An up and down season littered with losing streaks, injury heartbreak, and confusing inconsistencies, that was the regular season for Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks. From an outside perspective, nothing seemed remotely appetizing about what Arkansas brought to the table. That was especially the case when selection Sunday rolled around. Outside of an impressive, yet forgotten appearance in the Maui Invitational, recent results held more water. Faltering three straight games to end the regular season would be capped by a typical collapse in round three of the SEC Tournament in Nashville. The narrative was set.
Sliding into the big dance via the backdoor, the defeat of Illinois set up a game many had already written off. The number one seed and bulletproof Jayhawks were primed to put Arkansas’ season out of its misery. Doubts were being hurled from the television screens in support of the defending champs. Many to that point had sprung the popular suggestion that this Arkansas team didn’t have the ‘fight’ in it when compared to just the previous two years. The Justin Smith’s and Moses Moody’s of the world had since come and gone and weren’t coming back.
A team loaded with so much youth and roster turnover, it seemed like the most adequate reasoning. There were only two holdouts from the back-to-back Elite Eight appearances. Those two were Kamani Johnson and Davonte Davis. Down double digits to Kansas and in need of a March hero, eyes glanced at the five-star freshmen. Little did we know the heartbeat of Musselman’s squad was always right in front of our eyes.
The Story that Almost Wasn’t
Coming from the heart of Jacksonville, Arkansas, Devo Davis had watched the Razorbacks growing up. Destiny would suggest that it could only be time standing in the way from him and a jersey. It wasn’t that easy. Earning his way onto many coaches’ radars by his junior year, there was still one school not pulling enough strings. The lack of desire for Davis’ signature for whatever reason was mumbled, and ended up driving Devo elsewhere. As a newfound commitment to Oklahoma State, nearly a year passed as it felt as if Arkansas would let the soon-to-be four-star leave home. As fate would have it, the staff not as interested in Davis would find their way to the door.
Insert new head man Eric Musselman and things would begin to shift. The new head coach of the Razorbacks would get his say on the in-state athletes. Working behind closed doors on the loaded in-state crop of ball players, October 1st of 2019 would have Davis decommit from Oklahoma State. Arkansas was back in the race. Just eleven days down the road, Musselman gained the nod of approval and the commitment from a player that would not have been a Razorback without his arrival. What unfolded from that day combined with the present couldn’t have been scripted any better if they tried.
Putting the State on his Back
Fast-forward to the sixteen minute mark in the second half versus Kansas and the outlook was quite bleak. With the Jayhawks clinging to an eleven point lead, one man would turn the tide. Devo Davis knew it was time. The Razorbacks weren’t going to go down so easily. The Arkansas name he wanted to wear as a kid meant too much. Even playing most of the second half with four fouls, the path to a win was still on the table.
Starting his scoring run with a hard fought layup off a Kansas turnover, the chase was on. Physically chipping away at the lead the Jayhawks had built, it would take fourteen minutes and change before Davis finally tallied his final foul. While still playing his brand of impressive defense, that wasn’t the key factor. Finishing one point short of tying his career high in points and one point shy of completing a comeback, Devo would head to the bench with 25 points. Putting the entire team on his back for those fourteen long minutes, his energy had been expended. Leaving every last ounce of his being on the court, he would have to watch the fleeting minutes unfold from his foldable chair.
That wasn’t where the story just abruptly cuts off. Witnessing their teammate give his all in multiple games during the regular season and now arguably in the biggest game of their careers, it was time to respond accordingly. It was time to bring out the ‘fight’ that fans had been wanting to magnify. It was time to encompass the aura of being an Arkansas Razorback.
Ricky Council was the first to respond by disabling the emergency brake in his own mental fortitude. Hitting his trademark midrange jumper would tie the game just after Davis fouled out of the game. After Kamani Johnson put his offensive rebounding prowess on the head of a Jayhawk defender, Council began his takeover. His offensive aggression would lead to Kansas’ star Kevin McCullar fouling out in his own right and sent him pouting to the bench. Going one of two at the stripe, Council found the rebound on a miraculous tip and repeated what got him to the free throw line originally. Nailing the pair of freebies this time around, it would put the Hogs up three with 20 seconds on the clock.
With the Jayhawks cutting the lead back down to just one soon after, Ricky Council didn’t want the ball in anyone else’s hands but his own. Hitting a pair of free throws once again, it would come down to one last chance. With the premise of fouling late while up three taking hold, it would be Anthony Black granting his services. Fighting his way through the game in his own right, an earned blocking foul would send an already injured Black to the deck.
After Kansas’ Wilson failed to miss his second free throw intentionally, it was written. The final few seconds dripped off the clock and the deed had been completed. Every last bit of effort that could have been expended was graffitied all over the Des Moines court. In response to pure shock, the cameras could have solely focused on the shirtless Musselman leaping onto the scorer’s table. They took on a much greater purpose, however.
After his gutsiest performance yet, Devo stood by, drained, yet full of emotion. Fighting back the tears that be, he couldn’t hold them back for long.
“I put in a lot of work,” said Davis in tears. “This team [has] been struggling, but we figured it out.”
While conjuring up sobbing from Razorback fans around the globe, that moment certified Devo as one who will go down as an all-time great. Fighting against all the odds, all the controversy, all the roster movement, and all the external hate, he delivered when it mattered most.
The emotions continued to run, spilling into the locker room and eventual press conference. Musselman rather summed up the feelings that many fans couldn’t quite put into words when it came down to his post-game presser:
“Devo was absolutely incredible,” he said. “I feel like he’s my son. I love this kid so much.”
What’s Next for Devo?
That may be the best part about this story that began with a kid from Jacksonville. The story may not be over quite yet. With this season coming to an unwarranted close, it feels as if Devo has been in an Arkansas uniform for longer than three seasons. Fortunately, that’s exactly where he stands. Including his performance for the ages versus Kansas, Davis racked up the best stat line of his career thus far.
He averaged 10.9 points per game which included nine straight games (eight SEC) where he scored fifteen points or more. Davis also set a new career mark for three-point percentage. His scoring numbers were paired with 4.4 rebounds per game and 2.5 assists. Not to mention his own brand of defense that was constantly on full display.
All eyes will be pointed to the social media platforms searching for the first inkling of info that Devo will take on his senior year at Arkansas. While there could be newfound scout chatter, one should not feel the need to fret. The performance against Kansas should be the only announcement he has to make about where his heart stands. In that case, ‘Devo-ville’ might just need a secondary billboard planted in the heart of Fayetteville to show the gratitude for the one that proved he is the heart of Arkansas basketball.