Selection Sunday hasn't been a meaningful day very often in recent years for Arkansas. Over the span of a decade, the Hogs knew they were safely within the expanded 68-team field only three times.
Each time, curiously and cruelly, Razorback basketball has been faced with the prospect of needing to pass by a historically dominant and generally well-stocked North Carolina program. There's a hint of irony in this: When Charles Balentine's jumper gave Arkansas an upset win over the Michael Jordan-led Tar Heels in Pine Bluff back in 1984, and then when the Hogs dared to twice dispatch Dean Smith's group in later years during deep runs through the NCAA tournament (a Sweet Sixteen dismantling in 1990, then a throttling of an NBA-caliber squad in the 1995 Final Four), it almost looked like this had the strange but developing extraconference rivalry.
The selection committee arguably had a grasp on that historical context when it slotted the Hogs in UNC's region yet again. In 2008, John Pelphrey's first and best squad knocked a controversy-wracked Indiana from the field in the opening round, only to careen headlong into a Tar Heel buzzsaw and lose by 31 points on Sunday. Then, in 2015, Mike Anderson's long-awaited entry into March Madness as the Razorback head coach culminated with UNC pulling away late in a well-contested second- round game. The early exodus of Bobby Portis and Mike Qualls followed that, which hamstrung the 2015-16 squad to the tune of a 16-16 final mark.
Now Arkansas, despite 25 wins, a healthy RPI and a strong showing in the SEC Tournament, gets a date with ninth-seeded Seton Hall to open its latest and perhaps most formidable endeavor to cast aside a 21-year Sweet Sixteen drought. UNC again stands in the path to an extended stay in the tourney if Arkansas can vanquish the Pirates in Greenville, S.C., on Friday afternoon. Given the bleak postseason prospects that loomed over the program merely a month ago, Anderson and Co. likely aren't too offended by the placement or intimidated by the Heels.
You can make the case that this third recent frame-up of a Hogs-Heels battle affords Arkansas its best chance at sloughing off this baby-blue yoke. The Razorbacks were overmatched from the get-go in 2008 against a Heels team that was projected to win the title by many pundits, and in 2015, they were simply too inexperienced and shorthanded at the end to outlast a fourth-seeded Carolina team that was girding itself for a near-championship run the following season. While this UNC team looks the part of a title contender, it also has had some dubious moments along the way to its deserved No. 1 seed: The Tar Heels struggled to put away a few lesser conference foes, namely Pittsburgh and Clemson, and looked ragged in losses to Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia. They also slipped up in the ACC tournament against Duke after leading the Blue Devils by a commanding double-digit margin in the first half.
For the Hogs to earn a shot to vanquish Roy Williams' titans, though, it starts by beating a Seton Hall team that thrives on its balance in the same way the Razorbacks have excelled this season. Four Pirates have clocked in with double-figure scoring, led in the backcourt by rangy and explosive Khadeen Carrington (16.9 points and three rebounds and assists per contest) and up front with the muscular post Angel Delgado and electric wing Desi Rodriguez. This isn't necessarily an up-tempo powerhouse, scoring less than the NCAA average with around 72 points per game, but the Hall plays steady defense and keeps opponents off the glass well.
There's a glaring weakness for the Pirates, which is that they simply do not shoot well. Their 64 percent free throw shooting is an Achilles heel, and they're nothing special from long range overall, although Carrington has slowly matured into a dependable gunslinger from beyond the arc, while freshman guard Myles Powell is unafraid to hoist it (200 three-point attempts, or more than six tries per contest). Delgado's a nimble guy who has blossomed into one of the country's top rebounders, but he's an outright liability from the line, doesn't present a shot-blocking threat, and turns it over more than he should. Arkansas's Moses Kingsley, assuming he suffers no fallout from the fracas at the end of the loss to Kentucky in the SEC championship final, should have his hands full but he will match up extremely well with Seton Hall's 240-pound center.
Touching on Kingsley to close this preview: The emotion he showed against Kentucky was, by all accounts, too much, but it's not the worst sight in the world when one of your upperclassmen fails to cede ground to a team like Kentucky even when those proceedings were more or less decided. He needs to channel that fire as constructively as he can for the weekend ahead because his mercurial career as a Razorback ends with the next defeat. Same goes for Dusty Hannahs, who also threw in a surprising bit of physical play at the end of the conference title game. At least those two have shown they want this season to continue as long as it can, and to be quite fair, this Razorback team is not too far from being a trendy pick to roll out of Greenville with two wins and back to Memphis for the regional semifinals. That will necessarily require the entire roster to direct its focus and its energies properly, which was a serious issue as recently as early-February, but one that has also faded as the Hogs have surged to hit the 25-win mark for only the second time since they marched all the way to the national championship game in 1995.
Look for the Razorbacks to eke out a hard-earned win against the Pirates on Friday to start the weekend properly for the achievement-starved fan base. If Carolina wants to deny the Hogs their Sweet 16 privileges a third time in nine years, the Heels will be unable to do so without determination, as Anderson clearly has recovered and redirected a once-lost season right from the abyss.