FAYETTEVILLE – Either the University of Arkansas’ sweetest basketball time since 1996 or Oral Roberts University’s sweetest basketball time since 1974 will sour at the finish of Saturday night’s game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
At the South Regional semifinal nationally televised by WTBS, the Razorbacks play their first Sweet Sixteen game of the NCAA Tournament since Nolan Richardson’s 1996 Razorbacks and the Tulsa based ORU Golden Eagles taste the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since they were called Titans and coached by Ken Trickey in 1974.
For Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks and Coach Paul Mills’ Golden Eagles, Saturday’s clash marks their season’s second meeting.
Suffice to say that Sunday afternoon Dec. 20 non conference game Arkansas won 87-76 after trailing the first half, 40-30 at Walton Arena didn’t impact like tonight’s game sending the winner into Monday’s Elite Eight playing to advance to the Final Four.
For both Musselman and Mills that game almost seems another team ago. Both for their own team and their opponent.
“That goes out the window in the NCAA Tournament,” Musselman said of playing an opponent previously.
Especially for these two teams, it seems.
“They’re a better team than when they played us, and we’re a better team than when we played them,” Musselman said.
Nobody back then picked the Razorbacks to finish second in the SEC and come March 27 be 24-6 in the Sweet Sixteen as the South Regionals third-seeded team.
As for the Golden Eagles, fourth in the Summit League but earning the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth by winning the Summit League Tournament, the NCAA Tournament committee predicted them one and done seeding them 15th and presumed first-round oblivion against second-seeded Big Ten power Ohio State.
ORU won 75-72 Next came seventh-seeded SEC power Florida.
ORU won, 81-78.
The Golden Eagles not only won but did so with forward Kevin Obanor scoring 30 on Ohio State and 28 on Florida while guard Max Abmas scored 29 on Ohio State and 26 on Florida.
Abmas, ORU’s third-leading scorer with 11 points behind Obanor’s 21 and Forrest City’s RJ Glasper’s 14 when Arkansas won on Dec. 20, got asked by Mills to score more when Glasper went down in February with a season-ending injury.
Abmas obliged. He leads the nation averaging 24.5 points per game. Obanor averages 19 points and a team leading 9.6 rebounds.
Musselman couldn’t name any duo anywhere tougher than ORU’s two at present.
“Those two players in particular are playing as good as any combo teammates in the tournament right now,” Musselman said. “They have two stars and they are very, very well coached.”
Averaging 8I.5 points per game with 315 3-pointers, Mills’ Golden Eagles are known for high-flying offense, but are better defensively than is realized, Musselman and Mills say.
Ditto, Arkansas, averaging 82 points per game with its opportunistic defense contributing much offensively.
Freshman Davonte “Devo” Davis of Jacksonville only 8:39 off the bench against ORU in December but starts now as co-backcourt defensive stoppers with graduate transfer point guard Jalen Tate and freshman All-American Moses Moody while senior forward Justin Smith has performed as Arkansas’ most consistent postseason player.
Mills marvels that during this covid plagued campaign Musselman fashioned a team returning only two who played with the Hogs last season and so blended three freshmen, two graduate transfers and two redshirted transfers into a cohesive corps.
“Eric does a phenomenal job,” Mills said. “To his credit, he does as good if maybe not the best job of anybody in the country of blending players from different places and bringing them together in order to play as a team.”
Meanwhile as the Golden Eagles are cast as basketball’s Cinderellas, Musselman reminds it’s no fluke they beat those they’ve beaten.
His players take heed.
“They’re like one of the highest three-point percentage teams in the nation,” Arkansas sixth man guard JD Notae said. “And they get to the foul line and make one of the highest percentages, too. We’ve got to keep them off the line as well as keep them in front of us while contesting all their shots.
F-Justin Smith 6-7 Sr. 13.8 pts. 7.0 rebs.
C-Jaylin Williams 6-10 Fr. 3.6 4.8
G-Jalen Tate 6-6 Sr. 10.6 3.8
G-Moses Moody 6-6 Fr. 17.1 5.8
G-Davonte Davis 6-3 Fr. 8.0 4.3
ORAL ROBERTS (18-10)
F-Francis Lacis 6-7 Jr. 3.8 pts. 3.6 rebs.
F-Kevin Obanor 6-8 Jr. 19.0 9.6
G-Max Abmas 6-1 So. 24.5 3.3
G-Carlos Jurgens 6-5 So. 5.7 2.8
G-Kareem Thompson 6-5 So. 8.6 3.6