YOU HAVE TO WONDER what has been guiding the Arkansas Razorbacks this year. Why the Fates have taken their side. Who's their fortune teller. Whether they've entered into a contract with the devil. Who paid off the officials.
Arkansas is playing for its second national championship tonight against UCLA in a game that probably never should have happened. Something strange is at work here.It isn't as though Arkansas doesn't have the players or the coaching to get to the final game. The Razorbacks won it all last year, hands down. But getting back this year has been like bungee jumping. They've been up, down, looked death in the face at every turn - and lived to tell.
While some teams love to win with room to spare, the Hogs thrive on stress. Their favorite game is Russian roulette. They wouldn't feel right if the crowd wasn't on its feet and wringing its hands and preparing for a visit to the cardiologist. They wouldn't know what to do if they weren't checking the clock and keeping track of timeouts and generally living on the brink of disaster.
If they get ahead of the Bruins early in tonight's championship game, don't be surprised if they pull back so things become close. They may get disoriented if they go into the final minute without the outcome in doubt.
For a team that won the national championship a year ago, the Razorbacks have been strangely vulnerable much of this season. They opened the year by getting wiped out by Massachusetts in the Tipoff Classic by 24 points. Over the course of the season, they also lost to Mississippi, Auburn, Alabama, Mississippi State and Kentucky.
Getting to the Final Four of the conference tournament wasn't even certain, much less the NCAA Tournament.
Through it all, though, there was never any doubt about their abilities. They had the same people back that won the title a year ago. All they had to do was go out and play it again, Nolan.
Curiously, they didn't. They halted and faltered and generally looked like a team on the verge of collapse. They beat lightly regarded Vanderbilt in overtime in the first game and by a single point in the second. They shaded a nothing Georgia team by two.
Despite the strange journey, the Razorbacks are in the Kingdome on the day of the championship game, looking rather smug. Like Indiana Jones, they have the overpowering feeling that they're going to pull off the mission, whatever the odds. They did it against Texas Southern in a one-point win on the opening night of the NCAA Tournament. They did it against Syracuse when Lawrence Moten called a time out when there were none left. They did it against Memphis in overtime after a controversial call put the Hogs at the free throw line at the end of regulation.
All totaled, they're 10-1 in games decided by three or fewer points. They're 3-1 in overtimes.
Just why the Razorbacks enjoy such near death experiences is anyone's guess. "In the closing moments of the game, if it's close, we still feel we are going to win," said Arkansas center Corliss "Big Nasty" Williamson. "The way we look at it is if we're down by six with two seconds left, the other team will probably get a technical and we're going to end up winning."
The coach couldn't have said it better himself.
"You know that with 12 seconds or 30 seconds on the clock, and you're five down, and you are saying, `We still can win,' that is great. And that is what our kids are saying," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. "That has got to be the greatest feeling of all, that, even though you think it's over, or the fans or whoever is watching the game, and those five that are there - and there are seven on the bench, and the coaching staff - and you're still saying the fat lady hasn't sung yet. She is humming loud, but she hasn't sung. I think that is a great feeling."
Given the Razorbacks' current mode, it's no wonder they're inviting themselves out for a curtain call. "Like I said, they shouldn't have let us get in the Final Four," said Williamson, " 'cause once we got here, we're gonna win the whole thing."
So if tonight's game comes down to the final screaming seconds and the outcome is in doubt, you can turn off your television set and go to bed. It's a done deal. They may not be ahead and they may be not looking good. But they'll have the Bruins right where they want them.