FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Eric Musselman emerged from Tuesday afternoon's Arkansas practice and was near-instantly greeted by a quartet of coeds who were all too eager to say hello.
"Coach Muss, can we get a selfie?" one of them asked.
The most popular man on campus of course obliged. As he crossed Nolan Richardson Drive, which separates Bud Walton Arena from the Razorbacks' Basketball Performance Center, Musselman approached the student encampment that was nearing 200 tents, with dozens more to be set up in the hours to come.
Another student shouts, "What's up, Muss?"
In a span of two minutes, he gladly takes almost a dozen more pictures. Excitable students in winter hats manifest from their tents, one of them clutching an air mattress, others clinging onto pillows and donning blankets. Some scramble for a quick photo. One student walks by me, making a desperate phone call to her friend: "Girl, you better get through here quick. Muss is takin' pictures."
As he turns to walk into the basketball building, a voice from 20 feet away yells, "Muss! Catch!"
A football is incoming.
They are most definitely ready in Fayetteville.
This week has ushered in the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge, which has replaced the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Wednesday, we get to see two teams that helped define college basketball's second-greatest decade, the 1990s: No. 7 Duke at Arkansas from Bud Walton Arena.
I landed on Tuesday and took in Arkansas' practice inside the Basketball Palace of Mid-America. They've already draped white "BEAT DUKE" rally towels on the seats. In this the 30th-season anniversary of Arkansas' only national championship — beating Duke in the title game back in 1994 — I was told legendary Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson will be in the house Wednesday night, his first regular-season appearance at an Arkansas game since 2019. The place is going to be electric.
You know, it wouldn't shock me ifalso found his way into the building Wednesday night. The city is buzzing over the infamous motorcycle-accident iconoclast returning to Fayetteville. The Duke game could wind up being the hottest home ticket of Arkansas' season; it would only make sense to arrange for Petrino to show up and further incite the crowd.
As for the game, this one's a treat. A quick history lesson to set the stage.
Would you believe it's the first time these teams have played an on-campus game against each other?
In fact, it's only the fifth meeting between the Blue Devils and Razorbacks. If you're of a certain age, seeing "Duke-Arkansas" on the schedule likely stokes some nostalgia. It should. They've met four times, and each previous game came with big stakes on big stages. Three of the four meetings happened in the NCAA Tournament, the biggest of them all being the 1994 national championship game in Charlotte, North Carolina.
That led to Arkansas' only national championship, under Richardson, and prevented Duke from winning three NCAA titles in a four-year span.
Prior to that, though, the teams squared off in the 1990 Final Four, a Duke win. Nearly eight months later, the only regular-season affair (until Wednesday) came at Madison Square Garden in the then-called Preseason NIT. Arkansas avenged its loss to Duke that night.
Most recently, Arkansas was the final victim of Mike Krzyzewski's career. It was Duke's win over the Hogs in the 2022 West regional final that propelled the Blue Devils to a doomed Final Four matchup with North Carolina.
Wednesday night provides Duke a chance to gain a quality win in its only nonconference road game of the season. For Arkansas, the scene is much more urgent. The Razorbacks have gone from a No. 14 ranking to falling out of the polls following a home loss to UNCG and a 1-2 showing in the Bahamas.
It's rare to have so much on the line in a non-con, power-league affair in late November, but this is a huge chance for Musselman's team to redeem its résumé. Getting that win is going to be a huge task, primarily because Arkansas junior guard Tramon Mark took a nasty fall on his back Friday at the Battle 4 Atlantis. Optimism is waning that he'll be cleared.
Bud Walton Arena has long been near the top of my bucket list for college hoops cathedrals. I'm excited to finally experience such a place, and I know the crowd is going to be fevered. Let's hope we get a game that can reasonably line up against these four previous battles.
|March 26, 2002
|No. 2 seed Duke
|No. 4 seed Arkansas
|Chase Center, Elite Eight
|April 4, 1994
|No. 1 seed Arkansas
|No. 2 seed Duke
|Charlotte Coliseum, NCAA championship
|Nov. 21, 1990
|No. 2 Arkansas
|No. 6 Duke
|Madison Square Garden, Preseason NIT
|March 31, 1990
|No. 3 seed Duke
|No. 4 seed Arkansas
|McNichols Arena, Final Four
How BYU became one of November's biggest surprises
Twenty-two days into the season, BYU registers as one of college basketball's eyebrow-lifting surprises. The Cougars are in their first year as Big 12 members and were understandably picked low (13th out of 14) as they transition from the WCC to the toughest conference in college hoops.
