If you're a college basketball fan over the age of 35, you might well have a soft spot in your hoops-loving soul for Arkansas. Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson guided the Razorbacks to prominence and dominance in the 1970s, throughout the '80s and then in the '90s, culminating with a 1994 national championship. Richardson would get Arkansas back to the title game the following year, then to the Sweet 16 in 1996.
Arkansas hasn't won two games in the same NCAA Tournament since.
It's an astonishing run of March futility. This is a program that ranked No. 22 in CBS Sports' all-time program rankings but has been unable to make a run in the NCAAs since the week Busta Rhymes' debut album came out and the second-best Stone Temple Pilots LP was released. Every school ranked in the top 25 on my all-time list of top programs has made the Sweet 16 at least once in the past 20 years -- except for the Hogs.
Here's a mind-blowing stat: 99 teams have made the Sweet 16 since Arkansas last got there. Teams like Western Kentucky, Tulsa and Penn State. UAB, Bradley and Cornell. Kent State, La Salle and Milwaukee. Missouri State, Ohio and Valparaiso. And 87 more. But no Arkansas. If you'd like to see the entire list -- with total number of Sweet 16s since 1997 -- head here. (My many thanks to dozens of Eye on College Basketball listeners who heard Gary Parrish and I talk about this recently and sent in their research and fact-checks. We have the best audience. Listener Jordan Pittz in particular assembled the Google Doc linked above.)
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This could well be the year the Sweet 16 drought ends. Eric Musselman's team -- projected as a No. 3 seed in Jerry Palm's latest Bracketology -- has won 10 of its past 11, is 20-5 and sits at a season-high 12th in the AP Top 25. The Hogs are 13th in KenPom's rankings, which is the highest they have ever been at any point in any season in that metric. (Best finish: 24th in 1997-98; KenPom's data dates back to the 1996-97 season.)
"I'm in my late 50s and it's even more mind-boggling," Arkansas coach Eric Musselman told CBS Sports. "When I was growing up in San Diego, I would wear an Arkansas shirt, a UCLA shirt or a UNLV shirt. Those were my three favorite college teams from fifth, sixth to ninth grade. There's been great success here, but it's been a while with the tournament stuff. For us, the big thing is: How do we position ourselves to get into the tournament, obviously and we've done that, but how do we position ourselves to get the best seed? We'll get a good seed -- at least a better seed than we thought, no matter what."
"Sleeping giant" might be overstating it a tad, but this is a program that appears to be awakening.
On Tuesday we published an analytical and philosophical deep dive on SEC foe Alabama. Nate Oats has been helped by subscribing to an independent analytics company called HD Intelligence. The company is advising eight men's programs. Arkansas is in that group. Musselman told me he also has a statistician in Chicago who is volunteering his time. Musselman's son, Michael, and another staff member, Hays Myers, then take all of that data and sort it out accordingly.
As for Arkansas' run as of late, Musselman said the team simply needed time. Off the court, it was unusual until the past two months. No roster in college basketball had more turnover from last year to this one than Arkansas. But the pieces are now clicking.
"We just didn't know each other because of COVID, and until we started travelling and doing these off-court exercises before and after, like meals to get to know each other, we were just kind of playing ball," Musselman said.
He added that from an on-the-court perspective everything was normal. If anything, Musselman's background with the NBA helped him explain and frame this unique season to his guys.
"I keep talking to them about the minor leagues and G League and your travel," Musselman said. "There, you go to a hotel and the rooms aren't ready in the G League. Guys are getting sent back and forth, there's call-ups. It's the same thing with changing games now. Just be flexible."
The turning point came in mid-January with back-to-back losses against LSU and Alabama. After LSU, Musselman had the team put on weighted vests in practice and had players hold bricks when closing out on shooters. The initial fatigue from that, Musselman said, really hurt its chances vs. Alabama on Jan. 16. (Arkansas lost by 31.)
"At that point is when they believed that we believed in them and we weren't going to accept that loss," Musselman said.
The Razorbacks have lost once since, on the road by four points against one of the hottest teams in the country, Oklahoma State. On Feb. 24 came a 15-point revenge win against Alabama. Arkansas closes its regular season Saturday at home against Texas A&M. Whether this team winds up as a No. 2, 3 or 4 seed, it will almost certainly have its best seed since 1999, when it was a No. 4. It all seems to be lining up. Hogs fans have been waiting for a tournament run for decades. Musselman's tracking to get it done in his second year on the job.
