To Arkansas Razorback fans who are basking in the their Hogs’ current eight-game SEC winning streak, Arkansas’ 92-76 loss at LSU on Jan. 13 might be a distant memory, but to the Razorbacks themselves, it has to stick in their craw.
Will Wade’s Tigers didn’t just beat the Hogs that night, they embarrassed them.
For a team made up of freshmen, transfers, and grad-transfers and just two holdovers from Eric Musselman’s first Arkansas squad, a loss like that could have torn the Hogs apart at the seams.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. LSU
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27
Current Record: 18-5
March 2 – at South Carolina (5:30 p.m. SEC Network)
March 6 – Texas A&M (4 p.m. SEC Network)
March 10-14 – SEC Tournament
However, it seems that game did the exact opposite for Musselman’s Hogs who are one of the hottest teams in the nation as this season rolls downhill toward the NCAA Tournament.
Since absorbing back-to-back road blowouts to LSU and Alabama in mid-January, the Razorbacks have shown steady improvement. Arkansas has won eight consecutive SEC games since. Their only loss was an 81-77 non-conference heartbreaker in the final minutes at Oklahoma State on Jan 30.
Instead of ripping the Razorbacks apart, Musselman and his staff used those losses to galvanize this Arkansas squad into a tougher more resilient team that responds to adversity rather than runs away from it.
A perfect case in point came Wednesday night when No. 6 Alabama erased a Razorback lead and bolted to a six-point advantage early in the second half. For a quick moment, it looked like the Crimson Tide had wrestled control of the game away from the Hogs.
However, after a momentum-halting timeout called by Musselman, who dislikes calling timeouts, the Razorback gathered themselves and took back control of the game, executing the offensive and defensive game plans to near perfection.
The Razorbacks’ offensive and defensive effort so stymied Alabama that Crimson Tide senior stars Herbert Jones fouled out of the game with just 4 points and John Petty Jr. was tossed from the game with his second technical foul late.
When you watch a veteran team that’s normally as poised as Alabama just melt down in frustration, you know a team has done a number on them.
Since that ugly week in January when the Tide and LSU embarrassed the Razorbacks, Arkansas has developed into a much tougher, more tenacious, and extremely connected squad.
Instead of having their candy stolen from the school-yard bully, the Razorbacks have pulled together and are not only defending their turf, but have been administering some butt whoopings of their own.
Since letting the Oklahoma State game slip away from them, the Razorbacks have shown extreme toughness in late-game situations, making critical play after critical play to keep their slate clean.
Grad-transfers Justin Smith and Jalen Tate are showing the type of senior leadership every coach seeks, and in turn this squad, which depends on key minutes by freshmen Moses Moody, Devo Davis, and Jaylin Williams, continues to grow and mature in front of our eyes.
As long as this group remains coachable, the Hogs can continue to raise the ceiling on their play as the season extends into March Madness.
However, Saturday’s rematch with the Tigers is a dangerous game for the Razorbacks who can’t afford to take anything for granted against perhaps the SEC’s most athletic lineup.
Not only are the Tigers long, tall, and strong, they are skilled. They outquicked the Hogs at nearly every position in their first game and took pleasure in punishing the Razorbacks on the glass and in the open court.
The Tigers defense put a stranglehold on the Razorbacks, who shot just 34.2 percent from the field in the 16-point loss that was worse than the final score.
The Razorbacks launched 31 3-pointers in the contest and made just 8 for 25.8 percent. Those misses allowed LSU’s transition game to explode for easy buckets as the Hogs struggled to retreat on defense.
As the Hogs have matured this season, they’ve become less and less reliant on their 3-point shooting.
Much has been made about the discrepancy in free-throw shooting in the Hogs’ victory over Alabama. It’s true the Razorbacks missed more free throws (16) than Alabama took (8), but then again the Razorbacks drove to the basket time and time again, while Arkansas goaded the Crimson Tide into taking questionable trey after questionable trey.
Musselman had the Hogs lay off certain shooters giving them a taste of fool’s gold. The gambit worked. The more Alabama jacked up and missed 3s, the more frustrated and agitated they became.
It will be interesting to see what type of plan Musselman devises for the Tigers this time around and whether or not his Hogs will be able to execute it against a squad as athletically gifted as LSU.
The Tigers had been on a roll much like the Razorbacks defeating Mississippi State (94-80), then No. 16 Tennessee (78-65), and Auburn (104-80) in succession before running into a buzz saw at Georgia. The Bulldogs bushwhacked the Tigers, 91-78, last Tuesday.
No doubt, Wade will have the Tigers ready to bounce back against the Hogs at 1 p.m. Saturday for the rematch. The Tigers, like the Hogs, are near locks for the NCAA Tournament, but whichever team picks up the win will help their seeding.
A victory for the Razorbacks not only would give them a measure of revenge for the way LSU treated them at Baton Rouge in January, but it would also put the Hogs in excellent shape for securing the second seed in the SEC Tournament, held March 10-14 in Nashville.
Many experts around the nation are calling the conference tournaments superfluous, and while I see their point, from a fans’ view, the league tournaments are a ton of fun.
Arkansas hasn’t won the SEC Tournament since 2000; however, with the way the Razorbacks are playing now, they should go into the event as one of the favorites.
The Razorbacks haven’t been able to hang a championship banner or any sort in Walton Arena for a long time. Just having that possibility sounds really appealing at the moment.
But first things, first. The Tigers present a big challenge for the surging Razorbacks to handle.