Senior guard Jalen Tate / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
The Arkansas Razorbacks reach the midpoint of their SEC schedule Wednesday when they play host to Ole Miss at 7:30 p.m. at Bud Walton Arena, and the outcome of the game will decide if the Hogs (12-4, 4-4 SEC) are above or below .500 in league play.
At this juncture, no one game is going to determine Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament fate, but Wednesday’s game is an opportunity the Hogs can’t afford to slip away.
They need to build on their two-game SEC winning streak, which started last week in their come-from-behind win over Auburn and their blowout last Saturday of Vanderbilt at Nashville.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. Ole Miss
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 12-4
Next four games
Jan. 30 – at Oklahoma State (3 p.m. ESPN/2)
Feb. 2 – Mississippi State (8 p.m. SEC Network)
Feb. 6 – Texas A&M (5 p.m. SEC Network)
Feb. 9 – at Kentucky (6 p.m. ESPN/2)
Those are the only consecutive games the Hogs have won in SEC play this season. Adding a third league win over the Rebels, and one could actually say the Razorbacks are on a roll.
That’s good news after a tenuous start in SEC play against arguably the toughest league schedule through six games in which the Razorbacks only managed to go 2-4.
Of course, that schedule sent the Razorbacks on the road for trips to No. 18 Tennessee (10-3, 4-3), LSU (10-4, 5-3), and No. 9 Alabama (13-3, 8-0).
The Razorbacks also stumbled at home to a veteran, 12th-ranked Missouri squad (10-2, 4-2), while grad transfer Justin Smith was out after ankle surgery.
Smith’s return didn’t help the Hogs much in their blowout loss at Alabama, but he’s played better and better since in victories over Auburn and Vanderbilt.
Tough and smart, Smith anchors the Razorbacks’ inside efforts on both ends of the floor, providing a dozen points a game without having to run plays for him. He’s sturdy on the defensive glass, but is one of the best offensive rebounders in the college game, averaging just over seven boards an outing.
Smith also lends a bit of consistency to the Hogs’ roster which has been up and down in conference games. Smith scored 12 points and added 7 rebounds and 2 assists against Vandy.
His fellow grad transfer Jalen Tate is coming off his best game of his Razorback career at Vanderbilt. The willowy Tate is a cagey defender who always draws the Hogs’ toughest back-court assignment. He held Vanderbilt’s Scottie Pippen Jr. 7 points under his 21-point average last Saturday, while having his best offensive game to date with 25 points.
Tate had perhaps the most impressive stat line of the season for the Hogs, contributing 8 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals. Tate canned 3 of 5 treys in the game, while also doing damage pulling up in the paint for several baskets.
Smith and Tate have to continue to rise to the occasion for the Razorbacks if the Hogs are to have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament this season.
After struggling to score last Wednesday against Auburn, freshman Moses Moody got back on track offensively at Vanderbilt, scoring 25 against the Commodores. Moody also led the Hogs in rebounding with 8 and collected 2 assists.
Desi Sills, who led the Hogs in scoring against Auburn with 22 last Wednesday, contributed 7 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds against Vandy.
The Vandy victory should have been a confidence-builder for the Hogs; however, the Commodores are the worst team in the SEC by a long shot. Kermit Davis’ Ole Miss squad won’t be as accommodating even if the game is on the Hogs’ home floor.
In terms of defensive efficiency, the Rebels are much closer to teams like Tennessee and Alabama than they are Vanderbilt.
The Hogs better tighten up the laces on their sneakers and cinch up their shorts for a much tougher basketball game against the Rebels (8-6, 3-4), who like the Hogs have won back-to-back SEC games with victories over Mississippi State and Texas A&M last week.
The Razorbacks can take nothing for granted against the Rebels, who would like to extend their winning streak by tripping the Hogs up on their home floor.
The Ole Miss game is the first of three home SEC games in a row for the Hogs, who step out of league play Saturday to face Oklahoma State in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in Stillwater, Okla.
It will be tough for the Hogs to corral the Cowboys at home, making Wednesday’s Ole Miss game that much bigger. Regardless of what happens Saturday, a victory over Ole Miss Wednesday positions the Razorbacks to stack a few more SEC wins together when Mississippi visits Walton Arena Feb. 2 and Texas A&M on Feb. 6.
Then the Razorbacks will have to strap it on for the month of February which sees them visit Kentucky and Missouri and play to host Florida, Alabama and LSU in their final seven league games. That would be a tough row to hoe for any SEC team.
The light at the end of the tunnel for the Razorbacks is that this team still has the chance to improve under head coach Eric Musselman’s guidance. The Hogs have played well at times this season, but it still doesn’t feel like they have put it all together yet.
That might be a good thing because teams that do well in the NCAA Tournament usually don’t really start humming until the last three or four weeks of the regular season.
I’d like to say it looks like the Razorbacks are beginning to put it all together, but Auburn and Vandy aren’t exactly good measuring sticks for a NCAA Tournament-type team.
Even if the Hogs do defeat Ole Miss at home Wednesday, I’m not sure what that will say about the team.
It would be a solid victory, but just one of many needed the rest of the season for the Razorbacks to position themselves for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2017.