Hogs' roller-coaster ride ends in disappointment

Arkansas guard Ricky Council looks to pass during an NCAA Tournament game against Connecticut on Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS — An up-and-down season turned Sweet again for University of Arkansas men’s basketball.

But it wasn’t Elite in the end.

Missing two key players in sophomore Trevon Brazile and freshman Nick Smith for a combined 46 games due to injuries, the Razorbacks finished 10th in the SEC with an 8-10 record.

Because of the SEC’s depth and strength — eight teams reached the NCAA Tournament — and a nonconference schedule that featured NCAA Tournament teams San Diego State, Creighton, Baylor and North Carolina-Asheville, the Razorbacks didn’t sweat out a postseason bid on Selection Sunday.

Arkansas landed in the West Region as a No. 8 seed in Des Moines, Iowa, and beat Illinois 73-63, then upset No. 1 seed Kansas 72-71 to earn a third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.

Connecticut, a No. 4 seed, ended the Razorbacks’ bid to advance to the Elite Eight for the third year in a row with a convincing 88-65 victory over Arkansas on Thursday night in T-Mobile Arena.

The Huskies advanced to play Gonzaga — last year’s No. 1 overall seed the Razorbacks beat 74-68 in a Sweet 16 matchup in San Francisco— in tonight’s West Region final.

Arkansas finished 22-14, but advanced further than two No. 1 seeds (Kansas and Purdue), two No. 2s (Arizona and Marquette), a No. 3 (Baylor) and a No. 4 (Virginia).

“You never want to go out like that,” Arkansas forward Kamani Johnson said after falling to Connecticut. “That’s not what we do here.

“But looking back on it, I’m just proud of my young guys and how they fought. We went through a roller coaster this year, a tough season for us.

“It’s misery right now because we lost, but when you look back on it, this group, we made it to the Sweet 16 and we’re doing something special at Arkansas and we’re building on that.”

The Razorbacks hadn’t been to three consecutive Sweet 16s since a program-record four in a row from 1993-96 with a run that included winning the 1994 national championship and a runner-up finish to UCLA in 1995.

Arkansas is one of four teams to make a third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance this season along with Gonzaga, Houston and UCLA.

Gonzaga has a streak of eight consecutive Sweet 16s when the NCAA Tournament has been held — it was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic — and Houston has four in a row.

“It’s really difficult to be one of the teams that plays their way into the tournament, and then it’s really difficult to win a game,” said Eric Musselman, who has a 95-40 record in four seasons as the Razorbacks’ coach.

“There are a lot of great things going on at Arkansas, and I’m proud of everybody in our locker room.

“Because there aren’t a lot of teams that have been to three straight Sweet 16s in the entire country, and we’re one of them. … The culture is strong.”

Junior guard Davonte Davis and Johnson were the only scholarship returnees on a team with 11 newcomers, including six freshmen.

“We all came together and made it this far,” said Davis, who scored 25 points against Kansas. “I’m proud of the guys for sure, continuing to push through the tough season that we did have.”

Freshman guard Anthony Black, who led Arkansas with 20 points, 5 steals and 4 rebounds against Connecticut, was the only Razorback to start every game. He averaged 12.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.1 steals in 34.8 minutes per game.

“We did a good job fighting through adversity this year,” Black said. “We got some players back, lost some players. There were injuries.”

Brazile, a freakishly athletic 6-10 sophomore transfer from Missouri, was starting to appear on some mock NBA Draft lists when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the ninth game against North Carolina-Greensboro and was done for the season.

In the first eight games, Brazile averaged 13.3 points and 6.0 rebounds playing the sixth man role off the bench.

Smith, USA Today’s national high school player of the year as a senior at North Little Rock, missed the first six games with right knee management. He played in five games, then missed the next 13 before returning to play in the final 12.

“I wanted to make a push for another Elite Eight, and that’s not the way you want to go out, but it was a fun year for me,” Smith said in a locker room interview with wholehogsports.com after scoring 11 points against Connecticut. “I just love these guys.

“I don’t know what the future may hold, but just [his teammates] embracing me back on the court … it touched my heart.”

Smith said he feels good physically.

“Those times I was out during the season, it took a toll on me, as it would anybody,” Smith said. “But hopefully there’ll be no injuries next year and I’ll be ready for sure.”

Black and Smith, who scored 21 or more points in five games and averaged 12.5, are projected as first-round picks in virtually every mock draft.

Arkansas junior guard Ricky Council, a 6-6 transfer from Wichita State who averaged a team-high 16.1 points, has been listed as a late first-round or early second-round pick in several mock drafts.

Jordan Walsh, a 6-7 freshman forward and a McDonald’s All-American like Black and Smith, averaged 7.1 points and 3.9 rebounds, but he has reappeared on some draft lists after a strong showing in the NCAA Tournament, especially on defense.

The Razorbacks started 11-1 in nonconference games before going 1-5 in SEC play. They won their next five conference games, went 2-5 to close the regular season and were 1-1 in the SEC Tournament.

“We had losing streaks, winning streaks,” Black said. “It was real up and down.

“But for the most part, at the end of the season, we were playing decent ball. It didn’t end how we wanted it to, but we fought. That’s all I can say — we fought.”

Johnson is the only Razorback who has exhausted his eligibility, but there figures to be plenty of roster turnover between the NBA Draft and transfer portal.

It’s difficult to believe Davis will transfer after helping Arkansas to an 8-3 NCAA Tournament record during his career, and the long-term relationship he has built with Musselman along with plentiful Name, Image and Likeness opportunities as a Jacksonville native.

Other Razorbacks looking for more playing time could enter the transfer portal.

Brazile traveled with the team — including for the NCAA Tournament games — and has said his rehabilitation process since undergoing knee surgery in late December is ahead of schedule, but he hasn’t announced his plans for next season.

Arkansas’ coaching staff has been working the portal at a furious pace while preparing for games during the Razorbacks’ NCAA Tournament run.

Now the coaches can put all of their energy and focus into recruiting the portal to add to a group of newcomers already including 5-star high school signees in guard Layden Blocker and center Baye Fall.

“As a staff, we’ll start working towards next year tonight,” Musselman said in Arkansas’ news conference after the Connecticut game. “As soon as we get back to the hotel.”