The Arkansas Razorbacks had very little time to celebrate their 95-93 overtime Saturday victory over the Tennessee Volunteers. The Razorbacks are back in action at 8 p.m. Tuesday against Mississippi State in Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss., in an SEC Network-televised game.
The victory got the Hogs over the hump as far as Associated Press poll voters are concerned. The Hogs (11-2) entered the poll for the first time this season at No. 22 with Tennessee (9-3) remaining in the poll at No. 23. The Razorbacks also bolted from No. 14 to No. 4 in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index.
However, rankings, indexes, and other accolades must fall by the wayside as the Razorbacks prepare to get over the Hump, as in Humphrey Coliseum.
The Bulldogs (12-1) have been notoriously hard for the Razorbacks to beat on the road or at home. MSU is 11-0 in home games this year, and the Bulldogs would love to knock the Hogs right off their Top 25 pedestal.
#22 Arkansas at Mississippi
Date: Tuesday, Jan. 2
Time: 8 p.m.
Location: Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville
Television: SEC Network
The Razorbacks played fairly well on the road last season with a 6-3 mark, losing at Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri. However, this year’s Hogs stunk it up in their only true road game of the year, falling 91-65 at Houston.
The Razorbacks have the capability of being a good road team this year with six seniors who should know the road ropes. They also have been a very good shooting team, hitting 50.6 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from the three-point line.
The Razorbacks are also holding opponents to 42 percent shooting from the field and 33.8 percent shooting from three-point range.
That kind of shooting and defense should travel well for the Razorbacks, but for Arkansas to be a truly solid road team this year, they need better scoring balance from their roll players than it got Saturday against the Vols.
Senior stars Daryl Macon with 33 and Jaylen Barford with 28 put on a show to lead the Hogs past the Vols, but the Razorbacks needed every bit of the heroics that their dynamic duo could muster to get past Tennessee and their outstanding defense that reduced Arkansas’ motion offense into a one-on-one showcase.
The Razorbacks had just nine assists over the course of 45 minutes, showing that while the Hogs wee good enough to score off individual effort, their offense did not function efficiently as it should.
In fact, the Razorbacks were down by 9 points with three and half minutes to play. It’s amazing they were able to force overtime and survive for a victory.
They did it with defense. Back to back stops and a steal by Barford saved the Razorbacks’ bacon. They will need that type of effort to survive the rigors of SEC road play.
As marvelous and exciting of an experience as that game was with 18,000 Hog fans igniting a fire under their team, the Razorbacks are going to have to play better team basketball.
When Arkansas was at their best in December, Trey Thompson, Adrio Bailey, and C.J. Jones found ways to contribute. It’s just two games, but Jones’ shot has been icy since returning from Christmas. He went 2 for 12 from the field and 1 for 8 from the three-point line in the last two games. Bailey’s stat line against Tennessee was almost nonexistent. Thompson contributed just 2 points and just one rebound against the Vols.
The Razorbacks need more out of all three players to be at their best in conference play. Everything came together for the Hogs to pull out a win against the Vols in the final minutes of the game, but better team play through the first 37 minutes would have reduced the need for late-game heroics.
But a win is a win, and winning any way you can will be vital in the SEC this year. The league is better than last year, which means winning on the road will be tougher.
The Razorbacks could be a better team than they were a year ago, but not be as successful on the road because the rest of the league has also improved.
Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland has recruited well and has built a big, rangy, and athletic squad that will give the Razorbacks problems if they are not at their best.
“They were a young basketball team last year and came in here and really played well against us,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “They shot the ball well, rebounded the ball well. They were a much more physical basketball team than we were, and now you can add on being a year older.
“They play a lot of guys. They’re defending, they’re scoring. They’re playing with a lot of confidence. So it’s going to be a tremendous challenge, but it’s a great opportunity for us to go out and see if we can play a lot better than we did the last time we went on the road.”
The Bulldogs have a two-game winning streak over the Razorbacks, including last year’s 84-78 win at Walton Arena. The Razorbacks hope to return the favor by upending the Bulldogs on their home court.
A victory for the Razorbacks would extend their winning streak to seven games heading into their second road trip of the week at Auburn.
Another thing to watch for against the Bulldogs is the play of freshman Daniel Gafford. His 15-point, 8-rebound, and 5-block performance was pivotal against the Vols. For the first time this season, Arkansas actually looked to work the ball inside to him, and Gafford responded.
The Vols played Gafford head up with man defense. With the way he played against Tennessee, Gafford should expect to be double teamed. How well he passes out of the doubles will be a key for the Hogs.
If he can find the open man, it would only make the Razorbacks’ offense that much more potent.
The Razorbacks have played well this season, but they should improve as Gafford improves, but continuing to play together, sharing the ball, and building on their defense is a must.