Monday, March 17, 2014

It's Been a Long Time Coming

I grew up in Arkansas, and I got my B.A. at the University of Arkansas so I was indoctrinated into Razorback culture early.

Initially, my interest was exclusively football, but then Eddie Sutton came along, and I — along with hundreds of thousands of Arkansans — began following college basketball as a result.

He certainly made it interesting — and it wasn't as if we fans were doing much between football seasons, anyway.

A couple of years after his arrival, he had the Razorbacks in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years. They were one and done, but that was enough to give Razorback fans a taste of the Big Dance.

The next year, Sutton coached the Razorbacks to the Final Four for only the third time ever. They lost to the eventual national champion, then beat Notre Dame in the third–place game, and Razorback fans were hooked. Expectations the next season, in 1979, were higher than they had ever been in my lifetime, even though many of the stars of that Final Four team had graduated.

It was because of those absent stars that national expectations weren't high at all. In fact, Arkansas was unranked when the season began.

But the Razorbacks still had Sidney Moncrief, who became the school's all–time leading scorer and was a consensus All–American in 1979. Larry Bird was an All–American, too, and his undefeated and top–ranked Indiana State Sycamores were waiting for the Razorbacks 35 years ago today in the Elite Eight in Cincinnati.

The winner would face DePaul in the Final Four in Salt Lake City.

You would be hard pressed to find a tighter ballgame than the one that was played on that St. Patrick's Day. Arkansas led by two points at halftime, then late in the game with the score tied, U.S. Reed was called for walking, and Indiana State was in position to take the final shot.

Everyone expected Bird to take that shot. He had scored 31 points that afternoon, more than double anyone else on his team, but, as the seconds ticked off the clock, teammate Bob Heaton took the shot, made it and sent Indiana State to the Final Four.

It was a heartbreaker for Arkansas fans. Indiana State went on to beat DePaul a week later, then lost to Michigan State in the championship game (which was the first meeting in the now–storied rivalry between Bird and Magic Johnson).

Arkansas and Indiana State haven't faced each other in a basketball game since that day 35 years ago.

Expectations were for the Razorbacks to return to the NCAA Tournament, thanks to a season sweep of Kentucky and a strong finish to the regular season. But that finish was marred by a season–ending loss at Alabama and a loss to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament apparently knocked the Razorbacks out of the NCAA Tournament.

Not long after the pairings were announced, it was announced that Arkansas had accepted an invitation to play in the NIT. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that their first opponent will be Indiana State tomorrow night — 35 years and a day since that disappointing defeat.

Razorback fans have memories that are longer than elephants'. One wrote on Facebook today that Heaton walked just before making the game–winner. It wasn't called and, to be honest, I don't remember it. But it just goes to show how raw that wound is.

How different would that game have been if college basketball had a shot clock and the three–point shot, neither of which existed at the time? We'll never know. This is a different era with different players and different coaches.

But the fans are the same. Some have died and others have been born since that St. Patrick's Day in 1979, but the loss lives on in the collective memory of Razorback fans. They want revenge.

The game will be televised by ESPN at 8 p.m. (Central). I'm hoping for a more satisfying finish this time.

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