Column: As Kentucky Wildcats, John Calipari shows, 'Final Four or Bust' is dangerous mindset for Arkansas Razorbacks
basketball Edit

Column: As Calipari shows, 'Final Four or Bust' is dangerous mindset

Expectations for Arkansas' basketball team are higher than ever in Fayetteville.
Expectations for Arkansas' basketball team are higher than ever in Fayetteville. (Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

NOT A SUBSCRIBER? SIGN UP TODAY FOR ACCESS TO ALL OF HAWGBEAT'S PREMIUM CONTENT AND FEATURES

College students, get a year of HawgBeat coverage for just $11.95! Request details via email from your school account (.edu) to andrewhutchinson413 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Arkansas fans have plenty of reasons to be excited for next year’s basketball team.

Coming off consecutive Elite Eight appearances, the Razorbacks signed the second-ranked recruiting class nationally and added five quality transfers through the portal. The recent successes on and off the court naturally come with increased expectations, but fans should still be reasonable.

Let me just air this out there right now: Having a “championship or bust” -- or even a “Final Four or bust” -- mindset is dangerous.

On the micro scale, it sets individual fans up for failure any time a team loses in the regular season or if the team fails to match that goal in the postseason.

On a larger scale, if a fanbase as a whole adopts that mindset, they put themselves in a position never to be satisfied. Regular-season success is dismissed if it doesn’t come with a deep tournament run, deep tournament runs are no longer good enough if they aren’t deep enough, and anything less than a championship or a Final Four is pointless.

It’s dangerous and, quite frankly, irrational. This is not to say that fans and coaching staffs shouldn’t compete to win it all every single year, but there is a major difference between competing to win it all and having some heavy burden on a team and coaching staff’s shoulders where if they don’t reach a certain level — no matter how successful they were — it was not good enough.

One quote that embodies this mindset perfectly to me came from women’s basketball head coach Mike Neighbors:

“If we live up to our standards and our commitments match up to where we think we ought to go… I’m not about to put a ceiling on this team. I think sometimes that’s what goals and things can do, you know. If you start saying, ‘Oh I think we can go to the Sweet 16.’ Well then what happens if you go to the Elite Eight? What happens if you get to the Final Four? They (the players) think they’ve already reached their goal. Not about to put a ceiling on this team.”

Kentucky is coming off back-to-back seasons in which it missed the NCAA Tournament and got bounced in the first round by a 15-seed. Kentucky fans have been vocal on social media about their displeasure, rightfully so, but there is even a chunk of fans arguing that John Calipari should be fired.

The Kentucky basketball program is one of the biggest brands in sports and has certain standards and expectations that ultimately come with it. Kentucky was a 2-seed and had a remarkable regular season, getting as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll and winning 26 games with the national player of the year. None of that mattered, though, because of the first round loss.

It was bad, sure, and a loss Kentucky faithful shouldn’t swallow easily, but those losses happen — not often, but they do happen. Duke lost to Lehigh in the first round in 2012 as a 2-seed. Virginia became the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed in 2018 when it lost to UMBC.

Kentucky fans’ argument would be that Virginia won the title the next year and that was just a couple years removed from Duke winning it all. Meanwhile for the Wildcats, the 2020 tournament was canceled, they didn’t make it in 2021, and were one-and-done in 2022.

Before that, the program had six consecutive tournament appearances that included a national championship appearance, a Final Four, two Elite Eights and a Sweet 16.

Making a run in March is predicated on so many different things outside of talent, and to avoid this turning into a Kentucky piece, I’ll just say that Kentucky is crazy as a fanbase for wanting to fire Calipari, but it is a perfect example of what having such high expectations will do to a program that still experiences regular high-level success.

Talking about Arkansas specifically, the roster that Eric Musselman and his staff have assembled is one of the most talented to ever come through Fayetteville — on paper. Older fans may argue the early 1990s teams with Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, Oliver Miller and others are still more talented (and rightfully should be until this current squad proves it on the court), but the point remains that this roster is immensely talented.

The numbers speak for themselves. The No. 2 overall recruiting class, three McDonald’s All-Americans and three other Rivals150 signees, a key player on two Elite Eight teams, and a transfer class widely considered one of the best nationally. From top to bottom, the roster has talent and depth Fayetteville hasn’t seen in decades.

“With all that talent, why shouldn’t they be expected to win it all or at least make the Final Four?”

Multiple reasons...

1. Tournament runs are freaking difficult, no matter how talented your team is.

If the “best” team won every single championship, March Madness wouldn’t be a thing. There wouldn’t be hundreds of thousands of people filling out brackets hoping to have the first one perfect through two rounds, let alone the whole tournament.

This past season, the Final Four included just one 1-seed. The other teams were an 8-seed and two 2-seeds. The year before that, there were two 1-seeds, a 2-seed and an 11-seed. That pattern is fairly indicative of the Final Four makeup every year. Very rarely are there more than two 1-seeds left standing that late, and the final two spots are a wildcard many times.

Tournament success is a crapshoot no matter what name is across your jersey. Every year, a “favorite” to win it all gets knocked out early due to an unfavorable matchup, catching a hot team at the wrong time, having an off night themselves or any other factors.

2. The core of the team is very, very young.

Having three McDonald’s All-Americans on a team is fantastic for a multitude of reasons. It brings a lot of exposure, the players themselves are extremely talented and are upgrades to a roster, more likely than not it will increase a program’s NBA footprint, etc.

