Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Marching to a Title

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

Chinese philosopher (604 B.C.-531 B.C.)

This year is the 20th anniversary of an important event in the history of the University of Arkansas' athletic program.

(I grew up in Arkansas — and I got my undergraduate degree at the U of A — so this is of interest to me. You'll just have to live with it.)

It was on this day that the Arkansas basketball team embarked on its first national title run through the NCAA Tournament.

I was living in central Oklahoma at the time, and, as luck would have it, the Razorbacks were seeded first in the Midwest Regional. The #1 seed in that regional was slated to play the #16 seed (North Carolina A&T) in Oklahoma City, roughly a 30–minute drive from where I lived.

I thought about making the drive to OKC to watch the game in person, but no tickets were available. Oklahoma State's basketball team was playing New Mexico State, and Tulsa was playing UCLA; fans and students of OSU and Tulsa had snapped up all the tickets they could as soon as they could. Local media had been warning fans for days that tickets would only be available through scalpers.

So I stayed home and watched Arkansas' tournament–opening victory over North Carolina A&T on TV.

Frankly, it was a little disappointing. I had been following the Razorbacks from afar all season, and I had been anticipating a #1 seed. It never occurred to me that they wouldn't be a top seed — although I did have my doubts when they didn't make it to the championship game of the SEC Tournament.

Having anticipated a high seed, it's probably obvious that I expected great things from that team — and the Hogs did live up to my expectations.

But their tournament draw was disappointing. I wanted to see them play — and beat — a series of the legendary college basketball programs en route to a national championship. North Carolina A&T hardly qualified, and I must admit I felt rather foolish staying up late on a Friday night to watch the game — which the Razorbacks won easily.

As things turned out, the second–round opponent on Sunday was Georgetown, not a legend on the order of a UCLA or a Kentucky or an Indiana but a latter–day legend nonetheless.

Arkansas went on to play Michigan in the regional final a week later, then faced Arizona and Duke on a Final Four weekend that I never could have imagined. The opposition did kind of live up to my fantasy, I suppose.

Arkansas' march to the national title began 20 years ago today. I wish the Razorbacks were playing for another shot at the national championship this year. For awhile this season, I thought they would be.

They didn't make the cut, though.

However, they are facing Indiana State in the NIT tonight, and that has the potential to be a pretty good consolation prize. Indiana State won their last encounter in the 1979 Elite Eight, 35 years ago yesterday. Arkansas fans have been waiting for a rematch.

That's a long time to wait for redemption. Too bad Bird and Moncrief can't play in it. Bird always said that Moncrief's defensive performance was the best anyone ever played against him.

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