As Eric Musselman’s Arkansas basketball squad hits the homestretch of their season with just six regular-season basketball games left to play, Dave Van Horn’s Hogs are prepping for this weekend’s season-opening series with Illinois State at Baum-Walker Stadium.
We are entering a busy time for Razorback sports as two of the three majors’ seasons begin to overlap. It happens every November for football and basketball and every spring with basketball and baseball.
If I had my druthers, collegiate baseball wouldn’t begin play until mid-March. The weather is too unpredictable in mid-February for baseball.
Next up for the Hoop Hogs
Opponent: at Missouri
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15
Where: Columbia, Mo.
TV: SEC Network
Next 5 games
Feb. 19 – Tennessee, TBA (ESPN/2)
Feb. 22 – at Florida, 6 p.m. (ESPN/2)
Feb. 26 – Kentucky, 1 p.m. (CBS)
March 2 – LSU, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
March 5 – at Tennessee (TBA)
A look at the five-day forecast by the National Weather Service for Fayetteville shows a chance for snow on Thursday. Friday through Sunday the highs are predicted to range from 44 to 60 degrees with sunny skies. The lows, though, are brutal from 13 to 27 degrees.
There is no guarantee the forecast for mid-March would be warmer, but on average it would be. Pushing the season forward a month, would mean more home baseball games in May and June when crowds and profits could swell.
Yes, it would shorten the time for some college athletes to play in the summer leagues, and it would delay when those matriculating to professional baseball make the step up, but it would make the fan experience on college campuses so much better.
No one’s going to make me Czar of Baseball anytime soon, but that’s my yearly gripe. That said the upcoming week should certainly be exciting for Hogs fans. Just bring your coat.
Ranked eighth by “Baseball America,” fourth by “USA Today,” and second by “D1 Baseball,” the Razorbacks open the season with a three-game series against Illinois State. Games are set for 3 p.m. Friday, noon Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday at Baum-Walker Stadium. The series will be streamed by SEC+.
The No. 23 basketball Razorbacks (19-6, 8-4 SEC) will attempt to bounce back from their 68-77 loss at No. 25 Alabama (16-9, 6-6 ) last Saturday against the Missouri Tigers (10-14, 4-7) in Columbia at 8 p.m. Tuesday before coming home to host No. 16 Tennessee (18-6, 9-3) at 3 p.m. Saturday.
The Vols are third in the SEC standings, a game ahead of the Razorbacks but behind No. 2 Auburn (23-2, 11-1) and No. 4 Kentucky (21-4, 10-2). The Hogs are in fourth place alone, two games ahead of LSU (18-7, 6-6), Alabama, Florida (16-9, 6-6) who are in a three-way tie for fifth or seventh depending how you want to look at it.
That’s important because the top four teams in the regular season get a double-buy into the quarter-finals of the SEC Tournament, which runs March 9-13 in Tampa, Fla.
There is still too much basketball to play to begin handicapping the postseason, but considering how the Razorbacks began SEC play with three consecutive losses, the Hogs have positioned themselves well.
However, these final six games will have a big say in just how the Razorbacks enter the postseason.
While the Hogs are facing the Tigers on the road at Missouri, The Vols will be playing host to Kentucky at Thompson-Boling Arena at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
So Tennessee will either come to Walton Arena on Saturday riding high off an upset of the Wildcats and tied for second in the SEC, or licking their wounds in third place — perhaps tied with the Razorbacks if the Hogs take care of business in Columbia.
Next up for the Diamond Hogs
Opponent: Illinois State
When: 3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18
Where: Fayetteville, Ark.
Next 5 games
Feb. 19 – Illinois St., Noon (SEC+)
Feb. 20 – Illinois St., 1 p.m. (SEC+)
Feb. 25 – Indiana at Round Rock, Texas, 7 p.m. (FloBaseball)
Feb. 26 – Stanford at Round Rock, Texas, 6 p.m. (FloBaseball)
Feb. 27 – Louisiana at Round Rock, Texas, 6 p.m. (FloBaseball)
That’s a bigger if the one might think. Arkansas can’t take anything for granted against a Missouri team that had league-leading Auburn on the ropes on Jan. 25 before Bruce Pearl’s squad escaped with a 55-54 victory.
