Awhile back, it dawned on us here at RazorbackExpats.com that the Razorback basketball program has a very special anniversary coming up this spring. Thirty years ago this March, Eddie Sutton led the Hogs to the Final Four, marking the school's first modern-era appearance in college basketball's showcase event. Whit E. Knight, one of our favorite commenters and an occasional contributor, will commemorate this seminal event with a three-part series that will run on Wednesdays. In this second installment (click here for the first), he recounts the thrilling 1977-78 regular season. Many thanks, Whit. The stage is now yours:
In 1973-74, the last year that Lanny Van Eman coached the Razorbacks, a U of A student could walk up right before game time, flash her student activity card and basically have her choice of seats to watch the Arkansas basketball team play.
Not in 1977-78.
Now the Hogs were playing before packed crowds, both at home and on the road. A preseason exhibition game in Little Rock (albeit against the Russian national team) was sold out.
The previous year, the Razorbacks had caught everyone unaware. Sutton said that even he didn’t realize how good the team was until after the season. But his success was forcing the other Southwest Conference schools to hire better coaches and recruit harder to catch up. The talent level in the league was definitely up, and the Hogs would not be sneaking up on anyone this year. In addition, Arkansas’s non-conference schedule was brutal.
Arkansas began the season ranked No. 7 in the AP poll and No. 9 in the UPI (coaches’) poll, where they got one No. 1 vote. After an opening victory against Missouri State, the Hogs traveled to Little Rock to face Mississippi State, who would end up finishing second in the SEC, considered one of the strongest basketball conferences. Arkansas whipped the Bulldogs, 94-61. Hmm, maybe the Southwest Conference wasn’t just Houston and bunch of football schools after all.
The Hogs continued to cruise through their non-conference schedule. After topping Oklahoma and Kansas, they advanced to No. 3 in the polls, which is where they stood when they topped LSU in Baton Rouge, 67-62, in late December.
On New Year’s Eve, they took on Memphis State in Memphis and whipped the Tigers, 95-70, getting revenge for the previous year’s loss. Brewer had 26 points, "some of which were difficult to believe even after seeing them," according to the Arkansas Gazette’s David Smith. Schall added 20, and Counce, playing before his hometown fans, shut down the Tigers’ leading scorer. Moncrief and Delph also had big games.
Two days later, the football Razorbacks shocked Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl in one of the greatest upsets in college football history. It was beginning to look like the stars were aligned right for Arkansas.
On Jan. 4, Arkansas played Hofstra in Pine Bluff, which was the only game I ever saw this team play in person. Most people expected them to be flat after playing Kansas, LSU and Memphis State in a row, but they put on an incredible show, winning 95-70. Time has dimmed my memories of that game, but I recall being dazzled by the athletic displays of Brewer, Delph and Moncrief.
Arkansas then opened its defense of its SWC title at home against Houston, which was averaging 102 points a game. The Razorback defense held the Cougars to 2 points in the first seven minutes of the game en route to a 16-2 lead. When Houston got within 11 in the second half, Moncrief, who finished with 19 points, took over the game, and the Cougars fell, 84-65. Delph tallied 24 to lead Arkansas.
The Hogs continued to cruise and had a 14-0 record when they traveled to Austin, where the Longhorns’ scrappy defense forced 19 turnovers en route to a 75-69 upset. The loss dropped Arkansas to No. 6 in the polls and left the Longhorns in first place in the conference with an unblemished record. There would be no repeat sweep of the SWC for Arkansas.
The Razorbacks then peeled off five consecutive conference wins, some of them decidedly sluggish, to set up the Feb. 1 rematch with Texas in Fayetteville, a game that brought Sports Illustrated to town. The Hogs were now ranked No. 2 and the Longhorns No. 12.
