What a difference a month can make.
On Jan. 17, the Arkansas Razorbacks (17-5, 9-4 SEC) stood humbled with a 2-4 SEC record coming off back-to-back loss of 92-76 to LSU and 90-59 to Alabama.
Things were looking rough for the Razorbacks in the second season of Eric Musselman’s regime as the head Hog.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Texas A&M
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20
Where: College Station, TX
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 17-5
Feb. 24 – Alabama (8 p.m. ESPN2/U)
Feb. 27 – LSU (1 p.m. ESPN/2)
March 2 – at South Carolina (5:30 p.m. SEC Network)
His Razorbacks looked like mild Hogs instead of wild Hogs. Thoughts of a return to the NCAA Tournament were in question, and some were beginning to wonder if Musselman’s formula of building a program through recruiting freshmen mixed in with grad-transfers and traditional transfers was a viable plan in the SEC or not.
Of course, his Hogs were reeling against a tremendously tough schedule that saw them on the road four of their first seven conference games against four teams that are currently in the hunt for NCAA berths — the aforementioned Alabama and LSU as well as Missouri and Tennessee.
Each of those squads boasted battle-tested lineups against a Razorback team that was truly still feeling its way around a near complete overhaul of talent. Not to mention the Hogs’ most experienced big man Justin Smith missed four of those games with an ankle injury that hasn’t fully healed yet.
Little did we know that the Razorbacks would emerge from that crucible toughened and even more determined to be the team they knew they could be, and to prove their doubters wrong.
The last month has been transformative for the Hogs and their varied array of talent. The Razorbacks are on a seven-game SEC winning streak with their only loss during the span being an 81-77 heartbreaker to Oklahoma State at Stillwater on Jan. 30.
The Razorbacks have had an incredible week and a half, gritting out three tough wins — two on the road — that makes them one of the hottest teams in college basketball and has them firmly in the mix for a return to the NCAA Tournament.
Beating the likes of Kentucky, then 10th-ranked Missouri, and Florida in succession is something we’ve rarely seen from the Razorbacks since halcyon days of the early to mid 1990s when the Hogs’ program stood toe-to-toe with any in college basketball.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this team isn’t of the caliber of the Mayberry-Day-Miller Hogs of the late 1980s and early 1990s or of the Williamson-Thurman-Beck Hogs who made back-to-back Final Fours and won it all in 1994.
However, the goal isn’t to match those teams, but rather be the best team this collection of Hogs can be, and Musselman’s Razorbacks are gelling at just the right time.
It’s impressive to blow opponents out, and for a while, it looked like the Hogs might just do that to the Gators when Arkansas’ halftime lead of 10 expanded to 15 early in the second half.
However, good teams, — and Mike White’s Florida squad is solid — always make a run. Florida’s came late when the Gators took a 63-62 lead around the four-minute mark on a driving basket by Jacksonville, Ark. native Tyree Appleby, who used to play pick-up ball with fellow Jacksonville native and Arkansas freshman guard Devo Davis in high school.
At that moment, it looked like the Hogs might fritter the game away, but the Razorbacks turned the tables on the Gators and dominated the final moments of the matchup. Arkansas made play after play in the final two minutes to post a 75-64 victory to keep their hot streak alive.
A Florida turnover led to fast-break basket by Davis with just over 3 minutes to play, and the Hogs never looked back, dominating the final two minutes defensively and sealing the victory.
“I think the big thing was … we did a really good job of locking in defensively,” Musselman said. “Being a little more disciplined, being solid.”
The Razorbacks forced three turnovers in the final 1:27 of the game which led to an 8-0 run to polish off the Gators. Arkansas also held Florida to no field goals on 0-of-6 shooting following Appleby’s basket.
The Gators came into the game shooting an SEC-leading 47.7 percent from the field, but managed to shoot just 37.7 percent against the Razorbacks.
What stands out about the Razorbacks’ play is the improvement individual players are making, but more importantly how well they are syncing together as a team, particularly on the defensive end.
Against Kentucky and Missouri, the Razorbacks clogged up the interior to gang rebound, almost daring the Wildcats and Tigers to shoot 3-pointers. However, against the Gators, the Razorbacks attempted to challenge every three-pointer.
It’s impressive to see the Razorbacks execute two entirely different defensive plans so well over the course of three games. Musselman has to be proud of his team and coaching staff. That kind of versatility is going to benefit Arkansas in tournament play.
Since the loss to Oklahoma State, we’ve seen Jalen Tate exert himself and his leadership role as the Hogs’ point guard. When the Hogs gather for quick meetings on the floor, he seems to have everyone’s ear. Tate had 14 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in the game, and the better he plays, the better the Hogs play.
Likewise, the healthier Smith has gotten better the more he has played since coming back. The 6-7 athletic forward has a smooth and powerful game that not only allows him to score in a variety of ways but also sets the table for his teammates. Smith had 15 points and 6 rebounds for the Hogs with a game-high 4 assists. The last week and a half, he’s performed like an All-SEC player.
Moses Moody had another of his quiet 14-point, 5-rebound, and 2-assist games. The freshman is as smooth and strong from his wing spot as he has been all season. He is a model of consistency. Even though he shot just 3-of-14 from the field, he still managed to impact the game going 6-of-7 from the line and playing strong defense. He’s very mature for a freshmen.
As for Davis, he is a roiling bundle of energy with panther-like quickness, which aids him on both ends of the floor. He led the Razorbacks in scoring with 18 points, while grabbing 5 rebounds and passing out 3 assists. His hustle and determination has drawn comparisons to the great Sidney Moncrief, the two-time All-American who starred for the Hogs from 1976-79. That’s literally the highest praise a Razorback player can receive.
The Razorbacks are also getting consistent, high-end work from the duo of 7-3 sophomore Connor Vanover and 6-10 freshman Jaylin Williams. Their play complements each other. Vanover scored 8 and had 3 rebounds. Williams grabbed 10 rebounds in just 23 minutes on the floor, and did a solid job of frustrating Florida big man Colin Castleton at key moments in the game.
Now the Razorbacks take their seven-game winning streak on the road to Texas A&M (8-7, 2-6) for a 7:30 p.m. Saturday meeting with the Aggies.
Then the Hogs return home for a two-game stand against the league-leading Crimson Tide on Feb. 24 and LSU on Feb. 27.
As big as those two games are for seeding in the SEC and NCAA tournaments and possibly for a measure of revenge for those two ugly early season losses, the Razorbacks must keep their minds on the Aggies for the moment.
Win that game first, and then get ready for the biggest week of college basketball on the UA campus since the Hogs beat No. 4 Oklahoma on Dec. 30 and No. 7 Texas on Jan. 6 in the 2008-09 season.
But, taking care of the Aggies on Saturday has to come first.