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

DES MOINES, Iowa — In the middle of what would eventually be a joyous locker room at Arkansas, 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 second-round West Regional game, No. 8 seed Arkansas was down eight to No. 1 seed Kansas, the defending national champions. And the Razorbacks looked pretty sloppy.

The message remained on the board but was virtually ignored at the end of one of the greatest victories in Arkansas’ history, 72-71 over KU. For the second year in a row, Arkansas and their coach, Eric Musselman, beat a No. 1 seed. An improbable second-half rally melted the Jayhawks where they stood, who remain at — or near — 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 audiobook guy. Although in his second year with Arkansas, Smart has known Musselman for 35 years.

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

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

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In the bowels of Wells Fargo Arena, another message was forged.

“I’m always looking 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 can be this close to one of the biggest successes of your life.

The message certainly fit the night and Arkansas’ season.

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

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

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

“I’d love to lie and say I felt composed,” said Musselman, whose sideline history is the stuff of 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 seem disciplined. There is talent all over the field, but the 8-10 SEC record was mediocre at 10th in the 14-team conference.

“They gave us up, bro,” freshman star Anthony Black shouted over the din in the locker room. “All together.”

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Who, exactly?

“Everyone,” Black explained.

It has been such a year.

So it didn’t seem surprising that every run Arkansas made, Kansas seemed 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 about us was, ‘If you get down or up big, they’re only going to stop if you punch them in the mouth a couple of times,'” senior Kamani Johnson said.

This time the Hogs hammered away in the second – sort of digging for gold. Three players fell over the line: Jordan Walsh, Makhi Mitchell and Devo Davis, who fell one point short of his career high of 25.

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

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

“Kansas didn’t want to go away. I’m not going to lie: We’ve got some dogs on our team. We can compete with anybody in the nation. It hasn’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 match exchanging texts with golfer John Daly. There are priorities, you know.

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“I just kept telling them, ‘Hey man, it’s a 40-minute game. You just have to keep playing. Crazy things happen in this tournament,'” Musselman said. “We just hung around and defended ourselves 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 Even, who missed his fourth game since he had two stents inserted near his heart last week. But what if? will hang.

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

On Saturday, Roberts couldn’t maneuver his way around Kansas’ big men’s foul trouble. It hindered the insider effort. KU was outscored 36-29 by a tenacious effort from Arkansas.

“I’ve been training for a long time,” Musselman said. “It’s as big a win as I’ve ever been a part of.”

More gold is waiting to be dug for in a fitting place: Las Vegas. It is the place for Region West. After that?

“I try to help them get there,” Smart said.

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