There are fewer SEC men’s teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament (2) than there are men’s head coaching openings (3).
No. 3 seed Tennessee failed to reach the Sweet 16 for the third time in four NCAA Tournament trips under coach Rick Barnes as it lost 76-68 loss to No. 11 seed Michigan on Saturday. No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 6 seeds Alabama and LSU lost in the first round on Thursday and Friday.
That is four closings out of six invitees. SEC coaching openings remain at South Carolina, LSU and Missouri, though Mizzou was close to hiring Cleveland State coach Dennis Gates as of Sunday.
And then there were two. Only No. 2 seed Auburn (28-5) and No. 4 seed Arkansas (27-8) remain from the SEC. Auburn plays No. 10 seed Miami (24-10) at 7:45 p.m. eastern Sunday on TruTV with the Sweet 16 on the line.
Arkansas survived an offensive quagmire Saturday night to hold off No. 12 seed New Mexico State, 53-48, in Buffalo, New York, and advance to the Sweet 16 in San Francisco. Arkansas, which is in back-to-back Sweet 16s for the first time since the “40 Minutes Of Hell” days produced four straight from 1993-96, plays overall No. 1 seed and No. 1-ranked Gonzaga (28-3) on Thursday. Gonzaga beat a determined No. 9 seed Memphis, 82-76, in the late game Saturday.
“We spent the last 48 hours or whatever only talking about defense,” said Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, whose team held New Mexico State guard Teddy Allen to a mere 12 points after he scored 37 in an upset over No. 5 seed Connecticut in the first round.
“I thought it was a defensive clinic,” Musselman said. “But I’m not sure I’ll have a job tomorrow because of our offense.”
Arkansas scored the fewest points by an SEC team in an NCAA Tournament game in the shot clock era, which began in 1985. It was the fewest by an SEC team in the Big Dance since a 56-53 win by the Razorbacks over 12 seed Wofford in 2015. The Hogs shot 27 percent from the field (14 of 51) and 18 percent from 3-point range (3 of 16) with 12 turnovers, but as of Sunday morning Arkansas did not have SEC opening No. 7 since the end of the regular season.
“Not a cosmetically pleasing offensive type of game,” he said.
Gonzaga will score more than New Mexico State. The Zags are No. 1 in the nation in scoring with 87.8 points a game. Arkansas is No. 48 at 76.2. Gonzaga allows 66 points a game for No. 73 in the nation. Arkansas is No. 140 in scoring defense with 68 allowed a game.
Musselman, whose father Bill was seen as a defensive genius, beat New Mexico State with his defense, which held the Aggies to 34 percent shooting (18 of 53) and 23 percent from 3-point range (6 of 26) and forced 19 turnovers.
“We scrapped a lot of stuff we did all year defensively,” Musselman said. “And we spied on Allen. We did a great job on Allen. All our guys read about him, saw what he did. Just an incredible job.”
The Hogs led 26-17 at the half, holding New Mexico State to the fewest points by an Arkansas opponent in the first half of an NCAA Tournament game since Wyoming got 18 before losing 52-40 to Arkansas in 1941. That was the year the Hogs reached the first of their six Final Fours.
Allen, who hit 4 of 7 from 3-point range in the win over UConn, had just five points at the half on 2-of-7 shooting, including 1 of 4 from 3-point range along with two turnovers. He finished 5 of 16 and 2 of 6 from 3-point range. Arkansas guard Au’Deise Toney blanketed him throughout the game as Musselman threw a myriad of defenses at him.
“Toney, wow was he phenomenal individually,” Musselman said. “As good as any defender I’ve ever coached.”
Guard J.D. Notae led Arkansas with 18 points, eight steals and added four rebounds before fouling out with 1:22 left and the Hogs up 46-43. Forward Jaylin Williams added 10 points and 15 rebounds. Davonte Davis had only two points and one assist, but that assist was a beauty. His long bounce pass on a fast break hit Toney in stride for a slam dunk to close a 9-0 run and give Arkansas a 41-33 lead with 6:06 to play.
Arkansas hit 22 of 25 free throws to secure the win. Chris Lykes hit 7 of 7 free throws over the final 5:24 to finish with seven points.
Johnny McCants scored 16 points with 12 rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots for New Mexico State (27-7).
Musselman now returns to the Bay Area, where he was Golden State’s head coach in the NBA from 2002-04.
“Oh, man,” he said. “I have a lifetime of friends there. My sons grew up there. I mean it’s going to be wild to go back and play there. To go to a Sweet 16 in San Francisco and the Bay Area, ain’t nothing better.”