Opportunity doesn’t always knock at the most opportune time.
That seems to be the case as the No. 15 Arkansas Razorbacks (12-3, 1-2 SEC) are prepping to host the No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide (13-2, 3-0) for a 6 p.m. Wednesday showdown at Bud Walton Arena.
The Hogs, which have been ranked as high as ninth this season, are coming off their worst performance of the season in a 72-59 loss at No. 21 Auburn last Saturday.
The Tigers challenged the Hogs with a nutshell zone defense to force the Razorbacks to rely on their outside shooting. The Hogs were stone cold from the field and nearly as bad from the free-throw line. The Tigers held to Hogs to 33.9 percent shooting from the field and 12.5 percent shooting from the three-point line. The Hogs backed that stinky performance up by shooting just 59.4 percent from the free-throw line.
It’s a wonder the Tigers didn’t win by more?
What was Nate Oats’ Crimson Tide doing while Auburn was whipping the Razorbacks? Likely celebrating their 78-52 curb-stomping of the Kentucky Wildcats earlier in the day.
Next up for the No. 15 Razorbacks
Opponent: No. 4 Alabama
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11
Where: Fayetteville, Ark
Next 3 games
Jan. 14 — at Vanderbilt – 1 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Jan. 18 — at Missouri – 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 21 – Ole Miss – 11 a.m. (ESPN2)
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman certainly did not care for the way his Razorbacks shot or played against Auburn, but he also recognizes the ebb and flow of a long season, especially in a conference that is as talented as the SEC.
“In this league, any time you play another ranked team, like at Auburn the other night, from their perspective that was a really big game for them and win for them,” Musselman said. “Our win last year against Auburn, our win against (a top 10) Alabama a couple of years ago… any time an opponent is playing really good basketball and you get a win, you get an extra excitement level for the fanbase.”
Musselman certainly hopes and is likely counting on Razorback fans being amped up for Wednesday’s game when Oates brings his Crimson Tide into Walton Arena. Fans are planning a Red-White stripe out for the game that is being televised by ESPN2.
Classes at the UA do not reconvene until next Tuesday, but expect the student section to be rocking for what stands to be one of the biggest games of the season, if the Razorbacks can hold up their end and perform better than they have so far in SEC play.
Arkansas played great in the second half of their victory over Missouri, but have been lackluster otherwise in SEC play as their 1-2 mark implies.
The last two seasons, Musselman’s Razorbacks squad suffered early-January swoons before pulling their game together and finishing in the Elite Eight both seasons.
When asked about that coincidence, Musselman said it was not part of a grand plan of his.
“Just because its happened that way the last two years doesn’t mean it’s going to happen this year,” Musselman said. “You look at our road games toward the end of the year, and you have to go to Tennessee and Alabama. But I will say this — I learned it a long time ago from my father — your schedule often dictates wins and losses. Auburn had won 26 in a row. It’s not just Arkansas going in there and finding it a difficult place to play. Luckily, we play a full schedule, and we have to see how it all plays out.
“The biggest key is are you still trying to figure out ways to improve your team. So that’s where we are. How do we keep getting better? How do we keep tinkering? We have to continue to search and try to get better.”
Musselman pointed out a key to last year’s turnaround was inserting Trey Wade into the lineup for his defensive play. No doubt Musselman and his staff are always looking for the best formula to utilize their talent. It will be interesting to see if he has any surprises for Alabama Wednesday at tip-off.
The fact that Alabama is playing some of the best basketball in the nation is absolutely no surprise. The Crimson Tide has been doing it since the beginning of the season.
Oates’ squad owns victories over Houston, North Carolina, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Memphis, Mississippi State, and Kentucky this season, and no doubt they hope to make chop sooie out of the Hogs when they visit Walton Arena.
Musselman has obviously been impressed by the way Alabama has been playing.
“There is a reason they are ranked fourth in the country,” Musselman said. “They are really, really good. They had a really tough non-conference schedule and they did a great job winning those games, and they are a really confident team…We’ve got probably the best defensive team in the SEC coming in here.”
Brandon Miller is perhaps the best freshman in the conference based on his play this season At 6-9, 200, he’s slender but effective, averaging 19.1 mpg.
“It starts with having a lottery pick in Miller,” Musselman said. “He’s playing the three spot at 6-9. He can shoot over people. He can handle the ball in pick and roll. He’ll be a screen-setter in pick and roll, he’ll be a ghost screener in pick and roll. He follows his own misses which is a unique characteristic. You have to locate him early because he’s got deep, deep range.”
Mark Sears is Alabama’ second-leading scorer, averaging 14.7 ppg., but Oates has a long and talented lineup, filled with key performers such as Noah Clowney, Jaden Bradley, Jahvon Quinerly and Noah Gurley.
“Clowney is a really, really good player too as a young player, playing really well,” Musselman said. “You add in Sears as a guy with experience as a scorer because he can make threes. You look at a guy like Quinnerly who is coming off the bench for them. He’s been a starter for a lot of his career, but now he’s coming off the bench and providing a spark for them.”
Musselman said the Crimson Tide do shoot well from distance, but they will also attack the paint. However, the Hogs have to be as concerned about Alabama’ defensive prowess. Analytically, the Crimson Tide are the best defensive squad in the SEC
“It’s personnel driven,” Musselman said of Alabama’s defense. “Clowney is a phenomenal prospect who has a really bright future. Both centers block shots so they have rim protection. Miller is 6-9 at his position, and Bradley has good size at his spot. Sears and Quinnerly can create steals. They are experienced and well coached on both sides of the ball.”
If anything positive came out of Arkansas’ loss to Auburn, it was the aggressive play of Anthony Black. The freshman point guard led Arkansas with a 23-point, 7-rebound, and 4-assist performance in 30 minutes on the floor. Musselman said he would have played him the full 40 minutes if he had not picked up two fouls so early.
“He’s just played really good basketball,” Musselman said of Black. “He’s in great shape and is able to do that. I thought he was phenomenal offensively, much like he was for us in Maui. We needed some points, and he was extremely aggressive both in the half court and in transition.”
However, for the Razorbacks to be able to pull off an upset of a squad like Alabama, it’s going to take more than a single player playing well.
The Razorbacks can ill afford to play as poorly against Alabama as they did at Auburn last Saturday. If they do, the Razorbacks will get embarrassed on national TV by the Crimson Tide, just like Kentucky did last Saturday.