Vegas trying to pull off 10 league tournaments in 10 days
In the past decade Las Vegas has become the busiest hub for conference tournaments. The pandemic isn't changing that — it's in fact making it more crowded. After months of speculation over whether or not conference tournaments should happen, or would happen, all 31 leagues are sticking with their initial plans and will hosting bracket play this week and next.
In Sin City, this means five conferences with 10 tournaments (men's and women's) will be played. That amounts to 95 schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, WCC, Big West and WAC expecting to participate. Las Vegas is trying to pull off holding 10 conference tournaments in 12 days' time. If it happens, it will set a record for the most conference tournaments held in one city in college basketball history.
When accounting for teams' travel parties, plus league staff, venue staff, event coordinators and others, Big West commissioner Dan Butterly ballparked that his conference specifically would have 650 people involved. Expand that out to all leagues and you've got easily more than 3,000 people connected to all of these college basketball events, which have been logistically organized in large part by bdG Sports.
What is happening over the next 12 days in Vegas amounts to the toughest non-NCAA Tournament logistical challenge of the college basketball season. Here's the venue breakdown: Orleans Arena will host four tournaments, Mandalay Bay's Michelob Ultra Arena has three, UNLV's Thomas & Mack Arena has two and T-Mobile Arena has the biggest one: Pac-12. More than 90 games are scheduled. Teams are staying in the Mandalay Bay and Delano (connecting resorts), South Point, Aria and the Park MGM. Teams are allowed up to a 34-person travel party (matching the NCAA Tournament Tier 1 travel party size), as most teams that win their automatic bids (or have a chance at an at-large) will stay in Las Vegas and depart right for Indianapolis once that's allowed. As of Thursday, one school (San Jose State) across the 10 leagues that's planning on playing in Las Vegas is on COVID pause.
Each league will take up approximately 300 hotel rooms per night. Tickets will not be sold to the general public for any Vegas tourney. And what if a person or people in a team's traveling party tests positive after arrival in Las Vegas? That's up to each league. Butterly told CBS Sports that the Big West would have this "addressed on a case-by-case basis and have made provisions to quarantine them in the hotel until their departure."
The Big West in particular has had a radical change, as Butterly got the commissioner job last summer and decided to take the league's playoff out of Anaheim, California. The pieces with all of this began shortly before Christmas. In the past six weeks, the leagues have worked with bdG Sports to try and pull off a massive logistical challenge, one nearly as complicated as the NCAA Tournament.
"We hired bdG Sports to assist us as they are an experienced third-party operator who has deep roots in the Vegas market and was experienced in the COVID-19 testing, health and safety protocols given their success in early season tournaments this past November," Butterly said.
There were two practice courts installed in the Mandalay Bay convention center, constructed by bdG Sports, meaning ground transportation is not necessary for many of the schools participating. (It will be for the WCC, Pac-12 and Mountain West.)
"It allows us to ensure cleanliness between practices," Brooks Downing, president of bdG Sports, told me. "Helps to reduce freedom of movement. And we were forced to build those. All the local schools remain closed here in Vegas. Few options for practice."
If you're wondering about the referees, around 100 of them will be in Vegas to work these events, with most of them coming from the Western Basketball Officiating Consortium, meaning five of the six conferences in that consortium will be playing their league tourneys in Vegas. (The Big Sky is playing in Boise, Idaho.) TV-wise, most play-by-play will continue to be done remotely.
The first teams to get into town were from the WCC. They landed Wednesday; the WCC starts its tournament Friday. One team source already on the ground said protocols are tight, as expected, with some unintentional scheduling advantages (or disadvantages depending on the team) already surfacing in regard to no practices or pre-game shootarounds for any WCC teams playing before Monday's semifinals.
The conference tournaments in general are the dry run for the NCAAs, especially when it comes to COVID-19 testing and preventative measures. No city in the country will be more of a true dress rehearsal than Las Vegas.
Missouri Valley the only league to play all its games
There wasn't one coach I talked to in the offseason and preseason who told me they thought their league or any league would completely finish its schedule. That prediction was almost right. Of the 31 conferences that played this season, the only one to successfully schedule and reschedule every single of its games was the Missouri Valley. Outgoing commissioner Doug Elgin can hang his hat on this after 33 years.
"Three months ago, it was almost unthinkable that we'd be able to complete our schedule of 90 men's MVC basketball games," Elgin told me. "I have to credit our basketball student-athletes, coaches, their team support personnel and athletics administrators for their discipline in doing everything they could to safely navigate the season. Associate commissioner Greg Walter and our MVC management team also played a key role in leading our MVC COVID-19 Working Group. Their guidance, coupled with an ingenious plan in the rescheduling of conference men's basketball games that had been postponed due to several team outbreaks of the COVID virus, allowed us to complete our season."
