National media still clueless about the Arkansas basketball program and its fanbase

Feb 24, 2024; Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks cheerleaders perform during a timeout
Feb 24, 2024; Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks cheerleaders perform during a timeout / Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

For weeks, Arkansas fans have witnessed one national pundit after another flabbergasted that John Calipari could leave the titan that is Kentucky for little ol’ Arkansas. On social media, Big Blue Nation has nearly lost their collective minds, going as far as spamming any post containing the words: Arkansas, Razorbacks, Hogs, or John Calipari.

Part of the reason people can’t fathom Coach Calipari’s decision is their ignorance of the Arkansas basketball program. While researching stats for potential transfer targets, I found this piece by Mike Gambill of Busting Brackets. Here’s how he characterizes Arkansas’ basketball program and its fanbase:

"However, the University of Arkansas is not the University of Kentucky, where basketball is on a religious level of belief and expectations. In fact, Arkansas fans are probably more versed on football and baseball than they are on basketball because quite frankly, Fayetteville, Arkansas certainly doesn't ring the same type of hoops mystique that a Lexington, Kentucky or a Chapel Hill, North Carolina type of town does. Enter John Calipari to change the scenery and help Razorback fans find their basketball voices come this fall.

With all due respect, I don’t think Arkansas fans need to “find their basketball voices.” They already have them.

Arkansas football is a staple in the Natural State, but since they left the Southwest Conference, the Hogs have been hit or miss. Making the move to the SEC came with growing pains. From 1992 to 1997, Arkansas was horrendous, with six losing seasons. The McFadden and Bobby Petrino years were electric, but they hit the lowest of lows when Chad Morris took the reins. Petrino’s return to the Hill is, without a doubt, creating a buzz around town, but compared John Calipari's hiring and the No. 2 ranked baseball team, football is third fiddle this time of the year.

Sure, Arkansas baseball has been wildly successful, but two things hold it back from being fans’ first choice. Baseball is a sport you either love or are indifferent toward. Arkansas has a large subsection of passionate Diamond Hogs fans, and to see that passion, there's no need to look further than Charlie Welch’s bomb against Nebraska in the 2021 Fayetteville Regional.

The problem is that other parts of the fanbase follow basketball and football but care significantly less about baseball. If you ask a baseball fan whether they follow basketball or football, you’ll most likely get a yes for both. However, if you flip the situation, baseball won’t receive the same love. It’s just the nature of the sport.

On the other hand, fans have grown accustomed to the program's success, but it hasn’t reached the top. Fans are getting bored watching Arkansas dominate throughout the regular season just to get bounced in the NCAA tournament. Adding that hardware to the JB & Johnelle Hunt Family Baseball Development Center would certainly raise the hype around Fayetteville, but until then, basketball is king.

Arkansas Basketball History

The biggest gripe Arkansas fans hear is that the program hasn’t been consistently successful in 30 years. Therefore, it isn't relevant. Well, the first part of the argument is entirely correct. But as you'll see later, that works in Arkansas' favor.

Since Nolan Richardson was relieved of his duties in 2002, Arkansas basketball is 431-291 (.597), making the tournament nine times and the second weekend four times, and that’s counting Eric Musselman’s years. However, taking away the last 30 years, Arkansas is 1368-723 (.654).

For all-time, the Razorbacks are 1799-1014 (.640). Of last season’s Division I teams that have been DI since at least 2000, the Razorbacks are ranked No. 21 in all-time winning percentage, No. 17 in NCAA Tournament appearances, and No. 14 in Final Fours. So despite the 30-year drought, Arkansas still ranks above the vast majority of programs.

Sure, the Hogs have only one title and one runner-up, but only 36 of the 314 teams on the list have a trophy, and 21 have only one. Of those 21 teams, Arkansas has the fourth-highest winning percentage, besting programs like Marquette, Michigan, Maryland, Georgetown, Virginia, and Ohio State. The Razorbacks are also fourth in both Tournament appearances and Final Fours.

All of that is good enough to be a Top 25 basketball program of all time, according to College Basketball Report and CBS Sports.

Coach John Calipari might be a Hall of Fame coach, but let’s not act like he’s the first to lead the Hogs. One of them is a coach Kentucky fans should know well. Eddie Sutton Coached Arkansas between 1974 and 1985 before he left for the Bluegrass State. In that time, Sutton led Arkansas to eight straight NCAA appearances, including four Sweet Sixteens, two Elite Eights, and a Final Four. He finished his career at Arkansas with a record of 260-75 (.776).

There’s also the famed Nolan Richardson. He led the Razorbacks to a National Championship, a National Champion runner-up, three Final Fours, four Elite Eights, six Sweet Sixteens, and 15 postseason appearances in a row.

Recent Arkansas basketball history

Mike Anderson helped to right the ship after Arkansas’ 30-year hiatus, making the tournament three times in eight years. Unfortunately, Anderson stalled out and never made it passed the first weekend. However, he still deserves recognition for bringing the program out of the darkness that were Stan Heath and John Pelphrey regimes.

Now enters Eric Musselman. Coach Musselman brought life and excitement to the program. He led the Razorbacks to the most success they’ve seen in three decades. In his first season at Arkansas, his team finished with a record of 20-12 and was a win or two in the SEC Tournament from making the big dance. Unfortunately, the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arkansas then made three straight appearances with three Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights. In those tournaments, the Hogs knocked off No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga and No. 1 seed Kansas. In two of those appearances, Arkansas lost to the eventual National Champions.

The trips to the tournament were great, but Musselman’s real legacy is the heights in which he pushed the Arkansas basketball brand. During his five years in the Natural State, Musselman recruited nine of Arkansas’ top 25 all-time recruits. The list includes three McDonald’s All-Americans, four One-and-dones, and the program’s No. 1 overall recruit, Nick Smith.

The fanbase

So, now that we’ve talked about why Arkansas fans favor basketball, let’s talk about how they can go toe-to-toe with any fanbase in the nation.

Firstly, Bud Walton Area is one of the best venues in College basketball. It’s massive, officially seating 19,200 fans. But the attendance record for BWA is 20,344 last fall against Duke, and the following 14 records are all over 20,200. For three straight seasons, every one of those seats was sold out before the season even started.

If that’s not enough, here’s some big national analyst talking about Arkansas fans and Bud Walton Arena.

Also, here’s a montage of some of the best crowd reactions. (Yes, some are away, but that’s because Razorback fans travel well)

This post isn’t trying to say Arkansas basketball, or its fanbase is bigger/better than Kentucky and BBN. They are one of a kind and deserve the respect. The point is, Arkansas might not ring the same type of hoops mystique that a Lexington, Kentucky does, but it’s a borderline second-tier program with a top-tier fanbase. It’s just been dormant for 30 years.

Mike gave it a pulse, Muss woke it up, and now Cal’s ready to take over the college basketball world with this once sleeping giant.