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Kansas vs. Arkansas is a Final Four matchup in first weekend of March Madness

As they meet in the round of 32 on Saturday, the gap between Kansas and Arkansas feels a whole lot smaller than it should for a No. 8 seed against a No. 1 seed.

Syndication: The Des Moines Register Kelsey Kremer/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

DES MOINES — The Howard Bison had reason to daydream about history for the first 15 minutes of their opening round matchup against No. 1 seed Kansas on Thursday in the 2023 men’s NCAA tournament. The MEAC champs were doing everything a Cinderella is supposed to do to start the first half: Howard made some threes, won some 50/50 balls, and avoided turnovers to postpone the Kansas onslaught any objective party sensed was coming.

As the clock ticked down to five minutes remaining in the first half, No. 16 seed Howard and the defending national champion Jayhawks were tied 33 apiece.

It was only going to hold for so long. There is a reason Kansas is just about the bluest blue blood in the sport, while Howard was making their first men’s March Madness appearance since 1992. The run started with some thunder: a near halfcourt alley-oop lob thrown down by sophomore big man KJ Adams. Five-star freshman Gradey Dick then curled around a screen and ripped a one-dribble pull-up for a three-pointer. Next it was Jalen Wilson, a consensus First-Team All-American, hitting the offensive glass and getting a putback.

By the time the halftime buzzer mercifully sounded, a game that was tied just minutes earlier was now a 13-point lead in Kansas’ favor. Howard never recovered, and Kansas routed the No. 16 seed just like they were supposed to do.

Even college basketball’s best programs as susceptible to an upset — just ask No. 2 seed Arizona, who lost to No. 15 seed Princeton on Thursday days after winning the the Pac-12 tournament. Kansas seems to exist on a level above such ruckus, though. Since Bill Self was hired 20 seasons ago, the Jayhawks have lost their first game in the tournament just twice. They’ve reached the second weekend 11 times, and have two national championship banners over the same period. Losing early in the tournament isn’t part of the job description in Lawrence.

For a while, Arkansas hoops could say the same thing. Even Millennial readers might have a hard time remembering it, but the Hogs were once one of the very best programs in the country. Under head coach Nolan Richardson, Arkansas reached the Final Four in 1990, won the nation championship in 1994 over Grant Hill’s Duke team, and then made the national title game the next year before losing to UCLA.

There were a lot of lean years for the program after Richardson left following the 2002 season. Arkansas didn’t make the second weekend of the tournament again until it hired Eric Musselman, who took the Razorbacks to the Elite Eight in his second season in 2021, and then did it again last year.

Kansas is the program everyone else wants to be, but can never imitate. Under Musselman, Arkansas is again becoming the rare team that actually has the recruiting pull and the coaching acumen to believe they can do it.

As they meet in the round of 32 on Saturday, the gap between Kansas and Arkansas feels a whole lot smaller than it should for a No. 8 seed against a No. 1 seed seeking to hang back-to-back national title banners.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Illinois vs Arkansas Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas and Arkansas each lost key pieces from successful teams over the offseason. Most programs wold have been forgiven for going into a rebuilding year under such circumstances. Kansas and Arkansas simply reloaded, and may have gotten even better.

Kansas landed three McDonald’s All-Americans on the recruiting trail with Dick, MJ Rice, and Ernest Udeh. Arkansas landed three McDonald’s All-Americans too with Nick Smith Jr., Anthony Black, and Jordan Walsh. The Jayhawks added a key veteran transfer from a power conference rival in Kevin McCullar. The Razorbacks added a key veteran transfer from a power conference themselves in Ricky Council IV.

Dick is a projected one-and-done lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft for Kansas. Black and Smith are projected one-and-done lottery picks in the 2023 NBA Draft for Arkansas. Arkansas doesn’t currently have an analog for a multi-year stud like Jalen Wilson on the roster, but the program Musselman is building will produce one eventually if they keep climbing.

Teams with as much talent as Kansas and Arkansas are supposed to be defined by their offense. Instead, both teams preach defense first, and it’s produced a pair of units that defend way more efficiently than they score. Kansas will enter the round of 32 game with the country’s No. 7 defense. Arkansas is the No. 13 defense.

Kansas’ biggest edge on paper comes from experience. There are still several key members of last season’s national title team playing big roles, led by Wilson and guard Dajuan Harris. Arkansas replaced its entire starting five from last season’s Elite Eight team, with a lot of those minutes going to freshmen. Davonte Davis is the only member of last year’s rotation still around.

“This is a team that is still growing, and I said even before the tournament that I feel like this is a team that continues to improve,” Musselman said after defeated Illinois in the first round. “I mean, we talk about improvement daily. We work on things daily to try to get better. There has been other teams that have plateaued. Maybe a couple of our teams at Nevada, we were old veteran guys, and maybe at some point we were just trying to save legs. But this is a team that’s of continuous improvement.”

Arkansas will have more tournament experience coming into Saturday than it did coming into Friday. Their three stud freshmen all had up-and-down performances, but they will be stronger for going through it on such a big stage. Black finished with 12 points on 12 shots, but played his typical brand of tremendous defense. Walsh was 2-for-8 from the field, but felt like the secret MVP of the game with his incredible defensive play on a variety of tough Illini matchups, finishing +21 in 27 minutes. Smith, the most touted of them all, shot 2-of-10, but hey — he can’t possibly shoot that poorly again against KU, right?

“I feel like experience in the NCAA Tournament, those experienced teams win if you look back at it,” Council IV said after the win. He wasn’t talking about the matchup with Kansas, but he might as well have been.

The real swing factor here is the status of Self. The legendary coach missed the Big 12 tournament after recovering from a heart procedure, and he didn’t coach in Kansas’ win against Howard. The program is saying he’s day-to-day. The Jayhawks would certainly love to have him on the sidelines on Saturday.

No college basketball program has won back-to-back titles since the Florida Gators in 2006-2007. Kansas has all the pieces to do it, even after losing two best wings to the first round picks to the NBA draft, their starting center and starting point guard from a season ago. That’s because Kansas doesn’t rebuild. The way Arkansas is going right now under Musselman, it’s starting to prove it can follow the exact same path.