OPINION | WOODY BASSETT: Musselman, Hogs earn Arkansas' way back into the national discussion

Hogs basketball earns way back into national discussion

The atmosphere was electric. The energy was palpable. Intensity and excitement coursed through the building. Organized pandemonium reigned.

The table was set. It was Arkansas vs. top-ranked Auburn in Bud Walton Arena, the kind of matchup and opportunity Razorback basketball fans had been yearning to witness in Fayetteville for a long time.

When at its best, there is no better basketball forum in America than Bud Walton Arena. And the crowd was at its very best the night the Razorbacks took on Auburn. Most stood the whole game. It was ear-splitting loud from start to finish, the decibel level reaching astonishing heights at times.

It was "crazy." It was "nuts." And it was all good. Bud Walton hadn't been that alive since the mid-1990s.

Following the game, Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman raved about the crowd: "You can go to college basketball games all over the country. You can go for the next 50 years. There's not going to be a crowd better than that."

It was a real showcase for Arkansas basketball and all that it has to offer. It was the most-viewed regular season men's college basketball game on ESPN2 since 2018, with the audience peaking during the overtime period where viewers were treated to quite a spectacle as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

Prior to this year's Auburn game, there had been 57 games played in Bud Walton with a crowd of more than 20,000 people but all but two of those were in the 1990s. Now there are 58. The 20,327 fans packed into the building for the Auburn game made it the largest crowd in the history of the arena.

Two years of enduring a pandemic and far more years than that waiting for another signature win on our home floor made beating the No. 1 team in the country especially sweet. Some called it an "epic" victory. But no matter what words one chooses to describe it, the win over Auburn on Feb. 8, 2022, and the unbelievable atmosphere in which the game was played will be permanently etched into the collective memory of Razorback fans.

It's rarely warranted for the fans of a home team to storm a football field or a basketball court, even after a monumental victory. Yet, in the space of five months it has happened twice in Fayetteville and both times it felt entirely warranted.

The September win over Texas in football and the February win over Auburn in basketball cast the Razorbacks and their fans in a positive light on national television, garnering the sort of recognition and respect no amount of money can buy. In both instances, it was college sports at their best and no better script could have been written for the Razorbacks and their rabid fans.

For Razorback basketball fans my age, the scintillating win over Auburn evoked warm memories of successful seasons and legendary games long ago under Coaches Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson. And younger generations of Razorback fans finally got a strong dose of what it feels like when an Arkansas basketball game in Bud Walton Arena captures the attention and envy of basketball fans nationwide. Most of the students and others who flooded the court to celebrate when the Auburn game ended weren't even born when Richardson's team won the 1994 national championship and won more games from 1990 to 1996 than any other college basketball program in the country.

After too many years of mediocrity, the Arkansas basketball program has regained its swagger, not just talking the talk but actually walking the walk. Last season's outstanding record and exhilarating run to the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament brought the program back to life more quickly than anyone could have reasonably expected. This year's Razorback team continues to get better, seemingly peaking at just the right time.

We have the right coach, one who has already proven our basketball program will reach its full potential each year under his helm. Eric Musselman has Arkansas basketball back where it belongs -- highly competitive, unquestionably relevant and firmly planted in the national conversation. Pride and tradition have been restored. With a full house of some of the most loyal and passionate college basketball fans in America, the aura of Bud Walton Arena has been brought back to life.

There's no doubt the Razorbacks will be a major force in college basketball in the years ahead, often in the hunt for championships. Many Arkansas basketball fans fondly remember what that was like back in the day. Now it's time to create some new Razorback basketball memories, more of the kind that last a lifetime.

Get ready. Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU will come to Bud Walton soon. And get ready for Arkansas baseball, too, which opens its season on Friday.

It's a great time to be a Razorback fan.

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