Razorback must test tough for top-ranked Gonzaga men in Sweet 16

SAN FRANCISCO – The trials are getting tougher for Gonzaga as it progresses to the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.

The top-seeded Zags will take on No. 4 Arkansas on Thursday. GU no. 9 took the lead from Memphis, while Arkansas held off New Mexico State at number 12 and moved up to Sweet 16. The Razorbacks should provide a formidable challenger with their athleticism, speed and impressive defense.

We called on Bob Holt, who has covered the Razorbacks program since the 1981-82 season for the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, for a closer look at this year’s team. Holt covered the Razorbacks’ 1994 national championship team.

Spokesperson-Review: Looks like it’s been two different seasons for the Razorbacks. They were 10–5 (0–3 SEC) after the January 8 shock to Texas A&M, their fifth loss in six games. At that time, he fell to number 93 in the net rankings. He has won 17 of his last 20 and has risen to be Sweet 16 and No. 20 in the nets. What caused the change?

BH: After a poor start, coach Erik Musselman made some changes to the lineup and became larger and more physical, starting 6-foot-2 point guard J.D. Notte with two 6-6 wings – Stanley Umude and O’Dies Tony – Together 6-6 forward Trey Wade and 6-10 big man Jaylyn Williams became sixth man with 6-4 guard Devonte “Devo” Davis. Kamani Johnson, 6-7 forward, and Chris Lykes, 5-7 guard, have also been part of the rotation for most games.

The Razorbacks made a strong commitment to defense and really took advantage of their length to force teams to take tough shots. As the victories began to roll in, the players’ confidence grew and team chemistry developed for a team of seven newcomers.

SR: Razorbacks attempt too many free throws and don’t rely on 3-pointers as much as some teams. They limit opponents to 41.2% shooting. How would you describe Arkansas’ offensive and defensive philosophy?

BH: On offense, razorbacks want to go downhill and reach the basket and either eliminate or foul. Last time I checked, he made free throws and led the country in the effort. He hit 42 of 50 free throws, beating Vermont and New Mexico State in his two NCAA Tournament victories.

Arkansas are strictly one-on-one defense under Musselman and the Razorbacks will look to use their length and strength to convert teams into poor shots and force turnovers that lead to the transition basket. Tony is their best perimeter guard and moving him to the covering guard has really made a difference. He’s a lockdown guy from Arkansas.

SR: Please pick two key players from the roster and explain why they are so important to the success of the Razorbacks?

BH: Notte and Williams were the All-SEC choice by both coaches and the media. These two formed an eight-player first team of coaches. Notte made AP’s five-man first team and Williams made a five-man second team.

Note has a scoring mentality. He can take misguided shots at times, but if his jumper isn’t falling he usually finds a way to score on the drive and get to the free-throw line. Against New Mexico State, Note was caught in a foul in the first half and did not score, then had 17 points in the second half. He’s a good playmate, having 30 points and eight assists against Kentucky. He has greatly improved as a defender and has made eight steals against New Mexico State.

Williams has 14 doubles this season. He has always been a good passer and rebounder. Since the early part of this season, he has become more aggressive on the offense and wants to shoot more. He has good range and is good around the basket. Perhaps most impressively, Williams has made 50 charges, which helped land her on the SEC All-Defensive Team.

SR: What are the biggest factors from Arkansas’ perspective against Gonzaga?

BH: Notte needs to stay away from fouls, which have been an issue for him at times this season, especially in recent games. He was called out for four offensive fouls against the state of New Mexico. Arkansas can’t afford to be out of NOTA’s game on Thursday night.

Dealing with the size of Gonzaga is also a major challenge for Arkansas. Williams can’t defend both (Drew) Timme and (Chet) Holmgren. It will be interesting to see the defensive game plan of the Razorbacks.

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