If Arkansas fans didn’t think Missouri was a rival prior to the 2016-1017 athletic season, that assessment might be changing.
Hog fans may never admit that the Tigers are “on their level” as a sports program, but if mediocre to bad Missouri squads keep upsetting the Razorbacks, some animosity against the Tigers has to begin building? Right?
In football, the Tigers ruined any opportunity of Arkansas fans viewing the 2016 season as a success by erasing a 17-point Razorback halftime lead and defeating the Hogs, 28-24, on the day after Thanksgiving in their regular-season finale.
It was a brutal blow that denied Bret Bielema’s Hogs any chance of deeming 2016 a successful season. The loss cast a chill over bowl preparations. The Hogs blew another big lead in the Belk Bowl to Virginia Tech and finished the season a mediocre 7-6. The record itself doesn’t look as bad as the way the squad folded its tent in its final two games.
Some fans felt the Razorback basketball team evened the score a bit when the Hogs blew out the Tigers, 92-73, on Jan. 14, but honestly a win in basketball doesn’t make up for an embarrassing football loss and vice versa.
However, that win just set up a big kick in the pants when the Razorbacks visited Missouri on Saturday. The Tigers had lost 13 games in a row, not winning since Dec. 5, but they shot lights out against the Razorbacks and posted an 83-78 victory over Mike Anderson’s haphazard Hogs.
The Tigers played well, fueled by a day that celebrated the courage of 6-year-old Rhyan Loos, who is battling cancer. Rhyan is the daughter of Missouri assistant Brad Loos, and half the proceeds from each ticket sold for last Saturday’s game went to the Rally for Rhyan Campaign that benefits pediatric cancer research.
While the Razorbacks may have viewed it as just another game, the Tigers laid their hearts on the line for Rhyan with their best performances in two months if not the whole season. The Razorbacks were no match for the Tigers on that day.
You can credit Missouri for that, but in actuality had the Razorbacks had played a little bit better, they could have won. Missouri did win the game, but the Razorbacks played a big role in beating themselves.
Honestly, the same could be said about the Hogs’ football loss to Missouri. Fans, coaches and players can downplay the series all they want, but if Missouri wasn’t a rival before this athletic year, the Tigers ought to be now.
If the Hogs don’t make the NCAA Tournament this season, it may be exaggerating to say it will be because of Saturday’s loss to Missouri, but the stink of that loss isn’t going to go away no matter how much perfume the Hogs spray on it. It’s going to haunt the Razorbacks right through NCAA Selection Day, if the Razorbacks remain a bubble team until then.
As the NCAA Selection Committee sizes up at-large teams for the field of 65, the loss is going to be in the back of each member’s mind. If it doesn’t keep the Hogs out of the tournament, then it will affect their seeding.
With eight games remaining, the Hogs are at a crossroads. Right now they are stuck in a basketball purgatory. They’ve not played well enough to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament or the NIT for that matter, but they haven’t played poorly enough to be totally disqualified.
At 17-6 and 6-4 in SEC play, Arkansas has a couple of bad losses and no truly signature victories. The Razorbacks are the absolute definition of a bubble team. Over the next eight regular-season games, the Razorbacks will either play their way into the NCAA Tournament or out of it.
The past two weeks, the Razorbacks have split their four games. If the Hogs continue on that path, Anderson and UA athletics director Jeff Long will have to decide if it’s worth playing in the NIT or not. Yes, the Hogs could still win the SEC Tournament for the league’s automatic bid, but that would be an extreme long shot.
I don’t know what the magic number for the Razorbacks is. It could be 5-3 particularly if one of the wins were over South Carolina or Florida, which the Hogs visit respectively on Feb. 15 and March 1. But 6-2 seems like a much safer ratio.
Can the Hogs go 6-2 in their final eight games?
That’s a tough question. I think they are talented enough to do so, but being honest, I don’t think they play well enough as a team to do it. The sum of Arkansas’ parts is greater than the team is as a whole.
The Razorbacks rely too much on one-on-one play offensively. It’s like one of several players takes his turn doing his thing while his teammates watch or wait for their opportunity.
There is so much dribbling at the top of the key that the offense just stagnates. Every one of them wants to be “The Man” but none are willing to subjugate their game to help the team win. Unfortunately I don’t really see that changing this late in the season. It’s difficult to change habits.
Defensively, the Hogs are capable of wreaking havoc with their pressure, but they tend to have lapses where they allow too many open shots and too many offensive rebounds.
That said the Razorbacks have played well enough to be 17-6 and in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid. They have the potential to play much better than they have up to this point in the season.
I just question whether they have the head, heart, and desire to play together well enough to accomplish that task.
If Anderson and his staff are able to coach this bunch into the NCAA Tournament, it will be a terrific accomplishment. For that to happen something is going to have to click mentally for the players to begin thinking team instead of me.