BYU started well in Mark Pope's first two years on the job. In 2019-20, it was tracking toward a No. 5 seed when the NCAA Tournament was axed. The next season, BYU was a 6-seed and went 20-7 in the COVID-shortened season. But after starting 10-2 in Year 3, the Cougars had a couple of starters go down and drifted back, missing the NCAAs. A year ago, BYU didn't threaten for an at-large bid.
This team was thus understandably expected to be a bottom-feeder in the beastly Big 12. Heck, BYU's injury situation was so delicate in October, the team opted to cancel its public Blue/White scrimmage due to nearly half the roster being in various stages of impairment.
Now look a 'em. Six games in, Pope's team has doubters looking silly. The Cougars are undefeated with wins over San Diego State, NC State and Arizona State by a combined 46 points and blasted into this week's AP Top 25 with a No. 19 ranking and scooted to 11th at KenPom. Even better: At Torvik, BYU ranks THIRD based solely on in-season performance and eliminating preseason projections. The Cougars are the only team top 10 in offensive (8th) and defensive (10th) efficiency through the first three weeks of the season. (Purdue — 11th in offense, fourth in defense — is the only other top-15 in both.)
The Big 12 again ranks No. 1 in league strength. If it remains atop all others, 2023-24 would mark the ninth time in 11 years the conference was the best in the sport — only few imagined BYU adding to that strength.
So what's going on in Provo?
BYU's early surge is in part a result of Pope making an "instinctual" decision more than a year ago to dial back the Cougars' clock and keep the team young for 2022-23, knowing the big '23-24 move to the Big 12 was looming.
"Even though we had been super successful, the distance between us and a Final Four just seemed like it was million miles, even though we were top-25 team," Pope told CBS Sports. "I mean, man, [the Big 12] it's just sheer insanity, right? And so we felt like we've got to kind of tear everything down … and try and grow it in a new way."
BYU ranked 290th in experience, per KenPom. It went 19-15 with freshmen and sophomores making up more than half the roster.
"We were all babies. It's like we didn't even know how to function," Pope said. "I think mostly it was just the humility that we're approaching this with it. We've got to come at this with more than a one-year plan."
This could have backfired (and BYU still has to prove it in league play, obviously) but so far, so good. BYU has a well-balanced attack with seven players averaging between 9.5 and 15.3 points. The team's leading scorer and shot-taker, Jackson Robinson, comes off the bench. BYU has been more aggressive with pace, changing defenses and adopting a "27x50 mentality." It is baiting defenses into a lot of running and chasing and ball-watching. With that, BYU is launching early and often from deep and the offense is downright humming. The Cougs are taking an absurd 33.7 3-pointers per contest, amounting to 50.7% of their overall shots.
Though it's early, Pope said this team's transition attack is going to be the most active of any team he's had. His big fear was having to adjust to the Big 12 with a team that was mostly going to scatter after one season. Then he'd have to start over in 2024-25. It could have been disastrous.
"This was not something we could leave to chance in the portal in the spring and just hope that we put together a roster that we felt like could compete," he said.
He wanted continuity. Now he's got it. We'll see if it translates once intra-conference play begins in early January.
"I didn't want to go into this Big 12 feeling THAT naked," Pope said. "At least I wanted to know my guys because everybody anticipates that we're just gonna get bludgeoned. The only way we're gonna survive is if we know each other, if we're in this together, if we have some capital in the bank."
In the WCC, and even at Utah Valley, Pope used to have work months to beg and bargain for any kind of potential Quad 1 game. Now he'll have anywhere from 12-15 of them in league play alone. It's a major shift, and a dangerous one if you're not buttoned up as a program.
"In the WCC it kind of felt like you had to win every game, so you end up playing a little bit leaning a little bit more into conservative, reproducible every single game," Pope said, but the calculus has changed with a Big 12 affiliation. "We're pushing the envelope on being really aggressive."
Princeton made the Sweet 16 ... then got better?
BYU at 6-0 is one type of surprise, Princeton at 6-0 is another. The Tigers received votes in this week's AP poll and are checking in as one of the best mid-major teams. You might be thinking, Yeah, that's the school that made the Sweet 16. This isn't a huge shock.
Actually, it sort of is. Even after that charmed-but-convincing NCAA tourney run, Princeton was not the pick to win the Ivy League. Yale was — comfortably. The Bulldogs received 14 out of 16 first-place votes. The Tigers' best player, Tosan Evbuomwan, and two other senior starters moved on. It hasn't affected the team's performance.
It's very possible Princeton could be better. It comfortably ranks higher in predictive metrics now than it did at any point last season. Here's why you should be following now: Five of its six wins are away from home, four of them on the road. According to Sports Reference, Princeton is the first team since at least 2010-11 to win four road games (and a fifth away from home) in November.
