INDIANAPOLIS -- A modern powerhouse on the precipice of program history. A dormant-no-longer basketball-rich school that has awakened the echoes.
A Southwest throwback.
Arkansas moved on to the SEC in 1991; Baylor helped the Big 8 turn into the Big 12 five years later, when its exodus led to the dissolving of the SWC. Now the teams will face off in Monday night's late tip for the South regional final that amounts to a 25-year reunion. These old faces are looking fresh and are eager to boast about what they've been up to lately. Check 'em out now.
Listen to our Saturday Sweet 16 Eye on College Basketball recap below.
For Baylor, the appearance is right on time. The Bears have been top-five good two seasons running. At Arkansas, Eric Musselman has the Razorbacks ahead of the pace but happy to still be dancing after an adrenaline-pumping ending earlier in the day.
Saturday's quartet of Sweet 16 games offered up some blowouts and some drama. No. 3 Arkansas' skin-of-their-teeth win over No. 15 Oral Roberts was the best of the four. Musselman's team needed to go deep into the second half -- as in, until the final possession -- to overcome the 2021 tournament's Cinderella story. A Max Abmas last-second 3-point attempt for ORU just barely moved left and clonked the rim, ending the dream 72-70.
We were two inches away from having the first No. 15 seed make a regional final. Instead, Arkansas won its second straight game by two points.
No. 1 Baylor moved on in the top half of the South regional semifinal despite making its fewest 3-pointers this season (three) at a season's-worst 15.8% clip. No. 5 Villanova held a halftime lead, but the Bears strangled the Wildcats in the second half. Baylor's 62-51 victory marked the fewest points scored in a game by Villanova since November 2018. (Hinkle continues to a house of horrors for Jay Wright, who has one win in his past six trips there.)
The left side of the bracket will whittle the field from 12 to an Elite Eight on Sunday. And while there are some potentially beautifully regional final matchups potentially on hand, no two teams may clash as beautifully as Baylor and Arkansas. The Hogs can guard and the Bears can score. Baylor was once a top-five defense earlier this season. That ranking at KenPom has crawled back to 27th following a post-COVID cratering.
Arkansas makes up for its 33.3% 3-point shooting and good-enough 51.2% 2-point shooting with a pedal-to-the-medal ethos. They may well induce Baylor into a race. Be careful what you wish for.
Bears coach Scott Drew has done relatively well in the tournament over the years. This is his ninth trip; he holds a 14-8 record. But a Final Four has eluded one of college basketball's more effervescent personalities to this point. One more win and the program and Drew's reputation change for the better for good. Baylor was clearly good enough to have made a Final Four a season ago, had the 2020 Dance not been detonated by the pandemic.
Musselman's done what Arkansas fans could have only dreamed of 24 months ago when he left Reno, Nevada, for Fayetteville, Arkansas: get the team to a high seed and a regional final in Year Two. Pipe-dream stuff for most, but getting to this point proves the point Arkansas fans have been making for well over a decade. We're a great program with the right coach. Musselman is the right coach. Arkansas deserves to be here.
This will be the 94th meeting since 1949 between Arkansas and Baylor, per College Sports Reference. There's been only two battles in the last 30 years (in 2008 and 2009).
We won't neglect another former SWCer: Houston is in the Elite Eight for the first time since Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler founded the sport's most famous dunking fraternity in 1982. The No. 2 Cougars beat No. 11 Syracuse 62-46 in the Midwest regional semifinal, holding SU to a program-low in points in an NCAA Tournament game.
So that's where we're at: It's 2021 and the SWC will have 37.5% of the Elite Eight teams. That kind of season, that kind of tournament. All deserve to be here, all were top-20 KenPom teams the the past month-plus.
Drew has the Bears back in the Elite Eight for the third time in his tenure (2010, 2012). The past two trips saw BU lose to the eventual national champions. This time, they might be the eventual national champions.
For Arkansas, its first appearance since 1995. This is the first extraordinary development in what might become a long-term restoration of Razorback basketball. Drew is in his 18th season at Baylor and is ready to push his program back to the Final Four for the first time in 71 years. Musselman's only just begun in Fayetteville. Their high energy, rah-rah spirit has played a major part in creating national title contenders.
Monday night will give us a rivalry renewed and quite possible the best of the four regional finals.