The No. 15 Arkansas Razorbacks (24-7, 13-5 SEC) have the dubious task of facing the lathered-up LSU Tigers (22-10, 10-9) at approximately 1:20 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament in Amalie Arena at Tampa, Fla.
Will Wade’s Tigers advanced to the quarterfinals by dismantling the Missouri Tigers, 76-68, Thursday.
LSU was led by the SEC Sixth Man of the Year, Tari Eason, who scored 19 points and grabbed five rebounds. Darius Days wasn’t far behind with 16 points and seven boards. Efton Reid III stood out in the second half, scoring 10 points on a perfect 5-5 from the field. LSU racked up 11 steals and forced 24 turnovers.
Next up for the Razorbacks
When: 1:20 p.m. Friday
Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Fla.
Game 7 – Auburn vs. Texas A&M, 11 a.m. (ESPN)
Game 8 – Arkansas vs. LSU, 1:20 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 9 – Tennessee vs. Mississippi State, 5 p.m. (SEC Network)
Game 10 – Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Game 11 – Game 7 Winner vs. Game 8 Winner, Noon (ESPN)
Game 12 – Game 9 Winner vs. Game 10 Winner, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 13 – Game 11 Winner vs. Game 12 Winner, Noon (ESPN)
The contest will be the third meeting between the two squads this season. The Hogs upset the then No. 12 Tigers, 65-58, at Baton Rouge, when head coach Eric Musselman was at home recovering from surgery to repair the torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. On March 2 the Razorbacks held on to edge LSU, 77-76, at Fayetteville.
When asked if there was a certain difficulty in facing a team for a third time in a season during a press conference on Tuesday, Musselman reminded the questioner of his experience coaching in the NBA and G League, where playing opponents multiple times in a season was the norm.
Musselman said the better he and his staff know an opponent the more layers they can add to the game plan.
That said, LSU is an ultra-talented and deep squad that was playing great basketball in December around the time the Hogs began to struggle, losing five of six games. After having an up-and-down SEC season, the Tigers appear to be back on the upswing just in time for March Madness.
Both the Razorbacks and Tigers should be locks to make the NCAA’s Field of 68, which will be announced on CBS at 5 p.m. Sunday. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi is predicting Arkansas will be a fourth seed and the Tigers a fifth seed in his latest Bracketology column.
But pride is on the line for both squads.
Some have opined that the Razorbacks don’t have much to gain this weekend by playing in the SEC Tournament and rationalized that it might benefit the Razorbacks more to bow out early and rest trather than extend themselves in an effort to win the tournament.
That’s crazy talk to Musselman and his Hogs who live and breath to compete.
“As long as they’re going to keep a scoreboard up down there in Tampa, and we’re not out there just hooping, then as a competitor you want to go win,” Musselman said. “I promise you there will be one thing on my mind Friday, and that’s ‘How do we win the freaking game? That’ll probably be the only thing on my mind.”
The Razorbacks have only won the SEC Tournament once since joining the league during the 1991-92. Led by Joe Johnson and Brandon Dean, the Hogs won four games in four days to take the tourney title in 2000.
The Razorbacks’ success in Atlanta that season may have saved then head coach Nolan Richardson’s job. Rumors were flying around prior to the tournament that Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles was going to let the coaching legend go, but the tournament title evidently smoothed things over for a while.
Considering it’s been more than two decades since Arkansas has won what has often been called “The Kentucky Invitational” because of the Wildcats’ historic dominance of the tournament — 32 titles — a tourney title would be considered a major accomplishment for Musselman and his Hogs, particularly considering the Razorbacks would likely have to beat LSU, No. 4 Auburn and either No. 5 Kentucky or No. 9 Tennessee in succession to accomplish the feat.
The big question for the Hogs is whether or not their designated perimeter stopper Au’Diese Toney is healthy. Musselman said Tuesday the senior guard would make the trip but that he was wearing a walking boot and had not practiced since twisting his ankle against LSU last week.
However, Wade said he expects Toney to play.
“I know [Toney] didn’t play against Tennessee,” Wade said Thursday. “But I heard he was out there warming up and then he didn’t play, so I’m assuming he is going to be good to go [Friday].
“They’ve got other guys. I’ve watched the Tennessee game. I thought Kamani Johnson played tremendous in the Tennessee game in Toney’s place.”
Without Toney, the Razorbacks started slow at Tennessee as the Vols blistered the nets while they built a 24-point, first-half lead. The Hogs came within an errant pass of possibly tying the game late, but ultimately lost 78-74.
As for LSU, the Tigers believe the third time playing the Hogs will be the charm.
“I don’t think there was extra motivation today,” Eason said. “We just wanted another win and to get another crack at Arkansas. That was motivation in itself.”
Reid echoed Eason’s sentiments.
“Both of those games we played were close, really good games” Reid said. “We look forward to playing them again and executing our stuff against them.”
Wade credited the Razorbacks for their hustle.
“I think Arkansas is toward the top end of the hardest playing teams in our league if not the hardest playing team,” Wade said. “Obviously [JD] Notae made huge plays and [Jaylin] Williams made big plays in both games. Toney killed us at Arkansas.”
The Tigers aren’t the only ones that feel the need to perform well at Tampa.
“We still feel like we’ve got something to prove,” Arkansas senior guard JD Notae said earlier in the week. “We want to go down there and win the SEC Tournament. So that’s a big-time challenge for us to just go down there and prove ourselves again.”
With the way LSU blitzed Missouri, the Tigers have been a popular pick by several pundits and broadcasters. The thought is since Arkansas barely topped LSU at Bud Walton Arena, the Tigers could very easily pull off an upset on a neutral floor, particularly if a key defender, rebounder, and scorer like Toney is unavailable.
The game should be a gritty showdown between two squads that feel they still have a lot to prove going into the Big Dance.