While the Razorbacks have developed into an excellent defensive squad, Arkansas’ a very average shooting team, hitting 44 percent from the field and just 30.5 percent from 3-point range.
Arkansas’ defensive play kept them in what was a sloppy game at Alabama, but the Hogs could muster just 31 percent shooting from the field and 28.6 percent from 3-point range.
Alabama deployed a box and one against JD Notae, who also played limited first-half minutes because of foul trouble. The result was a 12-point outing by Notae — 8 under his average — who was leading the league in scoring going into that game. Other opponents have attempted to trap Notae out of 1-3-1 half-court press to little avail.
Notae was clearly frustrated by all the attention in the game, and a triple team during the game’s pivotal possession forced him into taking a desperation 3 that was off with 4 seconds to play.
Musselman, who warned Hog fans following the upset of Auburn that they shouldn’t expect his squad to win out in the regular season, would have rather Notae have attacked the basket or dished.
“Certainly [we] had the leading scorer in the league (Notae) with the ball in his hands,”Musselman said following the game. “He wasn’t tired. He only played three and a half minutes in the first half. He just… he’s got great confidence, and he took a shot that you really don’t want to finish the game on.
“You want to put pressure on the defense by getting into the teeth of the defense. We’ve done such a great job all year with free throws attempted, so I certainly would like a more aggressive, to-the-rim play than that. We didn’t need a three; we were fine just hitting the two or two FTA’s.”
Live and hopefully learn.
Pippen edged ahead of Notae in the SEC scoring race, averaging 18.92 to Notae’s 18.83 points per game. With teams making dedicated efforts to put the clamps on Notae with “junk defenses,” it might be hard for him to top Pippen, considering the difficulty of the Hogs’ remaining schedule.
However, winning is the key for Arkansas, not an individual scoring title.
Arkansas’ NCAA Net Ranking dipped from No. 32 to No. 33 on Monday, and Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology column predicts the Hogs to be a No. 6 seed as things stand today, interestingly enough facing Oklahoma, who plastered the Hogs, 88-66, on Dec. 11 in Tulsa.
Lunardi sees Auburn and Kentucky as a No. 1 seeds, Tennessee as a No. 4, Alabama as a No. 5, and LSU as a No. 6.
Four of the Hogs final six games are against three of those teams. Yes, the Razorbacks and the Vols play twice in their final six games as a quirk of scheduling.
Obviously the more wins the Hogs can stack together in these final six regular-season games the better for their potential seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
One thing the Razorbacks need to avoid is another losing streak. While a win at Missouri won’t necessarily be impressive, it really is a must for the Hogs who seem to be playing better than their various rankings denote.
With home games against Tennessee and Kentucky the next two Saturdays and their regular-season home finale against LSU on March 2, the Hogs have a great chance to boost their standing with the NCAA Selection Committee.
The road contest at Florida on Feb. 22 also looms large. That’s a game where Mike White’s Gators will be hunting an “upset” to bolster their own NCAA chances.
The Hogs close out the regular-season with a particularly tough trip to Tennessee on March 5, where even the best Razorback squads have had difficulty winning since joining the SEC for the 1991-92 season.
Ideally the Razorbacks will win enough games to remain among the top four in the SEC to get the double-bye into the quarter-finals of the conference tournament. That should be enough to have them in the NCAA field no matter what happens in Tampa.
As Musselman has often said this season, it’s a step by step process. He wants his Hogs to improve incrementally game by game and see where the chips fall.
Last Saturday’s loss to Alabama, while not devastating, was treading water or even a step backward. We’ll see if the Hogs can move forward tonight at Missouri.