March Madness 2023: How Arkansas’ persistence, poise led to the demise of defending champion Kansas

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DES MOINES, Iowa — In the middle of what would eventually become a joyous Arkansas locker room, Keith Smart had scrawled a cryptic message on the dry erase board at halftime.

Two Feet From Gold

It didn’t make much sense at the time. After 20 minutes in the West Regional second-round game, No. 8 seed Arkansas was down eight to No. 1 seed Kansas, the defending national champions. And the Razorbacks were looking fairly sloppy.

The message remained on the board but was practically ignored at the end of one of the biggest wins in Arkansas’ history, 72-71 over KU. For the second straight year, Arkansas and its coach, Eric Musselman, beat a No. 1 seed. An improbable second-half rally melted the Jayhawks where they stood which remains at — or close to — the top of college basketball.

A 13-loss Arkansas team — the most defeats in Musselman’s four seasons — was too busy celebrating to notice Smart’s message. Turns out the Hogs assistant is a big audio book guy. Though he’s in his second year with Arkansas, Smart has known Musselman for 35 years.

They needed something as the Jayhawks looked like they were on its way to dissecting the Hogs. Arkansas’ second-leading scorer Nick Smith was on the bench with two fouls. Jalen Wilson, the Big 12 Player of the Year, was on another heater for Kansas, which appeared on its way to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the last seven years.

Instead, for the 16th consecutive year, not only did the defending national champion fail to repeat, it did not advance past the Sweet 16.

In the bowels of the Wells Fargo Arena, a different message was being forged.

“I always look every day for something unique,” Smart said.

Smart grabbed the marker and riffed on a variation of a motivational book, “Three Feet From Gold.” To paraphrase a review: Never give up, you could be this close to one of the greatest successes of your life.

The message certainly fit the night and Arkansas’ season. 

“It’s kind of a motivation, history, it could be spiritual,” Smart told CBS Sports. “It shows, if you give up too soon on your dream too soon, you’re not too far from it.”

These Hogs might be too young to remember Smart and his 1987 national championship game-winner for Indiana. But there is still some shine from the assistant on his ninth team (mostly in the NBA) since becoming a coach in 1997.

Smart is a calmer counterpart to Musselman; the head coach leaves every bit of himself out on the court. After the upset, Musselman ripped off his polo shirt and climbed into the Arkansas fan section to celebrate.

“I would love to lie and say that I felt composed,” said Musselman, whose sideline histrionics are legend.

It’s been a strange season for the Razorbacks. Smith missed several games with an injury. The Hogs’ 3-point shooting (31.6%) was among the worst in the nation. Judging by Saturday alone, they didn’t appear disciplined. There is talent all over the court, but the 8-10 SEC record was mediocre ranking 10th in the 14-team conference.

“They gave up on us, bro,” freshman star Anthony Black yelled above the din of the locker room. “All of them.”

 Who, exactly?

“Everybody,” Black clarified.

It has been that kind of year.

So, it didn’t seem surprising that every run Arkansas made, Kansas appeared to have an answer.

The Jayhawks were up by as many as 12 in the second half and led by 10 with 12:35 left in the game.

“The narrative on us was, ‘If you get down or up big, they’re just going to quit if you hit them in the mouth a couple of times,'” senior Kamani Johnson said.

This time, the Hogs hammered away in the second — sort of digging down for gold. Three players fouled out down the stretch: Jordan Walsh, Makhi Mitchell and Devo Davis, who fell one point shy of his career-high with 25.

Johnson muscled in a basket off a Ricky Council IV miss with 50 seconds left to break the 65-65 tie. Kansas went the final 3:47 without a field goal. Arkansas muffled freshman Gradey Dick (nine points on 3 of 9 shooting), and even though Wilson scored 20, he disappeared for long stretches.

“People don’t understand these are kids,” Johnson said. “I’m a grown man, but these are kids. We grew up in March.

“Kansas wouldn’t go away. I ain’t going to lie: We got some dogs on our team. We can compete with anybody in the nation. It ain’t been the best season, but it’s been our season.”

Musselman’s legend continues to grow. The Razorbacks are rolling toward their third straight Sweet 16 and possibly a third consecutive Elite Eight. Musselman was busy after the game exchanging texts with golfer John Daly. There are priorities, you know.  

“I just kept telling them, ‘Hey man, it’s a 40-minute game. You just have to keep playing. Crazy stuff happens in this tournament,'” Musselman said. “We just hung around and defended when we had to.”

We finally got an answer to the question of whether losing Bill Self would hurt the Jayhawks. It did. Not to say Kansas would have won with Self, who missed his fourth game since having two stents inserted near his heart last week. But the what if? will linger.

Monday marks an anniversary Norm Roberts would rather forget. It was 13 years ago Kansas’ acting coach was last in charge of a program. St. John’s fired him March 19, 2010, after an average six-year stay that ended at 81-101. As acting coach these past two weeks, Roberts went 7-2.

On Saturday, Roberts couldn’t maneuver around foul trouble to Kansas’ big men. That hindered the inside effort. KU was outrebounded 36-29 by a persistent Arkansas effort.

“I’ve been coaching for a long time,” Musselman said. “That’s as great of a win as I’ve ever been a part of.”

More gold awaits to be dug for in a fitting place: Las Vegas. That’s the site of the West Regional. After that?

“I’m trying to help them get there,” Smart said.





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