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It could have been the shortest press conference in the NCAA Tournament, had it been up to Arkansas coach Eric Musselman.
“We got beat by a better team today. Thought Duke was phenomenal. Would be surprised if they’re not playing to win a national championship. That’s it,” he said after the No. 2 seed Blue Devils dispatched his No. 4 seed Razorbacks, 78-69, at the Chase Center in San Francisco Saturday night.
Duke (32-6) advanced to the Final Four in New Orleans and will play the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 8 seed North Carolina (27-9) and No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s (22-11).
Arkansas (28-9) finished in the Elite Eight for the second straight season.
Musselman was shaking his head from early in the first half on as Duke built 45-33 halftime lead and was never seriously threatened in the second half as it led by as many as 15 in front of 17,739, most of whom were Duke fans. Never mind that San Francisco is a 42-hour drive from Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., as opposed to 27 from Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“It was close to a home game for them with the amount of people that were here,” Musselman said.
The free throw totals resembled that of a typical SEC or ACC regular season game – with the home team on the plus side significantly. Arkansas, which came into the game second in the nation in free throw attempts at 22.8 a game, shot just three in the first half and finished 11 of 11. Duke was 9 of 10 from the line in the first half and finished 16 of 18.
“I mean, we took three free throw in the first half, and that’s like a post-up team never getting to post up,” Musselman said. “Or a three-point shooting team never attempting a three ball.”
Arkansas guard JD Notae fouled out with 3:47 to play with 14 points and Duke leading 72-59.
“When you play a team like Duke, you can’t expect to get those calls,” Notae said when asked about not drawing as many fouls as usual when he drove to the basket.
“When we got to the line, we didn’t miss,” Musselman said. “That’s our game. They did a good job, I guess, on verticality.”
Even with more free throws, though, it is hard to figure Arkansas would have won.
“I’ll be shocked if Duke is not national champions in a week,” Musselman said.
“Arkansas plays outstanding defense,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who set an NCAA record for most Final Four appearances by a coach with 13, breaking former UCLA coach John Wooden’s 12. “At the start of the game, they knocked us back. We responded pretty well.”
And with that, the SEC exited the NCAA Tournament without reaching the Final Four for the second straight year. Of the six teams invited, five exited the first weekend. Amazingly, though, SEC teams had a 7-4 record against the teams that reached the Elite Eight, and some of those weren’t even close.
No. 2 seed Kentucky, which lost in the first round to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in overtime, 85-79, blew out North Carolina, 98-69, on Dec. 18 in the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas and won at No. 1 seed Kansas, 80-62, on Jan. 29.
No. 3 seed Tennessee made it to the second round before losing, 76-68, to No. 11 seed Michigan. But the Vols have a lopsided, 89-72 win over No. 8 seed North Carolina on Nov. 21 in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament in Uncasville, Connecticut. Tennessee also beat No. 1 seed Arizona, 77-73, on Dec. 22 at home.
No. 6 seed Alabama, which lost in the first round to Notre Dame, shredded No. 10 seed Miami, 96-64, on Nov 28 in the ESPN Events International tournament in Orlando, Florida. The Tide also beat overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga, 91-82, in Seattle on Dec. 4 and beat No. 5 seed Houston, 83-82, on Dec. 11 in Tuscaloosa.
“Playing against those great bigs in the SEC just prepared us,” Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams said after the Razorbacks defeated No. 1 seed Gonzaga on Thursday night. “We saw a lot of the same things they did during SEC.”
But not enough for Duke.
“As soon as we get out of here, I’m going to start working on next year,” Musselman said. “That’s a definite.”