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

DES MOINES, Iowa — In the middle of what would eventually become a happy Arkansas locker room, Keith Smart had scribbled a cryptic message on the erasable board during halftime.

Two feet of gold

It didn’t make much sense then. After 20 minutes in the second-round West Regional game, No. 8 seed Arkansas trailed No. 1 seed Kansas, the defending champions, by eight. And the Razorbacks looked rather shoddy.

The message remained on the board, but was practically ignored at the end of one of the greatest victories in Arkansas history, 72-71 on KU. For the second year in a row, Arkansas and his coach, Eric Musselman, defeated a No. 1 seed. An improbable rally in the second half melted the Jayhawks where they stood, which is still at — or close to — the top of college basketball.

An Arkansas team with 13 losses—the most losses 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 in his sophomore year with Arkansas, Smart has known Musselman for 35 years.

They needed something while the Jayhawks looked like they were on their way to dissect the Hogs. Nick Smith, Arkansas’ second leading scorer, was benched with two fouls. Jalen Wilson, the Big 12 player of the year, was present at another time for Kansas, which was on its way to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the past seven years.

Instead, the defending champion not only failed to repeat for the 16th consecutive year, he also failed to progress past the Sweet 16.

Another message was forged in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Arena.

“I always look for something unique every day,” 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 suited the Arkansas night and season.

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

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

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

“I’d love to lie and say I felt calm,” said Musselman, whose sideline is legendary.

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

“They’ve given us up, man,” shouted freshman star Anthony Black over the noise of the locker room. “All.”

Who exactly?

“Everyone,” Black clarified.

It’s been such a year.

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

Leading by as much as 12 in the second half, the Jayhawks led by 10 with 12:35 remaining.

“The story about us was, ‘If you go down or up, they just stop if you hit them on the mouth a few times,'” senior Kamani Johnson said.

This time, the Hogs struck out in the second – sort of digging for gold. Three players dropped out on the stretch: Jordan Walsh, Makhi Mitchell and Devo Davis, who was one point off his career high at 25.

Johnson muscled into a basket from a Ricky Council IV miss with 50 seconds left to break the 65-65 tie. Kansas entered the Finals 3:47 with no field goal. Arkansas muffled freshman Gradey Dick (nine points on 3 of 9 shooting), and although Wilson scored 20, he disappeared for a long time.

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

“Kansas wouldn’t go away. I’m not going to lie: We have a few dogs on our team. We can compete with anyone in the country. It hasn’t been the best season, but it’s been our season.”

The legend of Musselman continues to grow. The Razorbacks roll toward their third straight Sweet 16 and possibly a third straight Elite Eight. Musselman was engaged in exchanging texts with golfer John Daly after the game. There are priorities, you know.

“I 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 out 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 of Self, who missed his fourth game two stents have been inserted into his heart since last week. But the what if? will linger.

Monday marks a birthday Nor Roberts would rather forget. It had been 13 years since the Kansas acting coach was last in charge of a program. St. John’s fired him on March 19, 2010, after a six-year average stay that ended 81–101. As an acting coach for the past two weeks, Roberts went 7-2.

On Saturday, Roberts couldn’t get around the Kansas big men. That hampered the internal effort. KU was beaten 36-29 by a sustained effort from Arkansas.

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

More gold is waiting to be dug in a fitting place: Las Vegas. That’s the site of the West Regional. Then?

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

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