Every game is big at this point in the college basketball season.
A win gets you closer to where every team eventually wants to be — the NCAA Tournament — while every loss backs them up a bit further.
However, with 10 games left in the regular season, every squad has a limited amount of games that can truly advance their status.
The Arkansas Razorbacks have one of those two opportunities tonight when they host the 11th-ranked Auburn Tigers (19-2, 6-2 SEC) at 6 p.m. in Bud Walton Arena.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. Auburn
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4
Where: Fayetteville, AR
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 16-5 (SEC 4-4)
Feb. 8 – at Missouri
Feb. 11 – at Tennessee
Feb. 15 – Mississippi State
Feb. 18 – at Florida
Feb. 22 – Missouri
Feb. 26 – Tennessee
Feb. 29 – at Georgia
March 4 – LSU
March 7 – at Texas A&M
Thanks to a fantastic start in December, the Razorbacks (16-5, 4-4) remain in position for a NCAA Tournament bid in mid March. The Hogs have 10 regular-season games left, and the guarantee of at least one more in the SEC Tournament, starting March 11 in Nashville.
Again every one of those games are important. No one loss would greatly diminish Arkansas’ chances of dancing in March, but tonight’s contest along with the Hogs’ final home game of the season against league-leading LSU (17-4, 8-0) on March 4 are the two true opportunities left on the Razorbacks’ regular-season schedule to elevate their standing in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee.
While the Razorbacks have other tough games against teams currently ahead or just behind them in the league rankings, Auburn and LSU are their only opportunities to play squads currently ahead of them in the NCAA Net Rankings.
After beating Alabama, 82-78, on the road last Saturday, the Hogs are ranked 34 in the NCAA Net Rankings, which values road victories and margin of victory. The Net Rankings are one tool the selection committee can use to separate otherwise equal-looking teams when extending bids and in seeding the NCAA Tournament.
Currently ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Hogs as a ninth seed in his mock NCAA bracket, while NCAA.com’s Andy Katz has the Razorbacks as a 10th seed.
At the moment the only SEC teams ranked ahead of the Razorbacks in the Net Rankings are Auburn at No. 19, LSU at No. 21, and Kentucky at No. 27. So, beating those teams are the only way the Hogs are going to make much headway in the Net Rankings, although every game counts.
The Net Rankings, of course, aren’t the end all and be all of making it into the Big Dance. It’s just a component that is reflective of what the selection committee finds important.
Honestly, upsetting Auburn tonight, particularly hot off the Tigers’ 75-66 defeat of Kentucky last Saturday, would probably do more for the Razorbacks’ national perception than it will for Arkansas’ Net Rankings. It would be a victory that signals the Razorbacks are a dangerous team no matter the opponent.
Though LSU leads the SEC race by two games, Auburn is generally considered the most productive team in the SEC, hence their No. 11 ranking. Now, we all know that in their heart of hearts most still feel that No. 15 Kentucky (16-5, 6-2) is still the best team in the league or the one with the most potential. Years of success is hard to trump in the perception game.
Even now with LSU at 8-0, the Tigers have been slow to receive the national respect that their production in conference play deserves.
As for the Razorbacks, the Hogs are perceived as middle of the pack in the SEC, which is exactly what their results in conference play says. In fact, Arkansas’ perception might be a bit inflated because of how well they played in November or December.
However, the further we get into the season the less and less meaningful those victories are. Truly what the Razorbacks do over the next 10 games is going to determine if they are in the NCAA Tournament or NIT in March or on spring break.
Right now the Razorbacks’ victories at Alabama (No. 41 NCAA Net), at Indiana (No. 52 NCAA Net), and over Tulsa (No. 60 NCAA Net) are Arkansas’ best wins. That’s not bad, but it would help the Razorbacks quite a bit to be able to nail a Tiger pelt to their trophy wall.
A victory over Auburn tonight wold be the perfect close out to the first half of Arkansas’ SEC slate.
Easier said than done. The Tigers are a very good, mature basketball team that has a ton of experience and confidence with four senior starters that are veterans of last year’s Final Four run.
They are long, heavy and surprisingly physical with a balanced scoring attack. Their starters all average between 9.6 and 15.1 points per game and with all of them averaging at least four rebounds a game. Guard Samir Doughty averages 15.1 ppg. and 6-11 senior center Austin Wiley leads the Tigers in rebounding with 9.2 boards per game.
The Tigers shoot 44 percent from the field, 31 percent from the 3-point line, and 67.4 percent from the free-throw stripe. All solid numbers except for the three-throw shooting, but their overall balance and experience makes them a very tough team to beat.
It’s certainly an advantage for the Razorbacks to play Auburn at home, but as outstanding of an environment as Walton Arena can be, don’t expect such an experienced team coached by Bruce Pearl to get rattled by crowd noise. In fact, successful, experienced teams tend to thrive on it.
One aspect of the Razorbacks’ play that is becoming a bit worrisome as we move through the season is their dependence upon junior Mason Jones, who is having one of the truly great individual seasons in Razorback basketball history if he can keep it up.
Jones, who picked up his third SEC Player of the Week honor Monday, sharing it with Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry, is leading the Razorbacks in points (19.8), rebounds (6.4), assists (3.2), and steals (1.7) per game.
Not to say that senior Jimmy Whitt (15.4 points and 4.9 rebounds) and Isaiah Joe (16 points and 4.3 rebounds) aren’t also vital to the Razorbacks’ efforts, but as the season has moved along, more and more of Arkansas’ offense has run through Jones’ hands. Razorback coach Eric Musselman confessed Monday that was not the plan at any point in the preseason, but rather it’s what has developed and worked and more importantly what Jones has earned from his play on the court.
One thing to keep in mind is that Musselman isn’t a one-trick pony as a coach, and the Hogs have other capable players. We saw that last Saturday in a crucial Razorback victory at Alabama.
Most of the season, Whitt has gotten his points without the Razorbacks running plays for him, but against the Crimson Tide in the final seven minutes of the game, the Razorback effectively executed isolation plays for Whitt off the pick and roll, which allowed him to gut the Crimson Tide for 26 points along with Jones’ 30.
Joe, who is having trouble with a sore knee, did not score in the game, but sophomore Reggie Chaney pitched in 8 key points along with his 11 rebounds and senior Jalen Harris added 11 points, including the game-tilting 3-pointer and two key free throws when the Hogs took control.
A cagey coach like Pearl and an experienced bunch of Tigers will have some sort of defensive plan for Jones. It will be interesting to see what it is and whether Jones’ Razorback teammates will be to support him if Auburn can clamp down on his game.
Musselman said this is a game where senior Adrio Bailey, who just played 5:35 against Alabama, could really help the Razorbacks with his defensive presence and the energy he brings when he is at his best. The Hogs have missed that in recent games.
For Auburn, tonight is just another night on the road in the SEC, but for Arkansas, it’s one of their few remaining opportunities to make a big splash on the national basketball scene before postseason.
A Razorback upset would be a signature win for Musselman in his first-year at Arkansas, and it’s the type of victory the Hogs’ need to get that much closer to locking up their first-season goal of an NCAA Tournament bid.