There was something about that NCAA Tournament draw that just had to make you nervous, right?
It wasn't simply that Arkansas felt unjustly seeded with that No. 7 tag, because at least that was an arguably proper slotting for a team that wasted its one fleeting entry into the Top 25 in January and got swept by a mediocre LSU team after that. In fact, though Arkansas entered the field with a decent enough 23-11 record, eight of those losses at least came at the hands of fellow tourney-going teams. Even the Razorbacks' loss to Mississippi State didn't seem so terrible, considering that the Bulldogs are a strong NIT quarterfinalist now, with 24 wins to boot. Those dual chokings against a very average LSU squad, however, did some serious damage, as did the fact that of those 11 losses, the Hogs were beaten by double digits in nine of them, including a listless showing against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
Then you had that feisty bunch from Butler, which 15 years ago was just a little backwater Indiana bunch that played its home games in a hangar-style gymnasium far more famous for its role in a Hollywood masterwork, "Hoosiers," than anything else. They weren't your typical No. 10 seed, but rather, a tourney regular that went to back-to-back championship games a few years before and resiliently survived an upwardly mobile coach's departure to acquit itself well most of this season. The highlight of the Bulldogs' up-and-down campaign was unquestionably the 101-point outburst it authored against then-unbeaten No. 1 Villanova in a January upset.
And the geography was, well, just awful. Hoping Nashville or Dallas regionals would be welcoming, fickle Hog fans were told last Sunday that if they wanted to see their team get past the first weekend for the first time since before Clinton's impeachment, it would have to be in the prestigious confines of Little Caesars Arena in opulent, scenic Detroit. Butler fans eagerly drove on up; Hog fans, it was evident from the broadcast, clearly preferred the big screens and beer specials available in their own neck of the woods (I'm not lashing out here, because that's the approach I took, too).
Everything unfolded as you should've expected. Arkansas did what it has done with shocking regularity in the Mike Anderson era, which is to say, it played an utterly lethargic and disinterested first 10 minutes or so before coming to life. Butler was off and running with a 21-2 start, only to watch Arkansas attempt the same brand of oh-shit-the-game-already-started comeback it put together last spring against eventual national champion North Carolina. The Hogs enjoyed a nice 27-6 surge that didn't seem to be the result of any one player doing anything remarkably well, although Darious Hall delivered a big dunk and some spark on defense and Daryl Macon accounted for eight points during the run.
That single Razorback lead, 29-27, lasted all of 25 seconds. Butler settled back into a rhythm before halftime to retake a 5-point edge at the break, and the second half was an even bigger farce than the first few minutes. The Hogs didn't get closer than that same 5-point margin the entire second half, and the last gasp was with eight full minutes left. By then, nobody on the team seemed energized enough to hoist the rest of the bunch onto their shoulders and try to make this more than a 24-hour stopover. It ended up 79-62 in Butler's favor, and for the third time in four seasons, Arkansas was on a plane back home in time for spring break, a once-promising season scuttled by the same silly woes that befell the Hogs generally throughout the year: shoddy rebounding (Butler won on the glass by 20 and had four players produce more individual boards than any one player had for the Hogs) and a grossly inefficient offense.
It is really, really hard to digest the so-so effort this team gave in 2017-18. There's the anomaly of having six scholarship seniors, including two guys who topped the 1,000-point mark in only two years, on a squad in the one-and-done era, along with a once-in-a-decade type of freshman anchoring the youth movement. But that kid, Dan Gafford, looked like one in a 2-for-9 performance against Butler when he was starting to climb the draft projection boards, and the experience provided by those older guys ended up being a thoroughly mixed bag, what with Arlando Cook never finding his place in the lineup and Dustin Thomas fully losing his due to a lack of discipline just before the SEC Tournament.
These are unsettling time for Hog fans, but we are, of course, accustomed to that.