It's reasonable to suggest the Tigers have one of the 5-10 best résumés heading into December: A neutral-court win over Rutgers, plus road conquests over Hofstra and Duquesne, two teams in the top 110 at KenPom. For an Ivy, that's huge.
Dating to last season, Princeton is 12-1 in its last 13 games. While there is a long road to go and Princeton would have to play absurdly well in the next 12 weeks, that's pretty good for a team that — no surprise here — could barely pull together a nonconference schedule due to its March successes.
"We haven't had any luck getting any of the big guys," Princeton coach Mitch Henderson told me as he talked on the phone in Jadwin Gymnasium, in full view of the team's 2023 Sweet 16 banner. "I'm thankful for whoever's been willing to play us."
Princeton's Sweet 16 run was so loud, an MTE that was scheduled to be held in Savannah, Georgia, with Georgia and Xavier was called off.
"Signed contract," Henderson said. "Both teams said they would not play us and the event got canceled."
The Tigers only have 25 games vs. Division I competition this season; the NCAA allows as many as 31 prior to conference tournament play. (The Ivy League cap is lower.)
Remember, Princeton didn't just beat Arizona and Missouri in the NCAAs. If you watched those games, you watched the Tigers win with a rare authority for a mid-major over a power-conference opponent on the biggest stage in the sport. They returned guards Matt Allocco and Xaivian Lee, who are combining to average 36.3 points, making them one of the three best scoring backcourts in the country. Lee is coming off a week averaging 24.5 points on 55.9% shooting.
"I could talk to you about this for a week. They are 100% all about the things that matter toward winning," Henderson said. "There is very little room for anyone else here to not be the same way."
It's why Princeton's a two-time Ivy League champ after not being picked to win the league either year. Same thing happened again this preseason. So far, that looks like a miss.
"We don't forget it, but it's over," Henderson said of last season. "Now it's about recreating this with this group. We are really locked in. Everybody says it's really hard to win, and it is, but this team does the hard things well."
Norlander's news + nuggets
• You likely heard about the fourth-ranked UConn Huskies winning an NCAA record 24th straight non-con game by double digits this week. And while dominance of that kind has never been done before, it's unlikely this team will set the program record for longest winning streak. UConn has won five national championships in men's hoops, but none of those teams own the record for longest winning streak. It was Ray Allen and Co.'s 1995-96 team that won 23 straight. In fact, UConn needs to win at No. 5 Kansas on Friday just to have a chance at matching last season's opening sprint, which went to 14-0.
• With its No. 1 perch this week, Purdue joined these eight programs as the only ones to earn a No. 1 ranking in three consecutive seasons: Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA, Villanova, Virginia. UCLA went an absurd, never-to-be-matched 12 straight seasons (1964-75) with a No. 1 ranking.
• If you think Baylor is merely off to a hot start and isn't for real, let me remind you: The Bears are 110-24 the past five seasons, which is a better record than any other high-major program. Scott Drew's team will vie to win the Big 12. Again.
• Clemson's 85-77 win Tuesday night at No. 23 Alabama told me more about the Tigers than the Tide. Brad Brownell has the first 6-0 start of his career. Tigers will make the NCAAs in 2024.
• Though it won't mean much for two more months, if you're wondering when the NET rankings will go public for the first time, be on the lookout Monday.
• If you read ONE thing about NIL this week or in the next month, make it this from Matt Brown's Extra Points newsletter. Millionaires begging thousandaires for money to build their rosters. SMH.
• The longest road winning streak in the country belongs to Houston (11). The Cougars put that mark to the test Friday when they play at Xavier (which ... uh ... just dropped a homer to Oakland). It's UH's only road game of the first nine weeks of the season. A win over Xavier may well put Houston in the driver's seat to be the last unbeaten team this season, though there is a big game against Texas A&M in Houston (at the Toyota Center, not the Fertitta Center) on Dec. 17.
• Conference realignment has gotten so contorted at the mid-major level that I barely thought it worthy to type here that Delaware will be joining Conference USA in 2025. This stuff is just white noise now.
• More perspective on how unusually good Tommy Lloyd has been at Arizona. He's the only coach in his first three seasons on the job to nab a W over a top-three team in every season.
• One of the best small-school stories to start this season resides at Evansville. The Aces won five games a year ago and have already eclipsed that mark. David Ragland has the program at 6-0 (though one win came against something called St. Louis Pharmacy).
• An under-the-radar result from Monday that I think will have major consequences: Saint Mary's lost 78-71 at home to Utah to drop to 3-4. The Gaels were a preseason Top 25 team and the official favorite in the WCC. They have almost no room left to lose and maintain an at-large résumé. If BYU is one of the best stories of November, SMC registers as the most vexing.