SAN FRANCISCO – A few months into the 2021-22 college basketball season, pundits and analysts could have made a fairly strong case as to why three of the four teams at this week’s West Regional in San Francisco would still be competing for a national championship in the third week of March.
Gonzaga, Duke and Texas Tech each had quality wins and other superlatives that made them legitimate Sweet 16 contenders, at least on paper. Gonzaga’s frontcourt. Duke’s freshman class. Texas Tech’s vaunted defense. In a Jan. 24 version of the Associated Press Top 25, the Gonzaga was ranked No. 2, Duke No. 9 and Texas Tech No. 13.
Relative to its higher-seeded peers in San Francisco, Arkansas may be considered the surprise guest at this week’s regional event. In January, few who have projected the fourth-seeded Razorbacks (27-8) to be dancing at all, much less preparing to face the top-seeded Bulldogs (28-3) in Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup at the Chase Center.
Arkansas is two months removed from a dismal four-week stretch that saw the Razorbacks drop five of six games, including a 22-point loss to Oklahoma, a neutral-site loss to Hofstra and consecutive SEC defeats to Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
They’ve shown impressive resolve since, winning 17 of their past 20 games. It’s unlikely the Razorbacks will shudder at the prospect of facing the country’s top team, mainly because they’ve done it already.
On Feb. 8, Arkansas beat No. 1 Auburn 80-76 in Fayetteville – one of four ranked wins for the Razorbacks after their December/January drought.
“I’m pretty sure I’m speaking for the whole team when I say this, we’ve been going against this the whole year,” Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams said. “We started off the season not great, and we kind of just fought back throughout the whole year.
“We played against the No. 1-ranked team in the country and played against great teams all year, and we’ve kind of been that team that kept fighting and kept proving people wrong.”
Gonzaga’s Drew Timme would eventually get more descriptive in his analysis of Arkansas, but the All-American forward shared his immediate impression of the Razorbacks during a news conference Wednesday at the Chase Center.
“They’re in the Sweet 16, and just to win a game in the NCAA Tournament is just hard enough as is,” Timme said. “But, yeah, they pose a huge challenge.”
The more detailed review from Timme: “They’re a really good defensive team in the gaps. They’re good offensively as well and have a nice combination of athleticism, length and then they have a stretch five who is good as well. It’s going to be a big challenge, and they’re a really good team, and I don’t think they’re being disrespected.
“I think they’re a really good team. At least in our eyes.”
Arkansas, coached by the well-traveled Eric Musselman, presents a unique challenge that won’t resemble the ones the Zags faced against Georgia State or Memphis. Led by 6-foot-2 point guard JD Notae, who averages 18.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.3 steals, Arkansas is long, athletic and quick-handed in the backcourt, starting three 6-6 wings/forwards and a 6-10 forward in Williams.
The Razorbacks aren’t a strong perimeter-shooting team, making 30% from the 3-point line, and will concede that category to Gonzaga, which has made 37% of its shots from beyond the arc this season. Arkansas is adept at getting to the free-throw line, however, with four players who’ve attempted at least 124 free throws. By comparison, only one GU player, Timme, has attempted more than 100 free throws.
“Gosh, they’re great in the open floor, pushing it and making plays,” Few said, citing a few of the traits that also make his team dangerous. “I want to say at the definitely in the upper percentile, maybe even the best in the country at drawing fouls and getting themselves to the free-throw line. They do a great job of putting the ball on the floor and coming at you.
“We’re going to have to sprint back and build a wall and hopefully show that we have our hands back, but also rim-protect and rotate out of those things.”
Gonzaga and Arkansas have one common opponent and a similar result . The Bulldogs lost to Alabama 91-82 on Dec. 4 at the Battle in Seattle, but it was a lower-scoring affair when the Razorbacks and Crimson Tide met up Feb. 12 in Tuscaloosa, where Alabama won 68-67.
Nobody on Gonzaga’s current roster has faced Arkansas, but Bulldogs point guard Andrew Nembhard has NCAA Tournament experience against Musselman. In the 2019 NCAA Tournament, Nembhard and Florida knocked out Musselman and Nevada, headlined by Caleb and Cody Martin. Nembhard had eight points, seven rebounds and five assists in the 70-61 victory.
“I remember they had the twins. They had an older roster. They played a lot of isolation ball,” Nembhard said. “I think similar to the stuff that they do over there now. Give the ball to their best player and let them hoop.
“I think it’s going to be a similar task for us as that game.”