A Team Of Destiny From the beginning, these Hogs gave every indication that they were a breed apart

April 19, 1994

JUDGING BY the pace at which Bud Walton Arena went up, it seemed
as if Nolan Richardson himself was wearing a hard hat and commanding
the crew. Groundbreaking commenced on Oct. 23, 1991. Two years and 28
days of hell later, the ribbon for the Hogs' 19,200-seat hoops palace
was cut.
''Build a bigger Barnhill,'' school officials had instructed the
architects, which was the officials' way of asking for something just
as intimate and intimidating as the old arena. That the new stadium
was completed in the nick of time for this season was propitious,
because the demand for seats had been rising every year as
Richardson's teams got better and better. Now some 10,000 more fans
per home game would have a chance to call the Hogs. As for the
players, they would say over and over they were ''on a mission'' to
win the NCAA championship. Walton Arena would be Mission Control.
Even before the Nov. 29 opening blastoff against Murray State,
Arkansas was shaping up as -- it can be said now -- a team of
destiny, much like Indiana in 1986-87, when Hoosiers was in movie
theaters and the best-seller about Indiana basketball, A Season on
the Brink, was on bookshelves. That season coach Bob , Knight's team
wound up in New Orleans celebrating a last-second shot to win the
national championship. The Razorbacks had a similar profile, though
their ties were less to media creations than to media sensations. Bud
Walton, the brother of the late Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame and
fortune, picked up the tab for almost half the $32 million
state-of-the-art arena. Moreover, with President Clinton, formerly of
Little Rock, watching Hawgball in the White House whenever he could,
the national spotlight would fall on the Razorbacks whether they
stumbled or soared.
The Hogs would sell out every one of their 16 home games,
attracting 322,146 fans to the Bud Bowl, as it quickly came to be
known. That total surpassed by some 40,000 the turnout for Arkansas's
six home football games last fall. The fans at Bud Walton sat perched
over the floor, with the highest midcourt seat being closer to the
floor than it had been at Barnhill. What they experienced was a
cauldron of noise not even the architects had meant to create.
Originally, the arena's seating capacity was supposed to be 16,000;
when it was increased by 3,200 seats, the designers chose not to
elevate the ceiling. Consequently, the low-slung lid trapped sound
and gave the place a, shall we say, boisterous feel.
Indeed, at times the squealing partisans seemed to literally raise
the roof. That was especially true during the Hogs' many feeding
frenzies; when their traps caused steals that led to dunks, the pace
became harried and three- pointer after three-pointer rained down to
compound the pressure. The Razorbacks set the tone right off the bat
against Murray State, a team coached by one of Richardson's former
assistants, Scott Edgar. The Racers lost 93-67 and were on the blank
side of a 13-0 roll that took place in a 3:39 eye blink. You had to
hear it to believe it. (Odd, isn't it, that of the Walton brothers,
Bud was the quiet one?) ''If Barnhill noise is a 10,'' guard Clint
McDaniel would say, ''this is about a 20.''
The Hogs, however, saved their most ear-splitting, roof-rattling
performance for their ''dedication game'' on Dec. 2, a nationally
televised meeting with Missouri for which Bud Walton himself was on
hand. In this case Arkansas's patented run began with the tip-off and
didn't end until the final buzzer. The Hogs handed the eventual Big
Eight champs their worst defeat in school history. In the 120-68
blowout, the Razorbacks drilled 16 three-pointers in 25 attempts and
forced 27 turnovers. ''We were hoping to send a message that the
spirit of Barnhill is still alive,'' said Richardson, ''that it's
just in another building.''
Missouri coach Norm Stewart, who had gone 1-0 as a player and 5-0
as a coach in the old building, lamented a few missed chip shots
that, in his mind at least, might have made a difference in the early
going. ''If we make those six layups at least we go in at the half
with something to talk about instead of just fighting over the
oranges,'' said Stewart.
On Dec. 6, two days after guard Alex Dillard had become the
arena's first legend by pouring in 16 points in 1:53 during the
Razorbacks' 111-76 rout of Northwestern State, Arkansas jumped to No.
