No. 3 seed Arkansas hadn’t faced a mid-major opponent since December, and though they fell behind by 14 points in the first half the Razorbacks didn’t forget how to turn the occasion into a feast as the Hogs gobbled up 14th-seeded Colgate, 85-68, on Friday in the second round of the South Region in the NCAA tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Senior combo forward Justin Smith hung a monster double-double — 29 points and 13 rebounds to go with 5 steals — and the Razorbacks changed their early misfortunes by going to a small-ball, fullcourt pressuring defense while pounding the ball inside on offense or getting out in transition en route to dominating the turnover battle (22-10), points-off-turnovers (34-15), points-in-the-paint (36-18), and fastbreak points (21-5) while limiting the nation’s second-best scoring offense (at 86.3 points per game) to 18 points below its season average. The Razorbacks — now 18-0 when holding their opponents to 75 or fewer points — flipped a 33-19 first-half deficit with a 17-0 run to close out the first 20 minutes for a 3-point lead at the break, then after falling behind 50-44 at the 13:49 mark in the second half the Hogs closed the game by outscoring the Raiders 41-18 for their 17-point winning margin.
Coming off a loss against LSU in the SEC tournament semifinals last weekend, 10th-ranked Arkansas (23-6) has now won 10 of its last 11 games while advancing to the NCAAT third round on Sunday to play 6th-seeded Texas Tech, a 65-53 winner Friday over 11th-seeded Utah State.
The Hogs’ NCAAT opening-game win marked only the 4th time in the 21st century that the Arkansas men’s basketball program won an NCAAT game to advance to the Round of 32. The last time the program won its first NCAAT game was 4 years ago (2016-17). A win against Texas Tech in the next round would mean the Hogs’ first Sweet 16 berth in 25 years (’95-96).
The Razorbacks improved to 9-0 against mid-major opponents in ’20-21 with their victory over Colgate. They had won their previous 8 mid-major matchups each by double-digit margins with an average margin of victory of 28.4 points. Arkansas avenged a loss suffered in its previous matchup against a Patriot League team in the NCAAT — a 59-55 defeat 15 years ago at the hands of Bucknell in the Round of 64 opening game for both teams (’05-06).
Having only played five different opponents in ’20-21 prior to the NCAAT, Colgate ended its season with a 14-2 record (including 11-1 to win the Patriot League) and a No. 9 final NCAA NET ranking. The Raiders entered Friday on a 13-game winning streak while sporting the nation’s No. 1 three-point shooting-percentage defense (26.1%) and 3rd-best three-point shooting-percentage offense (40%).
The Hogs improved to 43-32 all-time in NCAAT games, a record that now includes a 30-8 mark when the Hogs play as the higher seed relative to their opponents. The Razorbacks also moved to 2-1 as a 3-seed in the NCAAT (’91-92 Hogs were 1-1). Arkansas improved to 7-5 in away games on the season (includes a 2-1 record in neutral-site games). In his second campaign as Head Hog, Eric Musselman is now 1-0 in NCAAT games and 43-18 overall at Arkansas.
“To start the game, we didn’t do a very good job from an energy standpoint,” Musselman said during his postgame interview with truTV. “We have so many young players and a lot of new faces, and a lot of people that did not have NCAA (tournament) experience, and I think it showed to start the game. We got that out of the way.
“I thought that 17-0 run was huge for us. We obviously elected to not really play with a center. We thought that Justin Smith would create emense problems as an isolation player, and he did that against their bigs. I thought that was a big key to the game.”
Smith, who scored 18 of his points in the second half while recording his 5th double-double of the season, was joined by four other Hogs in double-figures scoring as senior combo guard Jalen Tate had 15 points to go with 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and only 1 turnover; junior combo guard JD Notae had 14 points (all in the second half), 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, and only 1 turnover; freshman combo guard Davonte “Devo” Davis contributed 12 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks; and SEC Freshman of the Year Moses Moody chipped in 12 points, 1 rebound, and 1 steal.
Arkansas’ frontliners outside of Smith — Connor Vanover, Jaylin Williams, and Ethan Henderson — combined to play only 12 minutes while producing only 3 rebounds (all by Williams) as Musselman committed to a small-ball lineup to take advantage of quickness matchups at both ends of the floor. In addition to the aforementioned dominance by the Razorbacks in winning the turnovers, points-off-turnovers, points-in-the paint, and fastbreak-points battles, they also managed to finish plus-10 in second-chance-points (17-7) despite being minus-5 in the rebounding department (42-37). Arkansas was also plus-8 in steals (13-5) and plus-2 in blocks (4-2).
The biggest advantage that Colgate held in the game was from the three-point line as the Raiders made 12-of-27 from distance (44.4%) compared to the Hogs’ 5-of-16 effort (31.3%). But Arkansas was better in overall field goal shooting (29-of-65 for 44.6% compared to Colgate’s 23-of-58 for 39.7%) and the Hogs were vastly superior at the free throw line (22-of-29 for 75.9% compared to the Raiders’ 10-of-17 for 58.6%).
As has become customary, Musselman drew up a defensive gameplan to minimize production by the opposition’s best player — Colgate senior guard Jordan Burns, who didn’t score in the first half and finished with only 13 points (4 below his season average) on 4-of-13 shooting from the field, 4 assists (1 below his season average), and 3 rebounds (1 below his season average). Guard Nellie Cunningham led the Raiders with 14 points, 4 assists, and 3 rebounds, while freshman big man Jeff Woodward (11 points) and senior Jack Ferguson (11 points) came off the bench to provide scoring punch for the team.
The Hogs used a 4-point possession — a Moody bank shot followed by a Tate putback of Moody’s missed free throw attempt — to tie the game at 42-all with 16:45 to play, but Colgate got a three-pointer from Burns to ignite an 8-2 run that put the Raiders up 50-44 with 13:49 to play. Notae’s triple followed by his layup-and-1 conversion put the Hogs back up, 56-54, midway through the second half before the teams battled to a 58-all tie with 8:41 remaining in the game.
But it was all Arkansas from there as two more Notae three-pointers served as the bookends to a 15-2 run that put the Hogs up 73-60 with 3:51 left in the game. Arkansas held Colgate to 0-of-4 field goal shooting while forcing 5 turnovers for just over 6 minutes in that stretch that cemented the win for the Hogs.
Musselman went with the same starting lineup for the 11th consecutive game — Moody, Davis, Smith, Tate, and Vanover.
Moody hit a triple and Smith converted a steal into a layup-and-1 as Arkansas used an early 6-0 spurt for an 8-5 lead, but Colgate would outscore the Hogs 20-7 — including a 16-2 run — to take its biggest lead, 33-19, with 5:28 to play in the first 20 minutes.
Both teams missed scoring opportunties over the next 1:34, but that’s when Davis converted a steal and went coast-to-coast for a lay-in that triggered the 17-0 run to put the Hogs up 36-33 at halftime. During the run, Davis had another steal that led to him finding Desi Sills for a lay-in, a layup on an inbounds pass underneath the Hogs’ basket, and a buzzer-beating coast-to-coast lay-in.