DES MOINES — Here it comes again, the traveling circus in red and white, ransacking another bracket with its boisterous brand of basketball, its long-limbed, NBA-ready talent and its frenetic coach, who texts with John Daly about his team’s foul shooting and managed to keep his shirt on for the duration of his team’s latest NCAA tournament uprising but not a second longer.
Say hello once more to Arkansas, which with a berserk comeback and a procession of clutch foul shots made its latest victim the defending national champion. Saturday’s 72-71 victory over top-seeded Kansas at Wells Fargo Arena ended with Coach Eric Musselman leaping on to the scorers’ table in front of Arkansas’ jubilant fans, ripping off his red polo and swinging it around his head.
“He lifts every day for like two hours,” freshman guard Anthony Black said. “Lift and treadmill every day, 7 a.m. It’s paying off. He’s looking good.”
The Razorbacks are a No. 8 seed in label only, having arrived here after navigating a season of injuries and lulls with a roster stocked with soon-to-be basketball millionaires. They again are proving irrepressible in March, even when they start 1-5 in their conference, even when they trail a vaunted program by 12 points in the second half, even when they may not be able to explain how their season still lives.
Arkansas has rampaged to its third consecutive Sweet 16, and with one victory this coming week in Las Vegas it will reach its third straight region final. Kansas joined last year’s Gonzaga as a glum No. 1 seed whose ruined season Arkansas left in its wake.
“Arkansas is back,” senior forward Kamani Johnson said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Kansas’s title defense, which ended with Bill Self unable to coach as he recovers from a heart procedure, included 28 victories before it ran headlong into Arkansas’ threshing machine of athleticism. The Razorbacks clawed back by increasing their pace, playing physical defense and driving relentlessly to the basket, drawing fouls to maintain contact as they waited for their shots to start falling.
Junior guard Davonte Davis dragged the Razorbacks back into the game, scoring 21 of his game-high 25 points in the second half before fouling out in the final minute. Junior guard Ricky Council IV, who scored 21 points, made a fadeaway jumper to tie the score with less than two minutes remaining, then drained five free throws in the final 24 seconds.
That the Razorbacks won with free throws will please Daly, the famous golfer and Arkansas alum who texts Musselman after every game, usually to complain about poor foul shooting. On Saturday night, the Razorbacks made 81 percent, including 15 of 18 in the second half. By the time Musselman returned to the locker room, he had a missed call and two texts from Daly.
“The state of Arkansas is on fire right now,” Musselman said. “I know John Daly is pretty pumped, too.”
Kansas, which has been without Self during games since the eve of the Big 12 tournament, may have felt his absence acutely in the final stage. Self has a reputation for out-of-timeout mastery. At a pivotal juncture, Kansas ran an offensive set out of a timeout that resulted in a fumbled pass and a shot clock violation. Despite a team dripping with experience and offensive skill, the Jayhawks made no field goals in the final 3:48.
“It was tough not having Coach here, but we don’t make any excuses,” acting coach Norm Roberts said. “We have to line up and get it done, and we came up a little bit short today.”
For much of the game, it seemed the Jayhawks would cruise. Arkansas made its first shot, then missed the next six as Kansas scored 11 consecutive points. The Jayhawks led by a comfortable eight at halftime. Arkansas scored the first four points of the second half, but Kansas responded with the next seven. With the Jayhawks’ vast cheering section erupting, it appeared an enticing matchup would fizzle.
Arkansas prefers to rely on its athleticism and play breakneck offense — a system of “fun and freedom,” Musselman calls it. Kansas prioritized getting back on defense, and when they were forced to play in the half court, the Razorbacks’ lack of execution and dearth of shooting hurt them. They rarely found good shots — and even when they did, they usually missed. Arkansas made one of its first 12 three-pointers and shot 41.4 percent for the game, including 20 percent from three-point range. After Dajuan Harris Jr.’s driving layups early in the second half, Kansas’s advantage reached 12.
But Arkansas has March bona fides of its own. The Razorbacks managed to drag Kansas into their style. “Get downhill,” Musselman told Davis, and he responded with a string of breathtaking drives and finishes. Arkansas at last started hitting shots just as Kansas began missing free throws. The Razorbacks reduced their deficit to four with 11 minutes left, then to two, and then freshman Jordan Walsh swished an open three-pointer. With 8:53 remaining, Arkansas led 52-51, its first lead since the opening minutes.
With 1:29 left and the score tied, Roberts called a timeout. The Jayhawks huddled on their bench, not around a Hall of Famer but instead surrounding Roberts, Self’s trusted assistant. The play he called resulted in a fumbled pass into the post and a shot clock violation.
On Arkansas’ next possession, Kansas forced a missed jumper. Johnson corralled the rebound and laid in the putback. Arkansas nudged ahead 67-65 and would not trail again.
“KJ Adams — hell of a player. I felt like he got the best of me down the stretch,” Johnson said. “I just had to get him back. That’s what I do — putbacks and offensive rebounds.”
All-American forward Jalen Wilson responded with two free throws for Kansas. Council’s drive drew a foul, and he drained the first free throw. The second rimmed out, but the ball bounded off the hands of two Jayhawks before Council grabbed it and attacked the hoop again, drawing another shooting foul. He made both, pushing the Razorbacks ahead 70-67.
Coming out of a timeout, Wilson eschewed a three-pointer and drove to the basket, drawing a foul with eight seconds left. He drained both shots, but Council made another pair of free throws to push the lead back to three.
Kansas had seven seconds to save its season. Black, the freshman guard, looked at Musselman and, wanting to prevent a game-tying three, asked, “Can I take a foul here?” Musselman instructed him not to but to read the play and make sure he didn’t foul a shooter.
Wilson took a pitch and curled around the arc, right at Black.
“In my head, I’m thinking: ‘If he runs me over, it’s a charge. If they call a foul, he gets two shots. As long as we get the rebound, it’s game,’” Black said.
Wilson careened into Black with three seconds left. “It was a charge!” Black insisted afterward, but he was called for a block that still benefited his team. Wilson drained the first free throw and tried to miss the second but banked it in by mistake.
Arkansas inbounded and ran out the clock. Musselman balled both fists and looked to the rafters as he walked toward midcourt. “As great of a win as I’ve ever been part of,” he said afterward. He then bounded across the court and, in what has become a March custom, tore off his shirt.
“I would love to lie and say I felt composed,” Musselman said.
Back in the locker room, Johnson climbed on a stool and peeled a Razorbacks logo off the wall it had been attached to. He will take it with him to Las Vegas, to another Sweet 16 and perhaps beyond.
“We can beat anybody in the country,” Black said. “I’m going to stand on that until somebody shows me that we can’t.”