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Arkansas and the Beating of National Powerhouses, Now and Then

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NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

by Jim Harris

Tonight will likely be the last time that senior star J.D. Notae laces them up in front of a Bud Walton Arena home crowd. Same goes for senior transfers like Au’Diese Toney, Trey Wade and Stanley Umude. Most likely, the two only players to return next season who have logged big minutes will be Jaylin Williams and Devo Davis. Granted, they will join a star-studded incoming freshman group, but this kind of turnover is simply par for the course these days in college basketball.

It makes me feel sorry for everyone 40 years old or younger who never saw in person the kinds of teams Arkansas played in-state 1984 and 1991 that were No. 1 at the time. The early exit to the NBA for everyone who is considered pro-qualified the moment they show up on campus has destroyed what was, for me and many others, a terrific sport to follow as late as, say, 2000.

This is not to say that Arkansas’s resurgence under Coach Eric Musselman, and its run to the Elite Eight last year, has been without fun. Still, having also enjoyed pinnacle moments of Arkansas basketball in the late 1970s, the near-misses of the first half of the 1980s, and the takeover of college basketball in the first half of the 1990s, all this seems short of the mark.

This is what college basketball is. The early exits have at least given opportunity to the transfer portal to the late-bloomers at smaller schools who can bring their developed skills and bolster rosters with ability and maturity. That appears to be the tradeoff to the changes in the game over the past two decades, particularly for the likes of Arkansas.

But, to imagine that Corliss Williamson would have gone pro after half-a-freshman year if he played now, and the only thing that Arkansas would have only enjoyed with him is reaching a Sweet 16 only to lose to eventual champion UNC, is an uncomfortable thought. To know that I saw a UNLV team that ran away from No. 2 Arkansas in 1991 in Barnhill and imagine it NOT having Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony or Stacy Augmon (both surely would have been much earlier entrants in the NBA were the game like today) is just as depressing.

UNLV, which would go on to lose in one of the monumental upsets of all time in the NCAA Tournament play when the undefeated Running Rebels fell by a point to Duke in Indianapolis later in March 1991, may have been the greatest team assembled in the shot-clock era, just a nod above Rick Pitino’s Kentucky team of 1996, which lost twice but were dominant in nearly every win and produced seven NBA regulars.

Those thoughts are mirrored with the pre-shot clock 1984 North Carolina team of a junior Michael Jordan, seniors Sam Perkins and Matt Doherty, and sophomore Brad Daugherty. Arkansas had the honor of taking down that No. 1 UNC team (21-0 at the time) in Pine Bluff, of all places, before a national television audience, with Arkansas what would have been a prohibitive underdog by NCAAB Betting standards. The Pine Bluff Convention Center held fewer than 8,000 fans, so the court storming doesn’t quite look as stunningly massive as what was witnessed in Fayetteville some 38 years later.

Why were the Hogs and Tar Heels playing in Pine Bluff, anyway? When Dean Smith and Eddie Sutton agreed to a two-game home-and-home matchup between the traditional Atlantic Coast Conference power and Sutton’s Southwest Conference upstarts, with NBC’s national coverage in mind, they also decided they’d play it in locations the teams considered “neutral,” though in-state. UNC used Greensboro and Charlotte as its other “home” courts then, and Arkansas was playing two or three games in Little Rock’s cow palace of Barton Coliseum before also adding the Pine Bluff facility, much nicer than Barton, to the rotation.

UNC and Arkansas first met in 1979 at Greensboro, where the Sidney Moncrief-led Hogs battled gamely against Al Wood and Heels but couldn’t get over the hump and fell narrowly. Still, it took five more years before Smith and Sutton could get that return match in Arkansas and, presumably, Little Rock; it appeared Smith was hoping it might be forgotten and he also didn’t want to play in Barton Coliseum. Sutton said, “How about Pine Bluff then?” Smith said yes.

The rest is history: Arkansas only arrived in Pine Bluff two hours before tipping off after beating SMU the previous day. Half the team was sick from the private plane flights. Hog reserve forward Darryl Bedford had the game of his life with uncanny accuracy from the top of the key, future Olympians Joe Kleine and Alvin Robinson kept the younger Hogs in control, and Charles Balentine made the shot on the left baseline from 6 feet or so that defined his career.

Michael Jordan didn’t decide to take control for the Heels until the final minutes, but there was just enough of an opening after a pair of Jordan baskets for the Hogs to steal the game back, 65-64. Smith showed the Pine Bluff crowd his genius as timeout usage, managing to get the ball from under his basket to the other end, then a left corner shot from Steve Hale that clanged the rim, and the red court storming began. TV infamously showed an angry Smith getting a red-and-white pom pom waved in his face, but he was gracious later in response to a Pine Bluff letter writer who apologized for his fellow fan’s actions.

Coincidentally, just as Auburn was missing its point guard on Tuesday night at Fayetteville, the Tar Heels had seen their 5-star freshman point sensation Kenny Smith sidelined by a broken wrist suffered the week before. Nobody complained on the other side that No. 1 had been felled without one of its stars. Kenny Smith would return by the time the Tar Heels entered that NCAA Tournament as the top seed with two regular-season losses, but Bob Knight and Indiana sent Dean Smith and UNC home in the Sweet 16 in a shocker.

And, what was really weird about all that: UNC was the top seed in the East Regional, while Arkansas was No. 2 in the East. They were bracketed for an Elite Eight matchup. Virginia, the seventh seed, ousted Arkansas in the second round in East Rutherford, N.J., on a last-second rebound basket from the right side and about the same distance as Balentine’s winning shot on the left baseline against UNC. Virginia kept winning and didn’t have to play ACC-rival UNC because of the Indiana upset win, and the Cavaliers then shocked the fourth-seed Hoosiers and advanced to the Final Four. Arkansas’s SWC rival, Houston, dispatched the Cavs in a close one in Seattle before being overwhelmed by Patrick Ewing, Michael Graham and Georgetown in the title game, losing the championship for a second year in a row.

Looking back and comparing it to now, those were unbelievable teams with seasoned, highly skilled juniors and seniors who would not have been playing college basketball if the game then was like it is now. Jordan would have been one-and-done after leading Dean Smith to his first of two national titles in 1982. Sam Perkins would have long been playing in the NBA. Dean Smith might not have one the ‘82 title without his star veteran that year, James Worthy, who played multiple college seasons instead of making an early exit to pro ball.

As exciting as last Tuesday night’s well-watched game was, and as awe-inspiring as the court storming was (and as great as the attention was for Arkansas from media outlets coast to coast, in spite of a $250,000 league fine for the exercise) the teams that occupy the No. 1 ranking today are pretenders to what college basketball featured a generation ago.

Those were the teams you beat and rush the court for. Or, in the case of UNLV, they were the powerhouses that you camped out for days and spent two hours in a frenzy, only to watch them punk you. And, rather than court storming, you trudged back home hoping for better days against the best.

Those days for Arkansas came three years later, winning an NCAA championship with a team quite similar to that UNLV squad, with power inside and deadly 3-point shooting throughout the lineup, disrupting defense, and clutch play and leadership from the guards.

For you folks 40 years of age and younger, be thankful you don’t have that to compare to, as far as seeing it in person. It’s not even close today. Enjoy the game you’ve got.

Jim Harris is a member of the HogZone Team on KTHV Channel 11 and has covered the Razorbacks for decades.

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See more about Arkansas basketball here: Ridiculous NET Ranking Has Hogs Right Where Nolan Richardson Would Have Wanted Them