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Razorbacks’ Musselman examines Gonzaga challenge

Razorback sophomore forward Jaylin Williams (#10) from Ft. Smith backs into the paint against
 LSU at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, AR.

by Nate Allen

FAYETTEVILLE – Fourth place in the SEC/ fourth-seeded in the West Regional, Arkansas plays with underdog house money tonight against West top-seed/national No. 1 Gonzaga in tonight’s West Regional semifinals at the Chase Center in San Francisco.

Tip-off is 6 p.m. CDT and the game will be televised by CBS. Later tonight at Chase, the West semifinal between No. 2 seed Duke and 3-seed Texas Tech will tip-off and will be seen on the same network.

Tonight’s winners meet Saturday in San Francisco, advancing the West champion to the Final Four in New Orleans.

Las Vegas odds makers rate Gonzaga’s 28-3 Bulldogs, often called the Zags, as 9.5 favorites to advance beyond the 27-8 Razorbacks tonight.

Nobody is talking about Arkansas even having a chance in this game,” Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said. “I’ve got two good eyes and my Internet works really good, and I haven’t found anybody that’s even giving us a chance to even be in the same arena with Gonzaga.”

Musselman and his Razorbacks are exceptions.

In a 68-team, four regions tournament now pared down to 16 minus one of the four No. 1 regional seeds, Baylor. With No. 2 seed/SEC runner-up Kentucky knocked out in the first round by 15th-seeded St. Peter’s, nothing seems a given. 

In fact the West is the lone regional with its top four seeds intact.  Barely.

Arkansas had to claw to the finish in Buffalo. N.Y. to subdue 13-seed Vermont, 75-71 and win 53-48 over New Mexico State, the 12-surprise having stunned fifth-seeded UConn in the first round game.

It took Coach Mark Few’s  Spokane, Wash. based  Zags until the final 10 minutes to beat 16-seed Georgia State by a deceptive 93-72 in their first round  game at Portland, Oregon. In Round Two at Portland, the Zags trailed the Memphis Tigers by 10 at the half before escaping, 82-78. They were rescued by 6-10 All-American Drew Timme scoring 21 of his 25 points in the second half while totaling 14 rebounds, and by point guard Andrew Nembhard sinking four free throws in the final 25 seconds.

“The way we came out fighting in the second half, I thought it was more who we are,” Few said post Memphis. “These guys have had better nights at the free throw line (13 of 24). Thank God we have Andrew.”

And Timme, on a roll, scored 32 points with 13 rebounds against Georgia State.

Add seven-foot freshman All-American Chet Holmgren, second in scoring at 14.2 and deadly on three-pointers  at 40 of  102, and leading Gonzaga’s rebounders, averaging 9.8 a game and guards Julian Strawther, 11.8 scoring and Bolton Riser, 11.2 scoring, hitting 62 of 132 treys, to junior All-American Timme, 18.2 points and 6.7 rebonds to former Florida point guard Nembhard, 12.0 points and 181 assists, and you have the nation’s best most cohesive starting five.

“They present a lot problems,” Musselman said. “That’s why they’re the number one seed. They have a potential lottery pick in Holmgren. Timme has been as good as any interior player in the entire country. Those two run a great high-low game together.”

Musselman didn’t stop there.

“Nembhard’s one of the smartest point guards in college basketball,” Musselman said. “He’s really improved as a three-point shooter. “Strawther, they bring him off screens, he’s got deep, deep range, he can catch and shoot with quickness.  Bolton is a really good, really good three-point shooter who’s got good range, and they come off the bench with (6-8 forward Anton)  Watson who can play multiple positions.”

Few has more than a few concerns about Arkansas.

Especially, Few said, how well Musselman’s team plays defense.

Offensively, if he can stay out of foul trouble, Arkansas senior guard JD Notae, 18.4 points, can explode with the best, inside and outside and as a distributor. Grad transfer Stanley Umude, 20 points against Vermont, also has excelled inside and out.

Sophomore 6-10 center Jaylin Williams, along with Notae and sixth man sophomore guard Devo Davis, an integral returnee from the Razorbacks’ 25-7 Elite Eight team of last year, has established himself as a  charge-taking defensive bulwark who can also score and assist.

Au’Diese Toney, the grad transfer 6-6 guard-forward, is among the nation’s most versatile defenders who can guard anyone from a point guard to a power forward.

Little 5-7 guard Chris Lykes sometimes gets on a big roll off the bench.

It would seem against the big Zags that Musselman needs more from 6-6 starting grad transfer Trey Wade. Wade played just over six minutes against New Mexico State supplanted by Davis and Lykes.

“Trey Wade is one of our highest graders in doing all the intangibles,” Musselman said.  “We went small last game during stretches, because we wanted to pressure the ball and felt like we needed to cause some turnovers, which obviously we did. Trey is more of a disciplined defender. He’s more of a guy that guards his guy and is a great weak-side help defender and gives us physicality. So in the last game, there was nothing that he did wrong. It was more us just trying to become a little bit more pressure-oriented.”

In his third Arkansas year, the NCAA Tournament was cancelled his first year because of the Covid pandemic, Musselman has taken Arkansas to two Sweet Sixteens and all the way to last year’s Elite Eight.

Few has zigged the Zags to seven consecutive Sweet Sixteens.

Last year’s 31-1 Zags didn’t lose until the national championship game against the Baylor Bears. The same Baylor Bears beat Arkansas in last year’s Elite Eight, but this year was one of the two No. 1 seeds eliminated.

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