For the first few months of the season, the Muss Bus was busted— the tires were all flat, taillights were cracked, the paintjob were peeling, the transmission was irredeemably borked. On January 8th, the Arkansas Razorbacks dropped their fifth game out of their last six, losing to decided non-powerhouses Oklahoma, Hofstra (Hofstra!!!), Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. At the time, they were somewhere in the neighborhood of the 80th best team in the country with one of the worst defenses in the SEC; they seemed like the kind of squad who must unhappily endure the rest of the season because there’s no other alternative.
After that 0-3 start to SEC play, though, head coach Eric Musselman and the Razorbacks have been nearly unbeatable. They’re 12-1 in their last 13 games with Quad One wins over Alabama, Tennessee, LSU and then-top ranked Auburn. Adjusted for the strength of schedule, Arkansas has been the fourth best team in the entire country during this stretch, according to Bart Torvik.
During this dominant stretch, Arkansas has rediscovered the stifling defense that fueled their Elite Eight run last year; since January 9th, Arkansas has the best defense in college basketball. They’re a swarming, unrelenting unit, climbing into the chest of ball-handlers and turning each dribble into a chore. This ball pressure redounds throughout the rest of their defense, resulting in forced turnovers and contested shots—Arkansas forces turnovers on more than 20 percent of possessions and holds teams to the second lowest effective field goal percentage. Even if they don’t have a single fearsome rim protector like Christian Koloko at Arizona or Chet Holmgren at Gonzaga, they succeed because of their collective irksomeness. Across every position, the Razorbacks place a tremendous amount of stress on the offense, both cognitively and physically.
Offensively, the Razorbacks opt for a simpler, more prosaic approach: they go fast and hope JD Notae breaks shit. Last year’s SEC Sixth Man of the Year, Notae is the conference’s second-leading scorer, putting up 18.7 points per game. He’s the archetypal, undersized college basketball bucket getter, slashing to the rim with angular, bruising drives and pulling up for gutsy jumpers. He’s a new-age Russ Smith or Frank Mason III; Kemba Walker without the rubbery handle and New York City kabbalism. Flanking Notae, sophomore big man Jaylin Williams is an athletic, funky point-center who offers a nice counterweight on the interior and at the elbows while Au’Diese Toney and Stanley Umude are athletic wings who can stretch the floor in transition.
But despite their recent greatness, the Razorbacks still aren’t taken all that seriously. In the AP Poll, Arkansas is ranked 18th, below a Tennessee team that they just held to 48 points in a 10 point win. Bracketologists have them pegged as a prospective sixth seed, while putting Providence—a team that is universally considered to kinda suck—on the four-line; on Draftkings, Arkansas’ +1400 odds give them an implied 6.7 percent chance to make the Final Four, By this point, Arkansas has proven that they’re one of the best teams in the country. It’s a cliche that elite guard-play and defense win championships. Luckily, the Razorbacks have both.