1 in the nation in the Associated Press poll. It was the first time
the Hogs had achieved that status since February 1978, when the
Razorbacks had spent their one and only week in the top spot in the
71-year history of Arkansas basketball. ''Now that we're ranked No.
1, we want to see how long we can hold it,'' said forward Corliss
Williamson. ''We want to keep it for a long time.''
Swingman Scotty Thurman demurred, keeping his eyes on the prize
that was up for grabs in April. ''We want to be No. 1 at the end of
the year,'' said Thurman.
While the Razorbacks had outscored their first five opponents by
an average of 37.6 points a game, the dubious level of the
competition (other than Missouri) undermined the significance of that
figure. Still, the lopsided verdicts allowed Richardson to use his
bench liberally. From top to bottom his troops had a chance to gain
confidence and find their roles. Besides, said guard Corey Beck, the
other Top 20 teams could wait: ''At the end of the season, we can
deal with them then.'' Delaware State coach Jeff Jones, whose Hornets
were scorched 123-66 on Dec. 11, believed that the Hogs would do just
that. ''If they keep playing together like this, they're going to be
unstoppable,'' Jones said. ''I hope to see them in Charlotte when
they win it all.''
Arkansas's hold on the No. 1 ranking might never have been
loosened had the Hogs not suffered a rash of early injuries. After
they came up short in more ways than one against North Carolina in
last year's East Regional final, Richardson decided to bolster his
somewhat puny front line. So he brought in two 6 ft. 11 in. freshmen,
Lee Wilson and Darnell (Tank) Robinson. In mid- December, however,
Wilson went down with a knee injury that would sideline him for four
games. Then, while Wilson was still out, Robinson was lost for seven
games with a broken foot. The Razorbacks' first game without the twin
towers was on Dec. 23 in Tulsa, Richardson's previous outpost. Dwight
Stewart, who started at center, fouled out with 16:52 to play, and
only a gutty defensive effort and a baseline hook by Williamson with
three seconds remaining in overtime salvaged a 93-91 victory.
It had been rumored that President Clinton would be on hand to see
the dedication against Missouri. Instead, he attended his first game
at Bud Walton Arena on Dec. 28. Fog in Fayetteville that evening
forced his flight to be diverted to Rogers, and the 25-mile drive
delayed his arrival by 45 minutes. By then, only about four minutes
remained in the first half, and the Razorbacks already led Texas
Southern 45-16 en route to a 129-63 win. The President enjoyed the
show, which included a school-record 20 three-pointers, but he had
seen it many times in the past. ''I've been watching this team and
I've been keeping up with them -- they're unbelievable,'' said
Clinton. ''Every time they are on ESPN, I watch them. I'm trying to
figure out if there is some way to pick them up on satellite.''
Following the game, the Hogs posed for individual snapshots with
the President. ''Sometimes celebrities say they're big fans, but
they're really not,'' said Beck. ''But he knew something about us. He
knew something about the good games most of us have had. He had a
conversation with us.''
Arkansas was starting to make a habit of KO'ing opponents with
breathtaking spurts, like the 20-zip, five-minute tattoo they put on
Ole Miss in an 87-61 win on Jan. 5. ''They live off their runs,''
said Rebel coach Rob Evans. ''They scored 16 or 20 points in a
blaze.'' The Mississippi victory made the red-hot Hogs 10-0, and they
appeared to be on one gigantic roll.
However, with Robinson on the shelf, Richardson also knew they
were vulnerable. ''It's not the same team I had a month ago,'' he
said after the Ole Miss game. ''If we had that same team, we'd be
dangerous.''
On Jan. 8, away from the friendly confines of the Bud Bowl, the
banged-up Hogs were finally bloodied. Alabama, which had missed 37 of
39 three-point attempts in its two previous games, found the range
and stunned the Razorbacks 66-64 in Tuscaloosa. Despite a 16-5 run by
the Razorbacks at the start of the second half that put them ahead
48-41, the Crimson Tide fought back, and when the game was on the
line, it was the Hogs who missed the key shots.
