Even though the Kentucky squad the Arkansas Razorbacks nipped by a point Tuesday in Rupp Arena isn’t a vintage Wildcat team, the victory was a hump Eric Musselman’s Hogs needed to get over if they have hopes of making an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Had the Hogs spit the bit and let the Kentucky game slip away Tuesday night when the Wildcats made a run and erased a 12-point lead, Arkansas not only would have absorbed a Quad 2 loss, according to the NCAA’s Net ratings, but also suffered a severe blow to their confidence.
However, the Hogs (15-5, 7-4 SEC) made all the plays they needed to walk out of Rupp Arena 81-80 victors, and that’s a sweet feeling few Razorback teams can boast. Arkansas had only won at Rupp three previous times (1992, 1994 and 2014).
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Missouri
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13
Where: Columbia, MO
Current Record: 15-5
Next four games
Feb. 16 – Florida (6 p.m. ESPN/2)
Feb. 20 – at Texas A&M (7:30 p.m. SEC Network)
Feb. 24 – Alabama (8 p.m. ESPN/U)
Feb. 27 – LSU (1 p.m. ESPN/2)
In fact, the Razorbacks had dropped eight straight to Kentucky (5-13, 4-7) since winning three games against the Wildcats in a row from March 2013 through the 2014 season.
The Wildcats took a 1-point lead on a Davion Mintz 3-pointer with 14 seconds on the clock.
Freshman Devo Davis missed a jumper in the paint for Arkansas, but Jalen Tate, who played his first three seasons of ball at nearby Northern Kentucky, knifed his slender body in to secure the rebound and draw the foul.
Tate sank both free throws to give the Hogs an 81-80 lead, and as Kentucky advanced up the court for a final shot, Davis flashed for a steal of a nonchalant pass to lock the game up tight. The victory gave the Hogs their fifth SEC victory in a row.
Tate led the Hogs with 15 points, adding 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal to his tally. Moses Moody had 14 points and 7 rebounds for the Hogs, while Connor Vanover contributed 12 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Jaylin Williams came off the bench for one of his best games with 9 points and 7 rebounds. JD Notate scored 11 with 2 assists, and Justin Smith contributed 9 points, 4 boards, 3 assists and 2 steals.
The Razorbacks played fine defense most of the night; however, packing it tight inside almost left an opening for Kentucky to escape with a win.
Musselman opted to allow Kentucky to get off some lightly contested 3-pointers to clamp down on the Wildcats’ inside play. Kentucky shot an uncharacteristic 44 percent from behind the arc, which allowed thems to claw back in the game.
Ultimately Musselman’s ploy worked, and he and his Hogs brought home another victory.
Now, the Hogs turn the page for the stretch run of the SEC race in solid shape, and playing well. The Razorbacks have six scheduled games left and possibly a make-up game against Texas A&M.
It’s a tough slate, starting at 3 p.m. Saturday when the Razorbacks travel to Columbia, Mo. to play the hard-nosed Missouri Tigers (13-3, 6-3). The No. 10 Tigers thumped the Hogs, 81-68, on Jan. 2 for Arkansas’ first loss of the season.
The Razorbacks played without grad-transfer forward Justin Smith, who had injured his ankle in the previous game at Auburn. Without Smith’s presence, the Hogs lost three of their next four games. Smith returned on Jan. 16 against Alabama, but the Crimson Tide still rolled to a 90-59 blowout.
Since then, though, the Hogs’ only loss was a nail-biter at Oklahoma State, 81-77. on Jan 30.
Following Saturday’s Missouri game, the Hogs host Florida (10-6, 6-4) on Feb. 16, before traveling to Texas A&M (8-7, 2-6) on Feb. 20.
The Razorbacks have a crucial two-game home stand next against No. 11 Alabama (16-5, 11-1) on Feb. 24 and LSU (11-6, 6-4) on Feb. 27. Every game is important, but both of those squads roughed up the Hogs prior to them going on their current five-game win streak.
Victories in either or both games would bolster the Razorbacks’ standing in the Net ratings and keep them in the running for a bye into the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament.
The Hogs’ final scheduled game is at South Carolina (5-8, 3-6) on March 2. It will be senior night, and South Carolina has always given the Razorbacks trouble on the road.
The assumption is that Arkansas’ postponed game with Texas A&M from last Saturday will be played at Walton Arena on the March 6 make-up date, but that will be decided later by the SEC.
If we set aside the A&M make-up game, the Razorbacks need to go 3-3 in their final six games to even have a chance to play their way into the NCAA Tournament via the SEC Tournament.
Obviously, anything better would only enhance their chances of making the Big Dance. If the Hogs go 4-2, my guess is that they would be in the NCAA Tournament with one win in the SEC Tournament. A 5-1 mark would probably lock up a bid. Should the Hogs go 6-0 over the next three weeks, they might be in the hunt for a sixth or even fifth seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s a lot of loose speculation. It truly is too early to think about NCAA seeding as far as the Hogs are concerned. However, it’s possible only because the Razorbacks held on for that one-point win over the Wildcats.
Had the Hogs lost to Kentucky, their post-season forecast would be as icy as the current weather forecast is for Northwest Arkansas.
The Kentucky win got the Hogs over the hump. It’s going to be interesting if not exciting to see what the Razorbacks can do over the next three weeks with a very challenging but opportunity-laden schedule.