Bubble worked out for Hogs

By: Bob Holt
Published: Monday, April 5, 2021
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman watches from the sideline during the second half of an Elite 8 game against Baylor in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium, Monday, March 29, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman watches from the sideline during the second half of an Elite 8 game against Baylor in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium, Monday, March 29, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

FAYETTEVILLE — The basketball season ended for the University of Arkansas with a two-city, three-week road trip.

The Razorbacks left home on March 10 for Nashville, Tenn., and the SEC Tournament.

After four days in Nashville, the Razorbacks took a five-hour bus ride to Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament and a two-week stay in which they advanced to the Elite Eight.

Safety protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus were in place at the SEC Tournament, but the NCAA Tournament took things to another level.

Players, coaches and support staff were sequestered on their hotel floor unless gathering for meals, practices, weight-lifting sessions or games.

After a few days, the NCAA allowed teams to get outside for an hour of activities at a nearby baseball field. Teams also took a field trip to the zoo.

But the vast majority of time, teams were at their hotels.

“It was really good bonding, to be honest with you, because we were together basically all hours,” University of Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said of the road trip. “How often as a college coach are you living on the same floor with your team for 20 days?

“It’s just never happened. Nobody locked their doors. The hotel room doors were open with the little latch and you could kind of pop in on anyone.

“Some guys were playing cards and other guys were playing video games. The staff was getting together at all hours of the night to talk about game planning.

“Great experience, I think, and a lot of positives. But not easy either. Big-time sacrifice.”

Freshman guard Davonte Davis said the Razorbacks made the best of a unique situation.

“Being in that bubble was crazy,” Davis said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it, not being able to go outside and see other individuals.

“For myself, I feel that it helped us. We came more together as a team and spent more time together. It helped us out in the long run.

“As you saw, we made a huge run.”

It was the deepest NCAA Tournament run for Arkansas since 1995, when the defending champion Razorbacks returned to the title game before losing to UCLA.

“I feel like it made us focus in more on what we wanted to do,” freshman forward Jaylin Williams said of the bubble experience. “We were all on the same floor where we were all talking to each other every day.

“So it was like, ‘Yeah, we’re here. We’re doing this. Let’s lock in. Let’s focus on the wins and doing what we’ve got to do.’ ”

Virginia Commonwealth became the only team among the 68 that qualified for the NCAA Tournament and wasn’t able to play because of covid-19 issues, so the NCAA’s extreme safety protocols worked in terms of keeping teams safe from the virus.

“That’s an incredible experience to be able to pull off the tournament in the middle of a pandemic,” Musselman said. “A lot of unknowns going in and I thought everybody — players, administrators — did a great job while in the bubble there.

“To think only one team was affected, to some degree that’s amazing, too, when you think about 60-plus teams and college student-athletes and their age. Really, it was unbelievable.”

While the Razorbacks weren’t able to interact with fans as they would during a normal NCAA Tournament experience, they definitely heard the cheers and Hog calls during Arkansas’ four games.

“It was a lot of people out there from Arkansas and Arkansas fans, period,” Davis said. “It was fun seeing that and it was exciting.

“It was crazy because it felt like we were at Bud Walton [Arena] in all the games that we played. It’s amazing having that fan base.”

Arkansas rallied from down 14 points to beat Colgate 85-68, from down 10 to beat Texas Tech 68-66, from down 12 to beat Oral Roberts 72-70 and cut an 18-point deficit against Baylor to four points before losing to the Bears 81-72.

Williams said the Razorbacks fed off their fans’ energy despite crowds being limited for safety reasons.

“Every game was like, ‘These Arkansas fans are crazy!’ ” Williams said. “Every game we were playing, it was like we had more fans.

“They were always louder [than the opposing team’s fans]. They were always cheering no matter what.”

Senior guard Jalen Tate said before the Arkansas-Oral Roberts game that being in the NCAA Tournament bubble reminded him of an AAU Tournament with so many teams packed into a few hotels.

“Being in Indy, especially for the NCAA Tournament, I don’t think you get tired of it,” Tate said. “You definitely want to stay here.

“It takes a toll mentally, but you don’t want to go anywhere. You want to be one of the last teams here.

“What motivates you even more is seeing the teams that aren’t here anymore. We moved hotels the other day and it’s like we’re the last of a few.

“To keep seeing teams go and still seeing us here is a blessing and something you can tilt your hat at and always remember for the rest of your life.”

Safety protocols the Razorbacks followed during the season helped prepare them somewhat for the isolation of their three weeks on the road.

“I think we evolved understanding you couldn’t let outside things really factor in,” Musselman said. “We had to have just tunnel vision for practices and tunnel vision the way that we traveled to road games.

“I think I learned to become a little more patient. … I didn’t really think it affected many of us all season long until maybe we got to the [NCAA Tournament] bubble.

“At the SEC Tournament, from a mental standpoint and a preparation standpoint, I felt like it was pretty normal.”

Daily testing for covid-19 was part of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“Getting up at 10:30 at night and doing a covid test before a game is something that none of us could ever, ever, ever envision,” Musselman said. “So just a lot of challenges.

“But I’m really proud of how all of us — the entire coaching staff, the training staff, the players, everybody — handled it.”

The Razorbacks (25-7) made it through the season having two games canceled at Tulsa and Texas A&M, and that was because the opponents were having covid-19 issues.

Arkansas was able to reschedule Southern in place of Tulsa, so the Razorbacks played 26 of 27 regular-season games allowed by the NCAA.

“It’s been incredible from a positive standpoint,” Musselman said. “For the most part, we’ve just been playing, and we haven’t had any real hiccups as an athletic department.”

Musselman’s family members attended NCAA Tournament games, but everyone had to keep their distance.

When the Razorbacks returned home on Tuesday, Musselman finally was able to hug his wife, Danyelle, and daughter, Mariah.

“It’s good to be out of the bubble from a personal standpoint, I can tell you that, for sure,” Musselman said. “Do we wish we were still in there? Yeah, we do.”

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