Delph scored 30 points as Arkansas prevailed 75-71, but the key to the victory was the inspirational play of freshman U.S. Reed, whom Sutton had not wanted to recruit and only reluctantly signed in August after the state’s High School All-Star Game. The Hogs trailed by as much as 11 and were down by 9 when Reed came in for Counce as a third guard in a full-court press with 13:27 left in the game. Reed was four of four from the field, grabbed two rebounds, blocked a shot and drew a charge while playing tough defense against Texas’ two veteran guards.
Of course, the next cover of Sports Illustrated featured a picture of Moncrief flying through the air before delivering a thunderous two-handed slam. Discussing Brewer, Delph and Moncrief , the accompanying article said, "All three are homegrown, all three are 6-4, all three all-conference or better. There the similarities end. Moncrief is the leaper, Delph the bomber, Brewer the leader. Off the court, Delph has four bibles and Ron Brewer has four girl friends. (Delph prefers the King James and Brewer the one back in Fort Smith.) Moncrief, meanwhile, is a one-woman man and has the team’s best stereo system."
The Gazette noted it was the first time a Southwest Conference basketball team had been featured on the cover of the magazine. In their first game after the cover story hit the newsstands, the Hogs won a thrilling 80-79 victory over Texas A&M at College Station, secured by two free throws by Brewer with 12 seconds left. There was no SI cover jinx for Moncrief, who scored 22 points while Brewer led the Hogs with 25.
In mid-February, after LSU beat Kentucky in overtime at Baton Rouge, Arkansas was voted No.1 in the AP poll, the first time a SWC team had held that spot in basketball. Arkansas’s 23-1 record was the best in the NCAA. Sutton admitted that if the Hogs played in the SEC or one of the other powerhouse conferences, their record would not have been so gaudy, but he said the Razorbacks deserved the ranking.
Unfortunately, the Hogs were not in the top spot long. On Feb. 18, in the next-to-last game of the regular season, they lost on the road to red-hot Houston, 84-75. The Cougars unleashed a press designed to keep Arkansas from inbounding the ball and otherwise "had too many guns," according to the game account in the Gazette. The loss not only ended the Razorbacks’ run at No. 1, it cost them the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament and a bye to the finals, which went to Texas on the tie-breaker.
A season-ending victory over Texas Tech put the Hogs at 26-2 going into the SWC tournament, where they handily defeated TCU and SMU to advance to a rematch against Houston in the semi-finals. With the Hogs leading 69-68 and eight seconds left in the game, Brewer, a 90 per cent free throw shooter, went to the line for a one and one. He missed the front end, Houston rebounded and the Cougars’ Cecile Rose won it with a 15-foot jump shot with two seconds on the clock. Arkansas made only 11 of 29 free throws in the game, and Counce and Delph both fouled out.
When Houston beat Texas in the tournament final, the Cougars got the conference’s automatic bid. There were only 32 teams in the NCAA tournament in those days and only 11 at-large bids available. The basketball fraternity was more closed then and the SWC, still widely considered just a football conference, had never gotten more then one bid.
Incredible as it may seem today, despite their 28-3 record and No. 7 ranking in the AP poll, the Razorbacks returned to Fayetteville uncertain that they would be in the NCAA tournament or even the NIT. Even if the NCAA extended a second bid to the SWC, there was no guarantee it would go to Arkansas over co-champion Texas.
The suspense did not last long. The call came from the NCAA: the Selection Committee had some good news and some bad news. The good news was that for the first time, the Southwest Conference would be getting two bids to the NCAA tournament, and the Razorbacks were in. The bad news was that they would be going to the West regional, which everyone agreed was the toughest, featuring five teams from the final AP poll’s top 12. The Hogs’ impressive non-conference record had given them the edge over Texas, which would go to (and win) the NIT.
Always the master of timing, the next day Attorney General Bill Clinton announced his candidacy for governor. Clinton, of course, would go on to the Governor’s Mansion and would eventually win the White House. But, on this day, it was Eddie Sutton’s Razorbacks who were the top dogs in Arkansas.
Next: The Final Four and the first "The Shot"