EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Its supporters say Arkansas is just the kind of team that can give North Carolina fits -- quick, athletic, unpredictable.
But its detractors claim Arkansas is lucky to be here. That the Razorbacks don't have a leader, and don't have a chance against a rumbling Tar Heels juggernaut favored by many to win it all.
Coach Nolan Richardson understands the non-believers as the no-name Razorbacks prepare to take their "Forty Minutes of Hell" up against top-seeded North Carolina in the East Regional semifinals tonight at the Meadowlands. Three months ago, no one outside of Fayetteville expected Arkansas to be here.
"We're a 14-point underdog," Richardson said. "We ain't supposed to win, but a bumblebee ain't supposed to be able to fly, either. Somebody forgot to tell them we're not supposed to be here."
This year's over-achievers have helped alleviate some of the pain Richardson felt last season, when Arkansas lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Memphis State despite a lineup that included first-round NBA draft choices Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller. That group went to the Final Four as sophomores.
Richardson's outlook didn't improve last spring, when his top backcourt recruit, Dunbar's Michael Lloyd, headed to San Jacinto Junior College to get his academics in order. Injuries then stopped what Richardson thought were his top two recruits.
Corliss Williamson, a home-state legend, missed 13 of the first 14 games with a foot stress fracture. Junior college transfer Craig Tyson, a product of Baltimore's Southern High, never played because of leg injuries, underwent reconstructive knee surgery and then was arrested on drug charges last month.
So what happened? Arkansas, picked to finish no higher than third in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division, passed December tests at Arizona and Missouri and was 12-1 at the midway point. The Razorbacks slowed down, coming into the NCAAs with losses in two of their last three games, but they also delivered a whipping of Kentucky and an SEC divisional title.
Williamson, who was to the Class of 1992's prep forwards what Jason Kidd was to guards and Othella Harrington to centers, finally got healthy and is averaging 14.5 points and 5.3 rebounds. He isn't even the Razorbacks' most productive freshman forward, however.
That designation goes to Scotty Thurman (6-5, 190), who came in from Ruston, La., relatively unnoticed. He shot 1-for-8 in his first game, but went on to average 17.6 points and 4.5 rebounds to become the only freshman on the All-SEC team.
A couple of sophomore starters -- center Dwight Stewart (6-9, 270) and guard Corey Beck, were redshirted last year. The four new regulars were indoctrinated into Richardson's no-prisoners style by two seniors, forward Darrell Hawkins and guard Robert Shepherd, the only returning starter.
"We felt that with the addition of the new guys, if they worked hard, we could keep up the kind of basketball people are used to seeing from Arkansas," said Shepherd, who is 15 steals shy of Mayberry's single-season record. "We try to wear you down. We're just playing the kind of basketball that fits our personality."
Shepherd, who calls the numerous cuts and scrapes on his body "character marks," will be all over North Carolina point guard Derrick Phelps tonight, leading the Razorbacks' vaunted full-court pressure, but will that be enough?
North Carolina, which blasted its first two tournament opponents by 20 and 45 points, might just throw over Arkansas. The Razorbacks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the SEC, and Eric Montross could be in for a big night.