For obsessive fans of the 1994 national champion Razorbacks, it's been a nice three years. In 2009, Athletic Director Jeff Long and the university hosted a moving, weekend-long tribute to the team to celebrate the 15th anniversary of its championship. One year later, Rus Bradburd published his page-turning biography of Nolan, and last weekend ESPN premiered "40 Minutes of Hell," an excellent (though too short) documentary about the squad.
After the 10th anniversary of the season passed by without so much as a timeout tribute because of the feud between Nolan and the U of A, it's been wonderful to see this remarkable team get some overdue time back in the spotlight. I have to worry, though - and yes, sadly, "worry" is the right word - that the hosannas tossed this squad's way recently don't fully capture its brilliance.
Everybody talks about the team's full-court-pressing, fast-break style of play. But what made this squad truly memorable to me was its versatility. Fast-paced games; slower, bruising contests - the '94 Razorbacks prevailed in both. The different ways in which the Hogs won their tournament games left Sporting News columnist Dave Kindred and analyst/Grateful Dead groupie Bill Walton gushing about their completeness in the days after the championship.
I would argue the Day-Mayberry-Miller-era Razorback teams were a better example of "40 Minutes of Hell" than their Williamson-Thurman-Beck counterparts. The '94 Razorbacks' half-court defense was every bit as stifling as their full-court press and enabled them to prevail in all three January games they had to play without guard Clint McDaniel, whose presence was key to the success of their press, after he separated his shoulder.
In the NCAA Tournament, when the Hogs faced tough, physical teams in Georgetown and Michigan, Richardson defied conventional wisdom and met his opponents head-on, using a big, relatively slow starting lineup that featured Williamson and centers Dwight Stewart and Darnell Robinson. Thurman moved from small forward to the No. 2 spot, leaving Corey Beck as the only true guard in the starting five. The moves worked, as Arkansas beat the Hoyas and the Wolverines at their own game.
In retrospect, perhaps the moves shouldn't have been surprising. Richardson deserves all the praise he can get for his pioneering work in ripping the college game from the clutches of the insomnia-busting Henry Iba style of play. But to use one of his favorite (and slightly unsettling) phrases, he always knew "there's more than one way to skin a cat."
In December 1991, when the Razorbacks played No. 2 Arizona without their most potent offensive weapon, Todd Day, who was serving a semester-long suspension for a laundry list of misdeeds, Richardson once again showed his flexibility. To conserve the energy of the Razorbacks' second-best scorer, point guard Lee Mayberry, the coach decided to slow the game to a crawl and stacked his starting line-up with bruisers Roosevelt Wallace and Isaiah Morris to help the Hogs stand their ground in the ensuing grinder. He also called upon previously seldom-used sharpshooter Warren Linn to make the Wildcats pay for their zone defense. The result was a victory by the Eddie Sutton-like score of 65-59.
Seven years later, a team that was as green as could be after you got past seniors Kareem Reid, Derek Hood and Pat Bradley got shredded by 30 points by Oklahoma. Afterwards, Richardson had the Hogs play a half-court game until the freshmen got their sea legs.
Richardson and the '94 Razorbacks were remarkable. Let's just remember they were remarkable in more ways than one.