SAN FRANCISCO – The tests keep getting tougher for Gonzaga as it advances deeper in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.

The top-seeded Zags take on No. 4 Arkansas on Thursday. GU edged No. 9 Memphis while Arkansas held off No. 12 New Mexico State to reach the Sweet 16. The Razorbacks should provide a stern challenge with their athleticism, speed and impressive defense.

We called on Bob Holt, who has covered the Razorbacks’ program since the 1981-82 season for the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, for a closer look at this year’s team. Holt covered the Razorbacks’ 1994 national-championship team.

Spokesman-Review: It seems like it’s been two distinct seasons for the Razorbacks. They were 10-5 (0-3 SEC) after a Jan. 8 setback to Texas A&M, their fifth loss in six games. At that point, they dropped to No. 93 in the NET rankings. They’ve won 17 of their last 20 to rise to reach the Sweet 16 and No. 20 in the NET. What led to the turnaround?

BH: After the rough start, coach Eric Musselman made some lineup changes and went bigger and more physical, starting 6-foot-2 point guard JD Notae with two 6-6 wings – Stanley Umude and Au’Diese Toney – along with 6-6 forward Trey Wade and 6-10 big man Jaylin Williams, with 6-4 guard Davonte “Devo” Davis becoming the sixth man. Kamani Johnson, a 6-7 forward, and Chris Lykes, a 5-7 guard, also have been part of the rotation in most games.

The Razorbacks made a stronger commitment to defense and really took advantage of their length to force teams into taking tough shots. As the wins started coming, the players’ confidence grew and team chemistry developed for a squad with seven newcomers.


S-R: The Razorbacks attempt a lot of free throws and don’t seem to rely on three-pointers as much as some teams. They also limit opponents to 41.2% shooting. How would you describe Arkansas’ offensive and defensive philosophies?

BH: On offense, the Razorbacks want to get downhill and get to the basket and either finish or draw fouls. Last time I checked, they led the nation in free throws made and attempted. They hit 42 of 50 free throws in beating Vermont and New Mexico State in their two NCAA tournament wins.

Arkansas plays strictly man-to-man defense under Musselman, and the Razorbacks want to use their length and strength to force teams into bad shots and force turnovers that lead to transition baskets. Toney is their best perimeter defender, and moving him to covering guards has really made a difference. He’s Arkansas’ lockdown guy.

S-R: Please pick out two key players on the roster and describe why they are so important to the Razorbacks’ success.

BH: Notae and Williams were both All-SEC picks by the coaches and media. They both made the coaches’ eight-player first team. Notae made the AP’s five-man first team and Williams made the five-man second team.

Notae has a scoring mentality. He can take some ill-advised shots at times, but he usually finds a way to score on drives and getting to the free-throw line if his jumper isn’t falling. Against New Mexico State, Notae got in foul trouble in the first half and didn’t score, then had 17 points in the second half. He’s a good playmaker who had 30 points and eight assists against Kentucky. He’s much improved as a defender and had eight steals against New Mexico State.


Williams has 14 double-doubles this season. He’s always been a good passer and rebounder. Since the early part of this season, he’s become much more aggressive on offense and looked to shoot more. He has good range and is good around the basket. Perhaps most impressively, Williams has drawn 50 charges, which helped him land on the SEC All-Defensive team.

S-R: What are the biggest factors from Arkansas’ perspective against Gonzaga?

BH: Notae needs to stay out of foul trouble, which has been an issue for him at times this season, especially in recent games. He was called for four offensive fouls against New Mexico State and fouled out. Arkansas can’t afford for Notae to be out of the game Thursday night.

Dealing with Gonzaga’s size also figures to be a major challenge for Arkansas. Williams can’t guard both (Drew) Timme and (Chet) Holmgren. It will be interesting to see the Razorbacks’ defensive game plan.