But these players are still young. No matter how talented they are, they haven’t played college basketball yet. They don’t have that experience and many times get only that one year of college to get it. That means their first time in the NCAA Tournament is likely their only one.

This can be mitigated by building around these young, talented players with experience. That’s something Musselman was at the forefront of college basketball with — signing top freshmen and adding transfers around them to aid in their development and make up for their lack of experience. Yet again, Musselman did that with this roster, but the focal point of the team will still most definitely be on the trio of five-stars in the backcourt.

The ball will be in their hands a majority of the time for the whole season, including March. Handling the ball so much throughout the regular season and in the gauntlet of the SEC schedule should help some, but it’s not quite the same as having experienced guard play over multiple years and tournament appearances.

I’m not suggesting that signing top freshmen and starting them is a flawed process — quite the opposite, actually — it just makes their postseason performances potentially unpredictable. The lights are bright in March and not all freshmen are built the same.

Additionally, regardless of how much postseason success this team has, having two or more one-and-done first-round picks in the NBA Draft would be immensely impactful for the program — for the brand, in recruiting, in the program’s NBA footprint, perception among casual fans across the country and even rising high school prospects.

3. Whether they make it that deep or not, having such lofty expectations is dangerous

Ultimately, my main point is number three. Expectations, especially from a fan base, if too lofty, can be detrimental more than anything. There’s a difference between fans knowing/expecting the team to be good generally, but specifying that level of success sets everyone up for failure and disappointment.

In Year 2 under Musselman, after the Razorbacks closed the regular season on a strong winning streak, fans were largely hopeful of making the team’s first Sweet 16 in 25 years. They did just that, and then won another game to get to the Elite Eight.

There were no self-imposed expectations that year. In a new coach’s second season, the team surpassed any and all expectations in the regular season and earned a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament and made it further than many young fans had seen in their lifetime.

The very next year, this past season, fans’ expectations were also somewhat tempered after drawing a 4-seed and a matchup with No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. Fans were hopeful, and even somewhat expectant, it seemed, of at least making the Sweet 16 again because of the favorable seeding, but the Razorbacks, yet again, surpassed the expectations of many and knocked off the Bulldogs to get back to the Elite Eight.

Now, doing that two years in a row and bringing in the most talented roster in recent memory certainly drives fans crazy in the best way imaginable, but most of those players aren’t even on campus yet. The team hasn’t built chemistry or camaraderie.

I can understand the excitement, and with a team that’s so marketable and a coach that embraces that marketability in the social media age, there is never a shortage of reasons to think ahead to the upcoming season — photo dumps of top-ranked freshmen in their Razorback jerseys, highlight clips of the freshmen, signing top transfers, those transfers being ranked by multiple outlets covering the portal, interviews, and on and on. It is never ending.

A program that used to say “next year is the year” every single year now looks ahead to next year knowing a team will be good rather than hoping.

But just because there is a great deal of excitement doesn’t mean there should be such high expectations imposed in the early stages of the offseason. All these high expectations do is put a (rather high) ceiling on the amount of success the team can achieve. Anything less is unacceptable.

Arkansas finished second and fourth in the SEC in back-to-back years before the Elite Eights even happened. That tied the number of top-four conference finishes the Razorbacks had since the SEC did away with divisions in 2011-12.

They reached the top 10 in the AP poll in each of the last two years, something the program had not done since 1993-94 and 1994-95. On top of that, they finished ranked in the AP poll in back-to-back years for the first time since 1997-98 and 1998-99.

The past two seasons have seen the rebirth of Razorback basketball with regular-season success that was reminiscent of the ‘80s and ‘90s. With that rebirth, along with the notoriety of the program, the re-establishment of the Razorback brand, one of the best recruiting classes in program history and postseason success, fans have come to expect an extremely high level of success.

Arkansas is a historic program with great success and diehard fans. Those fans have been starved for success after falling off the face of the Earth in the college basketball world following Nolan Richardson’s departure.

These fans crave winning more than anything else, and they’ve gotten a lot of it with Musselman. His approval rating amongst Hog fans is probably as close to 100% as you can get, and I’d be willing to bet that was the case with Calipari at some point, considering he was given a lifetime contract at Kentucky.

Not three years after signing that deal, though, the fan base has turned on him. He had another great season before everything was wiped out by the pandemic, but has since had a down year and an early exit from the tournament. Fans are now citing his lack of success from 2015-19 — a stretch, as stated previously, that included two Elite Eights.

Arkansas is not the same program as Kentucky. The case could be made that Arkansas is currently a better program than Kentucky, or at least trending in that direction, but as a brand and historically speaking, they aren’t close. Calipari has won a national championship, made it to another and been to four Final Fours at Kentucky, yet still has a growing crowd of detractors.

The self-imposed expectations of making the Final Four every single year is in part to blame for this. Seeing Arkansas fans leaning that way after experiencing legitimate levels of success for the first time in almost three decades, and over a span of four head coaches, is a dangerous path.

Setting those expectations without even making a Final Four yet just sets the standard for fans to grow frustrated if/when it doesn’t happen.

**JOIN THE CONVERSATION WITH ARKANSAS FANS ON THE TOUGH, HAWGBEAT'S PREMIUM MESSAGE BOARD**