NCAA Refs Put Brakes on ‘Fastest 40’



It wasn’t long ago that we suggested in this space that “Hawgball” was back, or at minimum the foundation had been laid for its return. And though it was often hard to spot that rugged brand of Hog hoops through the ups and downs of a solid 2016-17 Arkansas Razorbacks basketball campaign, a significant sighting of the old-school Hawgball was on full display in the season’s grand-finale against college basketball blue-blood North Carolina.

After falling behind 30-13 to the South Region’s No. 1 seed Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament’s Round of 32 on Sunday in Greenville, S.C, the No. 8 seed Razorbacks put a up a scrapping, fierce fight to pull within 5, 38-33, at halftime. The second half was more of the same as the Hogs sent waves of players applying tenacious pressure and winning hustle plays en route to a 65-60 advantage with just under 3 minutes to go. Effectively, in a 22-minute span Arkansas outscored one of the top 4 teams in the nation — North Carolina — by a margin of 52-30.

That’s Hawgball.

But what ensued in the last 2:56 of the game — a series of NCAA refs’ bail-out whistles combined with timely no-calls by the game officials — would fuel a 12-0 North Carolina run for a 72-65 ‘Heels victory. And if you had been paying attention to the officiating the first 37:04 of the game, this should have come as no surprise. Result: UNC escaped to a Sweet 16 berth against 4-seeded Butler this weekend, while Arkansas fell just short and ended its season. If this comes across as the whining and conspiracy-drivel expected of a homer Hog fan, for the record several national analysts have pointed to the last 3 minutes of the game as evidence that North Carolina survived and advanced aided by “program” calls from the NCAA refs.

Again, the one-sided officiating had been an all-game affair, and please keep in mind that the point being made here is not based solely on the strength of the statistical data. There is no rule that says fouls and free throws should come with a guarantee to be equitable in numbers. Because, among other factors, sometimes one team is vastly superior and the numbers just aren’t equitable as a result. But, you have to look at the data combined with trusting your eyes. In a game that was a war between two good basketball teams, a game that saw both teams scratch and claw defensively, it simply does not make sense that one team should havebenefited from a lopsided advantage in the whistle/no-whistle category. We present to you multiple exhibits: 

* 20 fouls called on Arkansas to just 10 called on UNC.

* 25 free throw attempts for UNC compared to just 8 (E-I-G-H-T) for Arkansas.

* UNC getting to the bonus in each half, the Hogs never getting into the bonus.

* UNC whistled for just TWO (2) shooting fouls all game inside the 3-point arc — think about the fact that Arkansas, although efficient from 3, has not been a volume 3-point shooting team and prefers to drive the ball to the basket. So, with all the activity on the perimeter and driving to the basket by guys like Jaylen Barford, Dusty Hannahs, Daryl Macon, Anton Beard, and  Manny Watkins — a formula that put Arkansas at the free throw line all season long — we’re to believe not ONE of those guys earned a trip to the line by attacking the defense? In a game that saw both teams reaching, slapping, and attacking to force a total of 36 turnovers, only UNC was worthy of going to the free-throw line as a result of all that aggressive play at both ends?

* An apparent Adrio Bailey steal at the 2:56 mark that had Arkansas running to the offensive end with no defender to prevent a layup and what would have been a 67-60 lead — a 3-possession lead late — that was instead whistled for a Bailey reach-in foul that resulted in 2 made FTs by ‘Heels point guard Joel Berry II and a reduced 3-point Hog lead. Not unusual for that to be called a foul, just unusual that UNC effectively was rewarded all game long by making similar types of plays that resulted in Arkansas turnovers and limited foul calls resulting in ZERO FTs for Arkansas.

* Another foul on Bailey in a rebounding scrum with 1:44 to play after a Barford missed 3. Again, this was the kind of play that was for the most part allowed to be a “play-on”, except for the pick-and-choose moments when the refs decided to blow the whistle, it overwhelmingly favored one team. So, UNC sinks both FTs after this whistle on Arkansas’s offensive end of the floor to take a 66-65 lead.

* Of Arkansas’s 8 FT attempts, 4 were awarded on two Macon 3-point shots in the first half, but oddly enough when he was clearly contacted across the forearm on his 3-point attempt with 1:18 to play in a one-point game (66-65 UNC), the referee staring right at the play ONLY saw enough to whistle a tip/contact of the ball by the UNC defender — a call that would be overturned PRIOR to replay and then held-up by replay to incorrectly give possession of the ball to UNC = WTF + SMH!!! — and ultimately, NO foul on a triple that should have been a foul and 3 FT attempts for Arkansas!

* An easy-to-call traveling violation OR offensive-player-control foul by Berry on the ensuing possession (0:49 remaining) … but the refs swallowed their whistles and UNC got a tip-in after Berry slung the ball off the backboard to extend its lead to 3, 68-65.

Trailing by 3 in the final 30 seconds, Arkansas missed opportunities to cut into the lead. Moses Kingsley missed 2 FTs with 25 seconds remaining, and Beard missed a 3-point shot with 0:15 left that would have tied the game. So, let’s acknowledge that the refs aren’t 100% to blame because Arkansas missed some opportunities to overcome the one-sided officiating. But, let’s also acknowledge that UNC really only scored once in non-ref-aided fashion late – a dunk by Isaiah Hicks at the 2:19 mark that Arkansas’s lead to 1, 65-64. It was the only scoring production NOT aided by questionable, one-sided officiating in the 8-0 run that turned a 5-point deficit into a 3-point lead for North Carolina in the closing seconds of the game. 

Arkansas shot 43.3% from the field (26-60 FGs), including 8-of-21 from 3 for a respectable 38.1%, while limiting UNC to 38.1% from the field (24-of-63 FGs), including only 5-of-17 from 3 for 29.4%. This game was won and lost at the free-throw line, where North Carolina was 19-of-25 compared to 5-of-8 for Arkansas.

You can call it sour grapes or a sore-loser/homer mentality, but the eye and sniff tests fail here and we’re left with an impression that there was some 8-on-5 that helped the anointed blue-blood program escape with its postseason life.  By the way, if you’re wondering how a lead about the return of Hawgball meandered into a finger-pointing whine about officiating, alas, I’m shifting gears and circling back around to bring the two together.

In the late 20th century years that saw Nolan Richardson and his 40 Minutes of Hell ascend from his first 4 seasons of mediocrity (1985-86 through 1988-89 that saw 1 NCAAT win) to a blue-blood-esque level of superiority in the 7 seasons that followed (1989-90 through 1995-96 that produced a national title, 3 Finals Fours, 4 Elite Eights, and 6 Sweet 16s) — in ALL that time that saw lowly lows and the highest of highs, Arkansas was always viewed nationally as second-tier. When they were newcomers to the SEC and blew through Rick Pitino and the ‘Cats in Lexington en route to winning the league title, the Hogs were still (and would always be) second-fiddle to Big Blue. And on the national stage, the Dukes, UNC’s, UCLA’s, and a few others were glaringly held in higher regard even when Arkansas was meeting or beating those teams for hardware.

It’s understandable why that lack-of-respect mentality existed and continues to prevail today — blue-bloods are revered and consequently protected much more often than not, and subsequently its Arkansas or some other non-traditional-power program that suffers the consequences. In a modern-day / annoying-but-true catch-phrase, it is what it is. But that dynamic was always fuel for Nolan’s fire that sparked Arkansas’s “us against the world” mantra that propelled the program to match or exceed the accomplishments of the blue-blood establishment during those magical 7 seasons. Nolan loved to advise that if you saw him “fighting a bear”, don’t worry about him and do what you can to help out that bear. It was his way of letting everyone know he was no helpless underdog as he worked his way up against the odds, whether it was racial odds that stood in the way of him getting jobs in the coaching ranks OR odds that made his teams underdogs on the court of play. If nothing else, the origins of Hawgball can be traced back to how Nolan conjured up the strength and strategies to fight that figurative bear that manifested itself into real obstacles.

Since then the landscape of college basketball has changed, for the worse, and that slippage coincided with the significant downfall of the Arkansas program in the first 10-plus years of the 21st century. As a result, it’s been difficlult to see glimpses of Hawgball emerging from all that fog.

Hawgball is an idea, an attitude, a style that reflects wild Hogs coming at you in waves. It’s recognizable and felt, but not easy to explain. Yet, you can see and feel it bubbling back up now. Whether it takes its form in a game like the scrap-fest against North Carolina in a fight for the Sweet 16, or in a 23-9 run down the stretch to out-tough a game Seton Hall team in the first round of the NCAAT, or in a late-season run where the Hogs dug out of a 2-game funk against Missouri and Vanderbilt to finish 3rd in the SEC and 2nd in the SECT to lock up a certain NCAAT at-large bid, or in a lashing-out against Kentucky (and the refs) in the SECT finale that led to a couple of regrettable but physical fouls, or in a 3-season run that has Arkansas 2nd in the SEC behind only that NBA D-League farm team in Lexington in overall wins, SEC record, SEC road record, and NCAAT appearances.

The point is, the fog is lifting and Hawgball is once again starting to be seen and felt around here. Senior captain Manual Watkins was adamant that Hawgball was back when asked about it during the post-game press conference in the regular-season finale against Georgia, and he backed it up again on Twitter just after Arkansas’s season ended in that hard-fought loss to North Carolina: “Gonna miss it Hog Nation. I gave everything I had. Thank you for giving me the best 4 years of my life. Hog ball is back and here to stay.” The message is pinned at the top of his Twitter account.

So, whether you believe refs helped UNC win, or that Arkansas ran out of steam late, or a combination of both — heck, maybe you saw something altogether different — but if you ask me, I’m gonna tell you I saw wild Hogs attacking in waves and 3 zebras run to the aid of that bear. That’s Hawgball, folks, and as it continues to rise from the ashes of a once-proud program, be scared for the bear.

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Kevin McPherson is a former sportswriter and editor at both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, as well as a former contributor to newspapers in Northwest Arkansas — covering Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, high school football and basketball, and basketball recruiting. He’s entering his 13th year as a mortgage banker with Bank of England, but he still covers Razorback basketball and recruiting as well as high school sports. You can join him live every Monday and Thursday at 1:30 CST on The Hog Call, KREB 1190 The Fan in Northwest Arkansas by clicking here: You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.

NCAA Refs put brakes on Hogs


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