We can now see how successful the MVC was in relation to all other leagues.
Credit to Wichita Eagle reporter Taylor Eldridge -- one of the high-quality beat reporters in the sport -- who did the research and found the facts. In his embedded tweet below, he's referencing leagues that have finished regular-season play and accounted for projected games for all remaining leagues. One point of clarification here is that the chart doesn't dock the ACC for the Virginia Tech-NC State game getting axed Wednesday, so the numbers adjust ever so slightly.
With the regular season nearly complete, here's a look at how all 31 conferences fared this season in trying to get their conference games in. I'm impressed the national average was 85.9%.@ValleyHoops was the only conference in the country to play 100% of its scheduled games. pic.twitter.com/BaG8V1C15t— Taylor Eldridge (@tayloreldridge) March 3, 2021
Eighteen of the 31 leagues are above the average, which comes to 85.8% of all conference games on pace to being played. The most fortunate power conference is the Big Ten. I find that interesting because I can tell you that, from a behind-the-scenes perspective, no league had more hemming and hawing from September through November about scheduling than the Big Ten. At season's end, all but four of its games are tracking to being held. The Colonial is the only conference that truly struggled, while six leagues played at least 95% of their games. For multi-bid conferences like the A-10 and AAC, the rash of cancellations affected NCAA Tournament hopes, unfortunately.
There's been plenty of issues with playing college sports in a pandemic, and more we'll likely learn about this in months to come. That in mind, a near-86% number is higher than just about anyone could have expected.
Gonzaga on pace to be best 2-point offense -- ever
A year ago the Dayton Flyers became a national sensation on their way to a likely No. 1 seed before the pandemic killed the 2020 NCAA Tournament. One of the things that made UD and National Player of the Year Obi Toppin so dangerous was how good they were around the rim. In fact, Dayton was nearly historic in its 2-point efficiency.
A year later, Gonzaga is even better. The 24-0 Bulldogs are so good from inside the 3-point line that they've got a fairly good chance at setting the NCAA men's Division I record for best 2-point field goal percentage. Gonzaga rates as the No. 1 per-possession offense in college basketball. It's accomplished this in spite of its 3-point shooting; the Zags rank a pedestrian 67th in the spot at 37.1%. It's the lethal 2-point shooting that's kept GU atop the rankings and the metrics all season long. With a 64.4 2-point percentage (653-of-1,014), Gonzaga is 1.1% ahead of the team that holds the record: 1996-97 Princeton.
Here are the 10 most accurate 2-point shooting teams in D-I men's basketball history.
10. Princeton 1990-91 (60.0%)
9. Samford 2001-02 (60.3%)
8. Princeton 1997-98 (60.4%)
7. Samford 1999-00 (60.6%)
6. Belmont 2016-17 (60.9%)
5. Gonzaga 2018-19 (61.4%)
4. Belmont 2017-18 (61.7%)
3. Samford 1998-99 (62.2%)
3. Dayton 2019-20 (62.3%)
2. Belmont 2015-16 (62.6%)
1. Princeton 1996-97 (63.3%)
There's another team with a chance to make this top 10 list. Furman is connecting on 61.2% of its shots inside the arc. Bob Richey's Paladins figure to be a good value pick to win the SoCon title next week.
Each week I highlight reader questions, so find me on Twitter and @ me with whatever!
do you think Oats will be a top candidate for tier 1 jobs soon? or is he already?— Mike Vernon (@M_Vernon) March 2, 2021
He is already, but the catch is Nate Oats just signed a big extension that would make him near-unaffordable for almost any program looking to poach him from Alabama. Oats' new deal goes through mid-2027 and is paying him $3.25 million with a $10 million buyout as of now. What he's done at Alabama -- again, did ya see the story? -- is the exact kind of success that piques the curiosity of every AD at a top-30 program who isn't already employing a locked-in, highly successful coach. I could see him landing somewhere else eventually, but not in the next two years.
