Arkansas upsets Kansas to reach the Sweet 16

DES MOINES, Iowa — Eric Musselman and his players rushed the floor at the final buzzer to celebrate with their happy, feisty friends from Arkansas.

The 58-year-old coach jumped onto the press table, tore off his red polo shirt and waved it above his head, all the while shouting to the delight of the fans, as has become his tradition after his biggest wins.

And this was a really big one.

Kansas’ national title defense ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday when Arkansas’ Ricky Council IV made five free throws in the closing seconds and the eighth-seeded Razorbacks beat the No. 1 seed Jayhawks 72-71.

“I’d love to lie and say I felt composed, but we only led by 1:43,” he said. “This has been as challenging and as up-and-down a season as I’ve ever been a part of.

“For these guys to be rewarded for sticking with it and being able to go to Las Vegas and participate with only 16 teams still standing. … It’s really hard to make this tournament. It’s really hard to win a game in this tournament. It’s really hard to beat the defending champions, the No. 1 seed. We did it.”

Arkansas played a No. 1 seed for the third year in a row. Last year, the Razorbacks knocked off Gonzaga en route to their second straight Elite Eight. This time, the Razorbacks survived shaky offensive play early and foul trouble late. They became the first team to beat a No. 1 seed with three players fouling out, according to OptaSTATS.

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Davonte Davis #4 of the Arkansas Razorbacks reacts against the Kansas Jayhawks during the second half of the second round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 18, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Arkansas shocked Kansas in a close-scoring game to punch its ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

“It’s such an incredible win for our program,” Musselman said. “I keep telling people we’re getting better. Not many teams can get better this time of year. I have never been prouder of a team than tonight.

Davonte Davis scored 25 points and Council added 21 as Arkansas rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit. Kansas, playing without ailing coach Bill Self, became the second top seed to miss the tournament’s first weekend after Purdue lost Friday night to No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson.

Arkansas (22-13) is in the Sweet 16 for the third straight year and will play either Saint Mary’s or UConn in the West Region semifinals in Las Vegas on Thursday.

Self has been with the Jayhawks (28-8) since arriving in Des Moines and has attended practices and meetings, but he still didn’t feel well enough to practice in a game after having a heart procedure March 8 to clear clogged arteries .

Longtime assistant Norm Roberts was acting coach for a fifth straight game in Self’s absence.

Kansas, bidding to become the first repeat national champion since Florida in 2006-07, led 35-27 at halftime and lost for the first time in 27 games when it entered the second half with a lead. Kansas had been 47-0 in the NCAA Tournament when he led by eight points or more at the half.

“Our guys have been amazing all year,” Roberts said. “They fought until the end, made big plays. It was tough not having Coach here, but we’re not going to make any excuses. We’ve got to step up and get it done, and we fell a little short today.

Davis scored 21 of his points in the second half. He fouled out with 1:56 left, handing things over to the veteran councilman, a transfer from Wichita State who scored nine of the Razorbacks’ final 11 points.

“This team struggled and we figured it out,” Davis said. “I’m glad we did it at the right time. Hopefully we’ll continue to do that.”

Outside the locker room, a sobbing Musselman embraced Davis and shouted, “I (expletive) love you, man!”

Council’s free throws put Arkansas within reach, 68-67, with 24 seconds left. He then rebounded his own miss from the second free throw and made two more to give the Razorbacks a three-point lead.

Kevin McCullar Jr.  #15 of the Kansas Jayhawks reacts against the Arkansas Razorbacks in the second half of the second round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 18, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Jayhawks’ dreams of becoming back-to-back champions were dashed by the Razorbacks.
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The teams traded free throws, and Arkansas sent Kansas’ Jalen Wilson to the line with 3 seconds left to prevent a potential game-tying 3-pointer. Wilson made the first free throw and appeared to try to miss the second on purpose, but it bounced hard off the glass and in, and Kansas never regained possession.

Wilson led the Jayhawks with 20 points, but lamented that he grabbed just four rebounds, which he said was a factor in Arkansas’ 15-2 second-chance advantage. No missed rebound hurt more, he said, than when Kansas couldn’t get the ball off Council’s missed free throw in the waning seconds.

“It always comes down to one play, especially busy plays like that,” Wilson said. “It’s just disappointing to end like this, especially with how great our year was. Credit to them for how they played.”

Arkansas, which beat Illinois in the first round, was considered a scary matchup for the Jayhawks with its explosive transition game and ability to play lockdown defense.

But the circumstances were less than ideal for the Razorbacks. Guard Anthony Black shrugged off a nagging ankle injury early and went to the bench to get re-taped and change shoes, and fellow guard and projected NBA first-round draft pick Nick Smith Jr. picked up two quick fouls and was limited to 10 minutes and no points in the first half. Big man Kamani Johnson was also sick and playing with a sore toe.

The Razorbacks were too eager to shoot 3-pointers early. They missed 8 of 9 in the first half and were unable to get the running game going.

Kansas was in control down the stretch, but could never put away the Razorbacks.

Davis started an 11-0 Arkansas run midway through the second half, and Jordan Walsh’s 3-pointer with eight minutes left gave the Razorbacks their first lead since their first basket of the game.

Arkansas neutralized Wilson when it mattered most, allowing the All-American just two shots over a 15-minute stretch of the second half.

Arkansas is in the Sweet 16 for the 14th time. The only lower-seeded Razorbacks team to reach a regional semifinal was the 1996 squad, which was No. 12 under Nolan Richardson, who led the school to its only national title two years earlier.

If Musselman reaches his first Final Four, he will conjure up more memories of those glory years.

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