% McDaniel clanged a wide-open three with 15 seconds left, and
Stewart botched a follow-up layup and a tip-in. ''He will live with
that missed layup until the end of the year,'' Richardson said. Beck
believed all the attention from the No. 1 ranking and the First Fan
may have been too much to handle. ''We needed this to get our heads
out of the clouds,'' he said. The defeat dropped Arkansas to No. 4 in
the AP poll.
Once grounded, the Razorbacks would take a while to get going
again. Three of their next five games were decided by one point. Two
missed shots by LSU in the final 10 seconds saved the Hogs' bacon in
an 84-83 win, the only game at Walton Arena that would be less than a
double-digit win for the Hogs. After whipping Auburn 117-105 in
Fayetteville, Arkansas traveled to Mississippi State as a rusty
Robinson returned to the lineup. But the Hogs weren't at full
strength for long. With seven minutes left in the game, McDaniel
dislocated his right shoulder; he would miss three games.
While LSU had flinched in the clutch, the Bulldogs didn't.
Mississippi State's T.J. Honore nailed two crucial free throws and
Dillard misfired on a 22-footer at the buzzer. The 72-71 upset
prompted questions about the Hogs' mental toughness in close games.
Most of those questions were answered by Thurman on Jan. 29 in
Knoxville. With 9.3 seconds remaining and the Razorbacks trailing
Tennessee, the worst team in the SEC, by two points, he drained a
three that forged a 65-64 win. Thurman had struggled from the floor,
going 2 of 9 and threeless in three tries, but he eagerly stepped up
to take what would prove to be the biggest shot of the regular
season. Beck had no doubt it was going in. ''When I threw Scotty the
ball,'' he said, ''it was an assist in my book.''
By Feb. 9 the Hogs were 17-2 and No. 2 in the land, but they had
yet to play a ranked team. That changed when they went to Lexington
to face No. 4 Kentucky, which had reeled off 33 straight victories
in Rupp Arena, the second-longest home streak in the nation. The
Wildcats stormed to a 39-24 lead before 24,326 yowling supporters. At
that point, as the teams headed to their respective benches for a
timeout, forward Rodrick Rhodes gave Beck an earful. Referee Jim Burr
deemed Rhodes's yapping worthy of a technical. Thurman converted the
ensuing free throws, and then Davor Rimac and Stewart both drained
three-pointers. With those eight unanswered points in a 67-second
span, the Hogs seized the momentum and went into intermission
trailing by only ! six points. ''We talk trash to each other in
practice,'' Williamson said after the game, ''but we're not going to
let anybody else talk trash and get away with it.''
In the second half Arkansas completed a 23-point turnaround and
went on to prevail 90-82. The home loss was only the second for
Kentucky coach Rick Pitino in the conference since his arrival in
Lexington in 1989. The first one had come two years ago against the
Hogs. ''My congratulations to Arkansas,'' Pitino said. ''They've done
this to us twice in a row. They've been the superior basketball team
twice in a row.''
Not that Pitino found his team's performance palatable. ''It's a
farce,'' he said. ''I feel like throwing up.''
With a 99-87 defeat of No. 20 Florida in their next game, the
Razorbacks regained the AP's top spot. ''It's like a
merry-go-round,'' Richardson said. ''You buy enough tickets and you
get on. We bought enough tickets again.'' All told, the Hogs would
spend nine weeks at No. 1, more than any other team.
Over the final three weeks of the regular season, the Hogs got to
tidy up some old business. First they avenged their loss to Alabama
with a 102-81 thrashing of the Crimson Tide at Walton. Four games
later they visited Baton Rouge, where they seized victory from LSU
instead of having it handed to them. Dillard canned a three with 10
ticks left to send the game into OT, and then Thurman came through
with a 25-footer to secure the 108-105 win. For the regular-season
finale on March 5, Mississippi State came to Fayetteville. With
Williamson leading the way with 27 points, the Razorbacks exacted a
sweet payback for their earlier loss to the Bulldogs, routing them
80-62.
The season-ending numbers spoke volumes: 24 wins, two defeats,
91.9 points per game and an average victory margin of 22.3 points.
Truly, the Hogs had made Bud Walton Arena feel like the ol' home
inferno. But there was still more groundbreaking to be done.

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