Another No. 1 seed has been eliminated from the NCAA tournament, and this time it was the defending national champion.
Kansas, the top seed in the West region, blew a 12-point second-half lead and was shocked by Arkansas, 72-71, in a second-round matchup in Des Moines, Iowa. The Jayhawks, who were still without head coach Bill Self due to health reasons, were sent packing in the second round a year after winning it all and became the second No. 1 seed to fall, joining Purdue. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks will move on to the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season.
The Razorbacks, the West’s No. 8 seed, used an 11-0 second-half run to surge back into the game. After trailing 46-34 with 15:21 to play, a Jordan Walsh 3-pointer at the 8:55 mark gave Arkansas its first lead since the opening minutes. While Walsh’s shot was big, it was Davonte Davis who carried the Razorbacks down the stretch.
Davis, hampered with four fouls for much of the half, scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half, going blow for blow with the playmakers on the Kansas side. But when Davis fouled out with 1:56 to play, his teammates stepped up.
First, Ricky Council IV tied the game at 65 with a jumper and then Kamani Johnson put in the go-ahead putback off of an offensive rebound, his sixth of the game. And after Kansas tied it up, Council put Arkansas ahead for good at the line.
Council attacked the basket and was fouled with 24 seconds to play. He made the first free throw, putting his team ahead, 68-67. He missed the second, but Jordan Walsh careened in and got a hand on the loose ball to deflect it over to Council. Once the ball was back in his hands, Council saw an opening to the basket and attacked. He was fouled again. This time he made both, extending the Razorbacks’ lead to 70-67 with 21 seconds to go.
On the ensuing possession, Kansas cut the lead to 70-69 with two Jalen Wilson free throws. At that point, there were fewer than 10 seconds remaining. That put Kansas in foul mode. Council was up to the challenge and calmly sank two more free throws to make it 72-69.
Up three, Arkansas alertly fouled Kansas on the next possession to stop any chance of a tying 3-pointer. The strategy worked. Wilson sank the first and the second even as he tried to intentionally miss it.
From there, all it took was an inbounds pass for the Razorbacks to run the remaining time off the clock and seal a big time upset, 72-71.
While Davis led the way with 25 points, Council pitched in 21 of his own in an effort that included making 10 of his 11 free throws. Walsh’s effort off the bench was huge in sparking the comeback. He was the third Arkansas player in double figures with 10 points. Anthony Black and Nick Smith Jr., Arkansas’ two star freshmen, combined for only four points on 1-of-10 shooting. But it wouldn’t matter. The Razorbacks’ veterans led the team to victory.
It has been an up-and-down season for Arkansas after reaching the Elite Eight in 2021 and 2022. The Razorbacks have dealt with injuries and inconsistent play, but it looks like they are peaking at the right time as they will face either No. 4 seed UConn or No. 5 Saint Mary’s in the Sweet 16 in Las Vegas.
On the other side, Kansas becomes the second No. 1 seed to fall in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks won the Big 12 and earned a No. 1 seed despite having a much different roster than the one that won the national championship last year. This year, however, the Jayhawks unraveled after building a double-digit second half lead. And without Self directing traffic on the sideline, Kansas was unable to make the winning plays down the stretch and keep their dream of repeating as champions alive.