Independence in football is predicated on the idea that you can sustain your program through an ever-changing combination of national scheduling that enables you to be both good but also reap in huge amounts of money to keep your athletic department solvent. It's not impossible, but there's a reason so few schools do it. In college basketball this model is not on the table. You need conference affiliation for automatic qualifier status re: NCAA Tournament participation. There's also the financial lure tied to this. Being in a league means you collect what are known as money "units" in the NCAA Tournament for every team and every win acquired. Those units are split up evenly among all teams in each league and that's how schools (especially ones that don't have football) make their money and keep their athletic departments afloat. As fun as it would be to imagine Gonzaga going solo, and YOLO, by scheduling out anyone and everyone from November through the end of February (and this indeed would make Gonzaga relevant in ways it hasn't been before), it's just not financially feasible nor pragmatically realistic.
Big Ten teams are 1-5 vs. current AP Top 25 teams. That's certainly eyebrow-raising. The lone win is Wisconsin over Loyola Chicago. Otherwise, here's the hit list: Iowa lost to Gonzaga; Illinois lost to Baylor; Indiana lost to Florida State and Texas; Nebraska lost to Creighton. It doesn't mean the Big Ten is overrated, but it is not the win-loss record I would have guessed.
Zags can afford a loss to BYU now and still be #1 overall correct?— djbrooks (@mallory131313) March 3, 2021
Actually, I don't think so. If Gonzaga lost to BYU and Baylor ran the table, I think Baylor would pretty clearly be the No. 1 overall seed in that scenario. If Gonzaga doesn't lose, it's getting the No. 1 overall seed.
Matt, which metric most over-rates rankings? In a season of mostly in-conference games a Big 10/ACC/Big 12 team ranked Top 10 can lose 2-3 straight games but since these conference opponents are ranked the team doesn’t fall very far. Is a team with 6-7 losses really Top 10?— Dan Quinlin (@DanQuinlin) February 27, 2021
Absolutely, this can be the case. This season, though, there is obviously some nebulousness that can't be specifically identified due to factors connected to the pandemic that surely are informing the data in ghost-like ways. That, plus the fact only 42% of college basketball's normal quota of nonconference games was played this season makes for some slight wobbliness in the metrics. But you can lose six or seven games and still be top-10 good. This is hard to embrace from a more traditional, binary, win/loss viewpoint, I know. From a mathematical perspective of why this can be true, this explanation I received from Jeff Sagarin four years ago (scroll to the bottom of the story and enjoy) is always good to keep in mind.
• NCAA Tournament bids reminder! The first of 68 tickets will be handed out Saturday night, starting with the Ohio Valley (8 ET, ESPN2). On Sunday, three more will be awarded in this order: Big South (noon ET, ESPN), Missouri Valley (2 ET, CBS), Atlantic Sun (2 ET, ESPN). There will be 14 league tournaments playing games Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
• We await to learn how severe is, but let me get ahead of you: because Villanova will likely play at least two games without him, the Wildcats' seed likely will not suffer because he isn't on the roster. He isn't a player of the year candidate and the committee will get to watch and evaluated Villanova without him there.
• As for Nova's win Wednesday night over Creighton, the program now has 11 regular-season Big East championships, which breaks the 10-apiece tied with Georgetown, Syracuse and UConn.
• Minnesota has spiraled so out of control, I have no reason to believe Richard Pitino will be coaching the Gophers next season. When Minnesota opens, it will have a wide pool of eclectic candidates.
• Prediction: Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry gets a job if he wants one this year. I'm told he's been involved in the openings at Penn State and Boston College to this point. He has an NBA background as well. He's deserving of a chance if offered.
• Three teams whose seasons ended without the postseason due to COVID-19: Charleston Southern, Jacksonville and Holy Cross. Bryant and Niagara remain in flux, and there are others that could potentially get there. Virginia Tech is hoping to be clear in time for the ACC Tournament.
• The tune-up for the NCAAs: The Big Ten announced Thursday that 8,000 fans will be allowed into Lucas Oil Stadium for its league tournament next week. Lucas Oil will host games for the first two rounds, the Elite Eight, Final Four and national title game..
• Here's a blind quote that didn't age well. A high-level college administrator said these exact words to CBS Sports in late November: "Anybody that tells you they know anything about basketball getting completed is a moron. You're delusional. We should be worried about getting the next two weeks of basketball played." There was always room for real concern, but the tenor now from even a month ago has shifted drastically.
• Boston College transfer Wynston Tabbs is going to play at East Carolina next season. This is a good get for that program, which is still aching to climb out of the lower half of the AAC.
• If this missed your radar, it will no more. I was told months ago that the Indianaplis JW Marriott mega bracket was going to be in doubt for 2021 due to NCAA budget cuts. But private funding got this thing done, and now it's a world-record-holder. We had a story up on it earlier this week. This is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen!