Tusk to Tail: Saturday stadium sellouts with the Muss Bus

Seats in the upper corners of Bud Walton Arena were selling for upwards of $100 each on the secondary market. Former players and even a U.S. Senator were rumored to have called the University of Arkansas athletic department looking for tickets, only to be denied.

The tenth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats (13-4, 4-1 SEC) came to Fayetteville to face the Razorbacks (14-3, 3-2) Saturday, and it was the hottest ticket in town.

The excitement surrounding the game was evident from the Internet to Interstate 40. Leaving Little Rock five hours before tipoff, I probably encountered more game day traffic than at any point of the past two or three football seasons. At least every other car was adorned with a Razorback license plate, magnets, or other gameday paraphernalia.

ESPN announcer Dick Vitale was calling his first game in Fayetteville since 1995, when the Hogs were defending national champions and ultimately lost that season’s title game. Vitale had tweeted that he expected “a fantastic hoops atmosphere” but attributed the “frenzy” to Kentucky’s fanbase, known as Big Blue Nation (BBN), rather than the spirit of Arkansas.

Hundreds of Hog fans felt Vitale had underestimated their passion, and replied to the tweet accordingly. Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek directly responded to Vitale that the game was “sold-out like every Saturday game this season because Razorback fans are the best, not because [Kentucky] is in town.” Yurachek spent Saturday morning serving breakfast to students who had lined up before 6 a.m. to claim the best general admission seats once the doors opened.

The famous announcer eventually backpedaled, crediting Arkansas fans for the love of their team, but the gauntlet had been thrown. The student section booed Vitale as he entered the arena before he graciously posed for photos and even called the Hogs with them.

The Saturday sellouts mark a sea change within the basketball program ushered in by the offseason hire of Coach Eric Musselman. Coach Muss took the foundation of a good, but rarely great Razorbacks team and turned them into winners. Undersized compared to most of their opposition, the Hogs’ four-guard lineup has excelled with its stingy defense and quality shot selection.

When the shots aren’t falling for long range bomber Isaiah Joe, others step up beside him. The three games prior to the Kentucky matchup (on the road at LSU and Ole Miss, and home against Vanderbilt) featured a different leading scorer in each. Joe scored 34 at Oxford, including seven 3-pointers. Mason Jones led the Hogs in the loss at Baton Rouge. Jones also led the team in rebounds, assists, and steals that night and for the season. Jimmy Whitt, master of the mid-range jumper, went off last Wednesday against the Commodores with a career-best 30-point game.

But to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. The Wildcats are not only considered to be the best in the SEC, but also among the finest in the nation. Kentucky began the season ranked number two. Their roster is filled with former five-star prospects and McDonald’s All Americans. Each player across the board looked about six inches taller than his Arkansas counterpart. Coach John Calipari won a national championship at Kentucky in 2012, and coached in three more Final Fours there, as well as one each at Memphis and Massachusetts.The tournament appearances at Memphis and UMass were later vacated, but Calipari was cleared of any surrounding scandal both times.

Visiting with my father on the way to the game, I expressed concern over how the Hogs’ small-ball lineup would fare against the size and strength of Kentucky. To complicate matters, the Wildcats had been upset at South Carolina earlier in the week. Kentucky rarely loses twice in a row, so we knew we had their full attention. Dad was less concerned.

“There ain’t a horse that can’t be rode, and there ain’t a man that can’t be throwed,” he said.

Boxing champion Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It seemed evident that the Hogs had not taken a punch as hard and fast as the ones delivered by the Wildcats’ barrage of big men. Muss may have his athletes playing at an elite level, but Kentucky is stacked with elite players. There is a difference. The Razorbacks gamely fought for every rebound, but were still outpaced 47-29 on the glass. Kentucky had a 10-0 advantage in second chance points in the first half, finishing with a 19-8 advantage. Kentucky also had 32 points in the paint compared to 22 for Arkansas. Each team blocked five shots.

The Wildcats drew up an excellent defensive gameplan, effectively shutting down Joe outside and Whitt from mid-range. Both players struggled to get open for uncontested shots. Whitt was held scoreless in the first half, but finished with 14 points, including 8-of-8 free throws. The rest of the Razorbacks were far less perfect from the charity stripe, making only 20-of-30 free throws overall. Jones came into the contest ranked second in the conference in free throw percentage (91%), but converted only 8-of-12 attempts.

Despite that, the Hogs were in great position to win with 8:19 remaining. A 20-6 scoring run had led to a 47-44 Arkansas lead. When Calipari was ejected on double technical fouls for arguing with the officials, the arena got louder than it had been in over 20 years, back when Nolan Richardson was coaching. Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley tried covering his ears to block out the noise, and the fans got even louder. The building felt like it was shaking.

Immediately following Calipari’s ejection, Assistant Coach Kenny Payne switched Kentucky to a zone defense and the Wildcats scored 15 unanswered points. It was too much for Arkansas to overcome, eventually losing 73-66. The players and some fans may be disappointed in the result, but the Hogs can use this game to get better going forward. Despite the notable size disadvantage, the Razorbacks played their guts out.

Arkansas heads to Mississippi State this week to play one of the hottest teams in the SEC. The Bulldogs beat Missouri and Georgia by a combined 59 point margin. Once again, Coach Muss will need his undersized lineup to play at an elite level.

Editor’s note: Now in its eighth year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.

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