Win or lose vs. Gonzaga, Arkansas is already a clear winner of March

As the final seconds ticked away in Auburn’s once magical season on Sunday night, I’d like to think Eric Musselman had a wry smile on his face. Sure, there’s a possibility he wanted to see as many SEC teams as possible move into the second weekend, even if it included an Auburn team that had emerged as a modern-day rival to Arkansas. There is the old cliché ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ that a coach at Musselman’s place could meet as standard. Or there is the opposite.

You know why a wry smile would make sense. Auburn’s loss meant Arkansas is the last SEC team to dance… again.

Two years, two relatively different teams, and twice the Hogs bragging about the rest of the conference. If you don’t think that shows up on the hiring path or on transfer visits, you’re wrong.

Arkansas instead went with this SEC bragging rights tweet:

(This is the part in the column where I say again, “Cheers, fighter Yurachek.”)

In this year’s case, Arkansas earned the right to be in the SEC spotlight for a week. As questions about “what happened to the SEC” fill the headlines and the airwaves, Arkansas becomes the “yes, but”.

Arkansas is the only SEC team to avoid a double-digit seed loss. Think about it. Five other SEC teams were eliminated over the opening weekend due to losses to a double-digit series, which could very well have been Musselman’s team with that shooting performance against New Mexico State.

In that round of 32 matchup, Arkansas:

  • A) A total of 28% shot
  • B) Shot 19% of 3-point range
  • C) Only grabbed 3 offensive rebounds
  • D) Had his worst offensive output of the season
  • E) All of the above:

It is e”. It’s always ‘E’.

But you know who would have done anything for an ugly win? Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee. None of them could do what Arkansas did. Shoot, forget you’re the only SEC team to advance to the Sweet 16. Arkansas is the only SEC team to have a run of consecutive years and win an NCAA Tournament win, and it’s 1 of 6 teams to win consecutive Sweet Making 16s (Michigan, UCLA, Gonzaga, Villanova, and Houston are the others).

It is the first time since 1998-99 that Arkansas has won an NCAA Tournament game in consecutive years and it is also the first time it has reached the Sweet 16 in consecutive years since the peak Nolan Richardson days of 1995-96. That 1996 Arkansas team’s run came to an end in the Sweet 16 against John Calipari’s No. 1 seed UMass with All-American big man Marcus Camby. It’s very similar to this year’s squad, which will face another No. 1 seed from a mid-major conference (Gonzaga) featuring All-American big man Drew Timme.

It is Gonzaga who bears all the pressure. Arkansas is a near double digit underdog who plays against the best overall seed. No one makes Arkansas basketball the punchline of a joke.

As for any other SEC team, well, the jokes write themselves.

  • Alabama: Guess the “championship school” just couldn’t win when it mattered!
  • Auburn: Do you remember January?
  • Kentucky: You had me at Peacocks.
  • LSU: I hope you enjoyed your short stay in March, because you won’t be able to go back for a long time.
  • Tennessee: Death, taxes, and Rick Barnes choking in March.

And they were all off the cuff. God knows you can make plenty of other jokes about 5 teams losing double digits on opening weekend.

Even if Arkansas loses to Gonzaga by 20, it can avoid that. For all we know, this game could rival last year’s Elite 8 showdown with eventual National Champion Baylor. Arkansas gave the Bears their toughest game of the tournament. Maybe Arkansas has the makings to finish what Memphis started in that thriller against Gonzaga.

For all the talk about the offensive issues, we could set up a scenario where Jaylin Williams and that domestic defense make it a frustrating night for Timme and future lottery voter Chet Holmgren. Memphis got Holmgren into some dirty trouble, which pressured Timme to take care of the opportunity. Of course he did. That is why he is one of the best players in the country.

The first weekend was a reminder that nothing is taken for granted in March. Would Arkansas beating Gonzaga even be among the top 5 disruptions in the tournament so far? Doubtful. Still, you wouldn’t know based on the way these odds look:

(To be fair, Arkansas’ odds are worse than Iowa State’s because of what’s left in their specific regions. Arkansas would get Purdue-Texas Tech’s winner if it gets past Gonzaga. However, Iowa State will face Miami with 10 places.)

Like I said, the pressure is off the Hogs. Musselman’s team should be loose in San Francisco. They are not the ones the masses will falsely call “fraudsters” if they fail to cut the nets in New Orleans. That’s Gonzaga. It’s Arkansas leaving March as an emerging program. Again. That’s a great place to be.

Every other SEC team has legitimate program-wide questions to ask now. Maybe it’s whether the style of play leads to inconsistent backcourt performances like Alabama and Auburn. Perhaps wondering what has led to more unfulfilled Final Four potential, such as with Kentucky and Tennessee. Or speaking of LSU, the best question is what awaits in the world?

Arkansas doesn’t have to ask questions. Instead, it can enjoy another week of dancing. Oh, I suppose there is 1 question worth asking.

Who says the pigs are ready?

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