Not surprisingly, the national sports media has failed to note the most obvious story angle arising out of this year's Final Four: that all of the entries have played important roles in the Razorbacks' NCAA Tournament history. To correct this egregious instance of journalistic malpractice (and because it's a really slow time of the year for Hog news), we present this overview of the ways in which UCLA, Memphis, North Carolina and Kansas have either sent our spirits soaring or broken our hearts during March Madness.
UCLA. There's some room to quibble with the following statement, but one could reasonably say the Bruins are the alpha and the omega of the Razorbacks' glory years. In 1978, the Hogs arrived as players on the national scene when they knocked off UCLA, which was not far removed from winning an incredible 10 national championships in a 12-year period, in the semifinals of the West Regional. Seventeen years later, the O'Bannon brothers and the insufferable Jim Harrick ended the Razorbacks' quest for their own back-to-back national championships and closed the door on the magnificient Williamson-Thurman-Beck(-and-Dwight!) era. It doesn't take the most powerful observational skills to note that Hog basketball has never been the same since.
Memphis. Like UCLA, the Tigers are responsible for a glorious high and a shattering low. Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first: In 1992, then-Memphis State, led by Anferenee Hardaway, sent the Hogs packing with a second-round, 82-80 win that was sealed with a near-last-second tip-in by Tiger forward David Vaughn.
I've tried my best to completely forget about this game, but due to my employer's poor mental health benefits package, some memories still linger - for instance, the way in which Memphis native Todd Day, obviously seeking revenge for this game, looked like Michael Jordan for the first five minutes of the contest and then proceeded to score something like one point in the last 30 minutes, draw a technical for staring at the ref and foul out.
A truly weird moment took place when Isaiah Morris and Oliver Miller, both sprinting to the Arkansas basket with nary a defender in sight, couldn't decide who should take the lay-up and passed the ball back and forth until most of the other players began catching up with them. As I recall, one of them finally converted the basket, but they made the play much more interesting than it should have been. We should have known then that the Hogs were in for a long afternoon.
One of the few bright spots on that day was the play of junior forward Darrell Hawkins, who until then had enjoyed an undistinguished career. With the rest of the Hogs playing as if they were ready to start their summer vacation, Hawkins drove hard to the basket play after play, drawing foul after foul - and making 12 of 13 free throws on his way to a then-career high of 22 points. Without Darrell, Memphis State might have won the game by double digits. In his senior year, Hawkins would play a leading role in one of the most inspiring seasons in Razorback history.
Now, for the good stuff. In 1995, the Razorbacks beat Memphis in the Midwest Regional semifinals. Down by 12 points with seven and a half minutes to go, the Hogs came charging back behind the inspired play of Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman, eventually winning 96-91 in overtime.
Memphis fans, who feel every bit as defensive and persecuted as Hog fans do, will forever bitch about the controversial hand-check foul called on Chris Garner with seconds left in regulation, the one that sent Corey Beck to the line for the game-tying free throw. Considering how poorly the Tigers played down the stretch, plus the fact that they had an overtime to right this alleged wrong ... well, let's just say that we sleep very well at night.
North Carolina. Unlike the other three schools gathering this weekend in San Antonio, the Tar Heels haven't caused us any real March angst. Sure, there was the blowout nearly two weeks ago, but any halfway sober-minded Hog fan knew that was a real possibility.
No, the Tar Heels have been in involved in the creation of some wonderful Razorback memories. There's the 1990 blowout in the Sweet 16, and the national semifinal victory five years later, which gave us Corliss' second-half domination of Rasheed Wallace and one glorious Dwight moment.
Even the 1993 loss to North Carolina in the East Regional semifinals is a positive memory for us. A surprising entry in that year's Sweet 16 and a heavy underdog against the eventual national champion, the Razorbacks battled the Tar Heels until the very last seconds and showed a national audience that they would be among the crème de la crème in the following season.
Kansas. Arkansas has played the Jayhawks only once in the NCAA Tournament, and the Razorbacks that took the court for the 1991 Midwest Regional final could have been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder when the contest was over. The Hogs pretty much played a perfect first half and went into intermission with a 47-35 lead; a second straight trip to the Final Four seemed basically signed, sealed and delivered.
The second half, however, was downright ghastly, as Kansas outscored Arkansas by 24 points to win 93-81. My biggest memory of the day was of CBS' über-smug studio analyst Mike Francesa predicting during the halftime show that the Jayhawks would come back and win, that the Hogs didn't have the toughness or intangibles or whatever to close the deal. His forecast ignited a shower of boos and not-terribly-nice comments at my family's watching party. We hated the guy ... and hated him even more when he turned out to be right.