and lofted the ball up high to a trailing Council IV who lost control of the ball and blew a dunk.
Seconds later Smith Jr. committed a foul and Terrance Shannon Jr. promptly dropped in a couple of free throws on the other end. A seven-point lead with 2:35 left looks a lot different from an 11 point lead. To make matter worse, Smith Jr. promptly turned the ball over and Arkansas’ shrinking lead dropped to just five on an R.J. Melendez dunk with 2:30 left. Thankfully, with defense, the good took back over and the Hogs stretched that lead back to 10 at the final horn.
A friend of mine was happy with the final result but seemed almost dumbfounded by what he thought was Smith Jr.’s ill advised alley-oop attempt. He put in a text, ‘What what NSJ thinking? What if that had been my last memory of him as a Hog?’
I was wondering what Eric Musselman was thinking about that situation and several other questionable offensive decisions made by his players during the game. I got the answer in the post game presser.
“Ricky’s made some spectacular dunks for us and that would have put an end to it probably,” Muss told reporters. “I kind of allow our team to do that type of stuff. I’ve never told them not to throw lobs. I felt at that time we maybe could have milked the clock on that particular possession. But hey, you give a team offensive freedom and you’re very demanding defensively. That’s kind of the philosophy we’ve always had.”
Another friend must have seen that response because he texted me with this observation: ‘Maybe we have to rest on offense because our defense is so relentless.’
Maybe, but a smothering defense alone will not likely be enough against a Kansas team that bullied its way into the second round with a 96-68 domination of Howard. I have a strong feeling that periodic resting on the offensive end against the Jayhawks won’t cut it.
Let’s hope that Muss’ Hogs are playing smart basketball on both ends of the floor come Saturday.