FAYETTEVILLE — It is both the beauty and the tragedy of the NCAA Tournament Big Dance that it seems the only tune remembered for a long basketball season begun with exhibitions in October and spanning nonconference, conference, and conference tournament seasons within a season before the Big Dance’s last dance leaves only one team celebrating come April.
So after a year vowing to amend for last year’s Big Dance Round 2 when they had the North Carolina Tar Heels on the ropes but couldn’t put the eventual national champions away, the Arkansas Razorbacks last Friday in Detroit found themselves knocked out in the first round, kayoed, 79-62 by the Butler Bulldogs.
It certainly was not what Coach Mike Anderson’s seventh-seeded Razorbacks envisioned, vs. the 10th-seeded Bulldogs.
But he and his Hogs certainly don’t despair alone.
If you think the Hogs are stunned, think of No. 4 seeds Arizona and Wichita State eliminated in the first round by 13-seeds Buffalo and Marshall. And then think of the unthinkable, 28-2 Virginia, not just a No. 1 seed but THE No.1 top seed of the tourney’s top seeds, routed, 74-54 in Friday’s first round by the unheard of 16th-seeded University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
The solace the Cavaliers should take in their great season of winning the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference and its ACC Tournament now gets historically overlooked for becoming the first top-seed Goliath slain by the last-seed David.
So, yes, Arkansas, it could be worse.
Nonetheless there will be a sting of opportunity lost for a team that began the season with six scholarship seniors and ended it with second-year junior college transfers Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon among the nation’s most heralded guard tandems. And its two 4-year seniors, starting guard and North Little Rock High alum Anton Beard, and sixth-man big man, Trey Thompson, the Madison native and Forrest City High grad, both played key roles for a team that accomplished much in a 23-12 season that included splitting games with SEC co-champions Auburn and Tennessee, finally beating the Florida Gators during the SEC Tournament and nonconference beating NCAA Tourney qualifiers Oklahoma and Bucknell.
It was a team of high resiliency but also high inconsistency. Both traits manifested against Butler’s Bulldogs.
The woefully slow start that Arkansas experienced trailing Tennessee, 48-29 at half during its 84-66 SEC Tournament loss to the Volunteers in St. Louis worsened in Detroit.
Butler scored 21 of the game’s first 23 points.
Yet from that 21-2 deficit the resilient Razorbacks stormed back actually to lead, 29-27 with 3:48 left in the half before a 9-2 Bulldogs run put Butler up 36-31 at intermission.
Arkansas never quite recovered in the second half from the Butler spurt that closed the first.
Some of Arkansas’ pressure defense game plan worked. The Razorbacks committed half as many turnovers, seven vs Butler’s 14, but failing to score off turnovers, the Arkansas and Butler points off turnovers matched 9-9 merely consumes time.
Rebounding, often an Arkansas Achilles heel though sometimes surprisingly in Arkansas’ favor like outrebounding the much bigger Texas A&M Aggies frontline in Fayetteville, sealed Arkansas’ fate in Detroit.
Butler outboarded Arkansas, 45-25. Couple that with the Razorbacks’ too many empty opportunities off the possessions they
stole, and no wonder they lost by 17 to a tournament tough Butler team that made last season’s Sweet Sixteen and against Arkansas netted 51 points from senior forward Kelan Martin, 27, and sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin, 24.
On any given day, Arkansas’ Barford, Macon and freshman center Daniel Gafford of El Dorado do to Butler what the Bulldogs did to Arkansas.
But in the one and done NCAA Tournament the only day given is the game you’ve got.
Once that day is done it’s all about building for the next one, a painstaking process for Anderson and the Razorbacks with the seniors gone and Gafford pondering whether to turn pro now or return for what presumably would be a one-year encore en route to a NBA lottery pick.