NCAA MEN’S TOURNAMENT

Las Vegas up next for evolving Hogs


DES MOINES, Iowa -- Two months after starting 1-5 in SEC play, the University of Arkansas is back in the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals.

How did the Razorbacks get from there to here?

Junior guard Davonte "Devo" Davis fought back tears explaining the improbable journey in a CBS interview with Allie LaForce moments after the Razorbacks beat No. 1 seed Kansas 72-71 on Saturday in Wells Fargo Arena.

"This team has struggled, and we figured it out," said Davis, who led Arkansas with 25 points and eight rebounds. "And I'm glad we did at the right time, and hopefully we continue to do it."

After finishing 10th in the SEC with an 8-10 record, Arkansas (22-13) has advanced to the regional semifinals for the third consecutive season and 11th time overall.

"We hear the noise and everything, but there ain't nothing better than going to the Sweet 16 and shutting everybody up," Razorbacks senior forward Kamani Johnson said.

Every time Arkansas appeared to be gaining momentum this season, something would stop it.

The Razorbacks started 12-1 in non-conference play despite missing freshman guard Nick Smith -- a projected NBA Draft lottery pick -- for the first six games because of right knee management.


Then the Razorbacks lost sophomore forward Trevon Brazile for the season in the ninth game when he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Smith returned and played in five games, highlighted by a 21-point performance against Oklahoma, then had to sit out for the next 13 games with the knee issue.


After falling to the bottom of the SEC without Smith, Arkansas won five consecutive conference games, including 88-73 at Kentucky, to improve to 6-5.

Then the Razorbacks came home and lost to Mississippi State to start a 2-5 close to the regular season despite Smith's return.


Arkansas opened the SEC Tournament with a 76-73 victory over Auburn thanks to Smith's go-ahead jumper with 20 seconds left, but the Razorbacks blew a 13-point halftime lead and lost to Texas A&M 67-61.


Now the Razorbacks are moving on to Las Vegas in the West Region semifinals on Thursday night.

"We've got all the talent in the world," said junior guard Ricky Council, who scored 21 points against Kansas and hit 10 of 11 free throws. "It was just time for things to start clicking, and this is the best time in the world for things to click."

Eric Musselman -- 95-40 in his fourth season at Arkansas, including 8-2 in NCAA Tournament games -- said he continued to tell his players and staff the Razorbacks were improving even after more than 30 games.

"That just doesn't happen this time of year, but because of all the circumstances that have happened, we're still evolving," Musselman said in reference to injuries and a roster with six freshmen among 11 newcomers. "We're still adding offensive plays. We're still adding defensive coverages.


"We're an evolving basketball team, and I feel fortunate these guys buy into the prep."

Musselman said with a quick turnaround for Kansas after Arkansas beat Illinois 73-63 in Thursday's first-round game, he didn't plan to practice on Saturday morning.

"I told them, 'Hey guys, let's do film and I can walk you through what we need to do," Musselman said. "Ricky and Devo stood up and said, 'No, Coach, we want to go to the gym.' I said I was worried about their legs, and they said, 'Nope.'

"It wasn't my decision [to practice]. It was their decision."

The Razorbacks practiced at Wells Fargo Arena for 40 minutes starting at 10:30 a.m. -- six hours before the 4:30 p.m. tipoff against Kansas.

"We used all of our allotted time," Musselman said. "I think that really helped us."

Davis said spending as much time as possible in the gym throughout the season helped fuel the Razorbacks' performance in the NCAA Tournament.

"We believed in ourselves -- even when we were losing games --and making sure all these guys stayed in the gym," Davis said. "I think staying the gym helped us get ready for what we're doing now.

"If we didn't stay in the gym and continue to work hard, maybe we wouldn't be here today. So credit to the guys for continuing to put in the work."

Arkansas advanced to the Elite Eight the last two seasons after starting 2-4 and 0-3 in the SEC, but finishing 13-4 and 13-5 to earn No. 4 seeds.

"You know how it goes," Johnson said. "We always struggle a little bit early and then we get on a roll."

This season it took the Razorbacks a lot longer to get going with an SEC schedule that included 11 games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament with six on the road.


"I'm so proud of this group and how we battled back and rallied," Johnson said. "We could have been a 16 seed and I think this team would have fought the same way.

"We don't care about seeds. We just know we've got four [games] to go [to win the national championship]. It's us vs. everybody right now."


Freshman guard Anthony Black said before the Kansas game the Razorbacks are good enough to beat any team in the NCAA Tournament if they play well.

"We've got a lot of heart, and we showed that," Black said. "We can go as far as we take ourselves.

"We can beat anybody in the country. I'm going to stand on that until somebody shows me that we can't."