Photo: Steve Franz / LSUsports.net
After everyone had them buried last week for losing three of their last four games, the Arkansas Razorbacks showed signs of life Saturday night at Baton Rouge, La.
It might have taken a half of basketball for the Hogs to work the rigor mortis out of their game, but following a familiar script of falling behind by double digits and then scrambling their way to victory, Mike Anderson’s Arkansas squad defeated LSU, 78-70.
After a decidedly bleak two weeks in which Arkansas appeared to have fallen off the hardwood cliff, the win restores some hope as the Hogs move into the final three weeks of the regular season.
Depending on what NCAA Tournament expert you subscribe to, the Razorbacks are either just hanging on to a spot in the Big Dance, or they are just on the outside looking in.
Empirically the Razorbacks are 18-7 on the season and 7-5 in SEC play. They are tied with Alabama for fourth place.
Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina are in a three-way tie for first in front of them with 10-2 league records and 20-5 overall marks. Ole Miss and Tennessee are breathing down the Hogs and Crimson Tide’s neck with 6-6 league records.
Auburn, Mississippi State, Georgia, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt are two games back of the Razorbacks and Crimson Tide with 5-7 records.
In terms of seeding for the SEC Tournament, the Hogs have the head-to-head advantage over Alabama and Tennessee. That’s important for seeding purposes in the SEC Tournament should Arkansas tie with the Vols or Crimson Tide for fourth place in the conference. The top four seeds in the Tournament, which runs March 8-12 at Nashville, receive byes and will not play until Friday’s third round.
However, I’m not sure how significant that is for the Razorbacks. If the Hogs manage to finish fourth place in the SEC, they will likely have won enough to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
If Arkansas finishes lower than fourth, then the only likely avenue to an NCAA Tournament birth will be winning the tournament championship, which would be a Herculean task.
I’m as guilty as anyone, but I think Hog fans have put too much emphasis on whether this team makes the tournament or not. No doubt making the Big Dance is a key goal for every college basketball team. It is a watermark for a certain level of success in any given year.
With the Razorbacks having only made the tournament once in the previous five seasons under Anderson’s tenure as coach, it has seemed overwhelming important this years.
However, it dawned on me Saturday night that the goal and pressure of reaching the tournament had stolen a lot of the joy out of following this basketball team this season.
It certainly has for me. Even after the Razorbacks mounted their comeback Saturday night to win at Baton Rouge for the first time since 2008, I was frustrated. Yes, I was happy they won, but I was still frustrated by what I saw because I figured a similar performance against most teams in the SEC would have resulted in a loss.
Extrapolating that conclusion across the next six games put me in an irritable mood just before bedtime when I should have been content if not happy my team had actually won a game.
The second half of the LSU game should have been enjoyable for Hog fans as the Razorbacks bounced back from a 37 percent shooting performance in the first half to singe the nets for 53.8 percent in the second half.
Dusty Hannahs got hot, scoring 14 of his 17 points in the second half. Daryl Macon also bounced back with one of his better recent scoring performances to also score 17. Moses Kingsley only scored nine, but picked up two big inside baskets on a 10-0 run that helped erase LSU’s nine-point halftime advantage. Dustin Thomas also added 9 points and 9 rebounds in a solid effort.
However, as fans we’re too greedy to enjoy one game for its own merits. We’re always reaching and yearning for more. In many ways that’s part of what makes watching a team fun, but it’s also what makes being a fan so crushingly frustrating.
A big opportunity awaits Arkansas on Wednesday when they travel to Columbia to face Frank Martin’s South Carolina Gamecocks.
A victory over the No. 19 Gamecocks would be a signature win for the Razorbacks that their NCAA Tournament resume has been lacking. In and of itself a win over South Carolina wouldn’t make the Razorbacks’ season, but it would be a head-turning win as the stretch run in SEC play begins.
But beating South Carolina is easier said than done.
While the Gamecocks (20-5, 10-2) are tied in first place with Kentucky and Florida in the SEC, they aren’t receiving as much respect as the Wildcats or Gators nationally.
Overall the Gamecocks may not be as talented as Kentucky or Florida, but the measure of a good team is more than just its talent. Martin’s Gamecocks epitomize the word team. Each player knows his role and plays his part. They understand the game and they execute as a team. They also tend to punish teams for their mistakes, which is bad news for the Razorbacks, who have attempted to overcome sloppy play all season.
The Gamecocks play a tough but disciplined brand of basketball that dotes on lockdown defense and prudence on offense. The Gamecocks can be beaten, but they aren’t going to give it away like other SEC opponents. If the Hogs win Wednesday night, they will have earned it.
Senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, who made the top-30 cut for the Naismith Trophy watch list last week, leads the Gamecocks. He averages 20.4 points, 7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 2.3 steals a game. He is playing inspired basketball.
The Gamecocks are coming off a 77-73 road victory over Mississippi State, which beat the Hogs, 84-78, on Jan. 10.
For the Razorbacks to win Wednesday, they will have to play one of their best games of the season if not their best.
The SEC Network will televise the game at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.