It’s been 21 years since the Arkansas Razorbacks have won their lone SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament title.
That’s longer than many of the current players have been on this Earth. It’s longer than many Arkansas fans have been calling the Hogs.
When the No. 8 Razorbacks (21-5, 13-4 SEC) take the hardwood today at 6 p.m. in the 2021 version of the venerable tournament, they are seeking to rectify that situation.
SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament
Opponent: vs. Missouri
When: 6 p.m. Friday, March 12
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 21-5
Other Friday games
11 a.m. Alabama vs. Mississippi State
1 p.m. Florida vs. Tennessee
8 p.m. Ole Miss vs. LSU
Second-year Hog coach Eric Musselman has his team of grad-transfers, transfers, and freshmen primed to do the program proud. The plan is to win three games in three days, and celebrate Sunday afternoon by cutting down the nets at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville before learning their seeding and opponent for next week’s NCAA Tournament, which will be staged in and around Indianapolis.
The Hogs, ranked in the Top 10 for the first time since 1995, are the hottest team in the SEC, going into the tournament with an eight-game winning streak and an 11-game SEC winning streak. The Razorbacks’ lone loss since mid January was an 81-77 decision to Oklahoma State at Stillwater, Okla.
The Razorbacks will face border rival Missouri (17-8, 9-8 SEC), which held on to defeat Georgia, 73-70, Thursday night after building a 12-point lead midway through the second half. The Tigers struggled some down the stretch, but put the game away with solid defense and free throws.
The Razorbacks and Tigers split a pair of games in SEC regular-season play, winning on each other’s home courts.
Missouri posted an 81-68 victory over the Hogs at Walton Arena on Jan 2, but the Razorbacks returned the favor taking an 86-81 overtime victory over the then No. 10-ranked Tigers at Columbia on Feb. 13.
Interestingly enough, Arkansas forward Justin Smith, who scored 19 points and snared 4 rebounds at Columbia, missed the first game at Fayetteville, while Missouri center Jeremiah Tilmon, who scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Fayetteville, missed the game in Columbia.
Both are expected to play this afternoon, although it’s unknown how much the two will actually match up against each other. The Hogs are expected to be shorthanded inside. Jaylin Willians, a 6-10 freshman, is not expected to play again because of Covid-19 protocols.
Though the Razorbacks have been the hottest team in the SEC for the last month, the Hogs come into the game feeling a bit snubbed after the SEC and Associated Press announced their All-SEC squads and honors.
Musselman was more than a bit miffed that neither organization honored Smith or fellow grad-transfer Jalen Tate, although USA Today did name Smith to its All-SEC second team.
So, the Razorbacks go into the tournament with not only something they want to win, but also something they want to prove.
Contrary to how the SEC coaches voted in the league poll, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin certainly talked up the Razorbacks Thursday after the Tigers’ victory over Georgia. He seemed enamored with the Hogs.
“It’s not just one [area] because they are great in transition and on defense,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said of Arkansas on the SEC Network following the Tigers’ victory. “They can score the ball.
“When Justin [Smith] came back, you’re talking about a dynamic player. I enjoy watching him play. They score. They defend you. They play together.
“Moses Moody is as good as — not just a freshman — but as any player in all of college basketball. We’re talking among the 10 best. We’re talking a very talented player with tremendous poise. Tate is an excellent point guard. They got all the parts. You got a guy like [J.D.] Notae coming off the bench. They have all the parts to be successful, but, man, I’m looking forward to it.”
One concern for Arkansas might be the six-day layoff between games. The Razorbacks have been notorious at points in the season of getting off to slow starts. The Hogs have been able to overcome a few slow starts over the last month — last Saturday’s victory over Texas A&M is a case in point — but there are no second chances in tourney play.
Some might be wondering if Missouri will be tired after being taken to the wire by Georgia. It’s a good point, but generally it’s a team’s third day of competition where weary legs seem to become a factor in tournament play.
Missouri certainly is a team that could knock the Hogs off their stride. The Tigers have the size and skill to give the Razorbacks some problems. The Tigers are also an experienced team that won’t panic no matter what the Razorbacks throw at them.
On paper the game is the highlight of the SEC quarterfinals with two teams that have locked up bids to the NCAA Tournament based on their regular-season play.
Both squads are playing for pride and for the possibility of advancing their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas will likely be a third seed in the Big Dance. A loss to Missouri might drop them to a fourth seed.
Arkansas’ lone shot at a two seed would be to win the SEC Tournament, taking down Alabama in the process. Even then, it’s not a sure thing in what seems to be a top-heavy bracket.
Likewise, it appears Missouri will be an eighth or a ninth seed unless they run the table this weekend in Nashville. If the Tigers do that, their strong early season schedule could help them jump up to a seventh seed or maybe even a sixth.
So there is much for the Tigers and Razorbacks to play for as the SEC Tournament moves toward Sunday’s noon title game.