For good or ill for the No. 15 Arkansas Razorbacks, the SEC’s emphasis on improving as a basketball league over the past five seasons is beginning to show dividends.
It’s noticeable even to casual fans that the SEC is stronger from top to bottom this season than it has been in years. Maybe ever?
Throw out the NET rankings for the moment, and consider that two teams expected to be top-10 contenders when this season began — Kentucky (10-6, 1-3 SEC) and Arkansas (12-4, 1-3) — are in the bottom four of the league at this moment.
Though both are down, the Hogs and Wildcats remain squads with the talent to dig themselves out of that hole and make the NCAA Tournament, but they are going to have to do some heavy digging against quality opponents.
It’s early, but Alabama (14-2, 4-0) and Tennessee (14-2, 4-0) look like the class of the league. Alabama’s 84-69 whipping of the Hogs last Wednesday at Walton Arena was a legit, big time win for the Crimson Tide, which has had more quality victories this season than any other program.
The Razorbacks looked like they had the Crimson Tide right where they wanted them with around 7 minutes remaining in the game, trailing by a bucket. It felt like the Razorbacks and Bud Walton Arena were about to cave in on the Crimson Tide.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at Vanderbilt
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14
Where: Nashville, Tenn.
Next 3 games
Jan. 18 — at Missouri – 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 21 – Ole Miss – 11 a.m. (ESPN2)
Jan. 24 – LSU – 6 p.m. (ESPN/2/U)
But it didn’t.
Thanks to great ball movement and deft shooting, Alabama had the lead back up to nine in a matter of seconds, and then ran away with the game for a convincing 84-69 victory in one of college basketball’s toughest environments.
It left a proud Razorback fanbase dejected, and coach Eric Musselman’s comments in his media appearance following the game offered very little consolation.
Now, take what he said with a grain of salt. Musselman wears his emotions on his sleeves as much as any Razorback coach I’ve witnessed following games. He practically glows when the Hogs win a big game, but he’s lower than low whenever they lose.
We’ve seen Muss’ Hogs dig themselves out of a hole the past two seasons after less than successful early starts. The Hogs opened 1-3 in conference play in 2021 and 0-3 last year, but went on to solid seasons. Both squads eventually made the Elite Eight.
“We have a much more uphill battle than we did the last two years, I know that for sure,” Musselman said following the loss to Alabama. “Much, much more uphill battle. There’s no doubt about it.”
Musselman went on to say that his squad is offensively challenged without the services of injured freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. and 6-10 stretch forward Trevon Brazile, who were multi-talented players, but were considered to be two of the best outside shooters on the team.
Smith is out for the rest of this month at least with a knee injury. Brazile is out for the season after having a damaged knee ligament repaired late last month.
The Razorbacks’ overall shooting percentage for the season is very good at 47% from the field, but the Hogs shoot a lowly 28% from three-point range.
In SEC play opponents have clogged the lane against the Razorbacks to inhibit their drives to the basket, forcing the Hogs into uncomfortable shots, often with the shot clock running down.
In SEC games, Arkansas is shooting just 40.3% from the field and 19.4% from three-point range. The Hogs’ overall free-throw shooting percentage is 70% for the season, but it has fallen to 62.5% in SEC play.
Those are not winning numbers no matter how well a team plays defense, and unfortunately, the more the Hogs have struggled on offense, the more they have struggled on defense.
And that stands to reason, too. When a team scores a basket, you have a better opportunity to set your defense than in transition after a missed shot.
Players can become better shooters over time with much practice, but the Hogs don’t have that kind of time right now in the midst of a very competitive conference schedule. In season, players seek to maintain skills more so than enhance them. It can be counter-productive physically and mentally to tamper too much with shot mechanics within a season.
Musselman and his staff are resourceful coaches. They will continue to work and plan and tinker with the considerable talent on hand. If Smith can return healthy in February, it should give the Hogs a lift, but the Razorbacks can’t wait that long. They have to start digging themselves out of the hole immediately.
Unfortunately, the Hogs’ schedule isn’t a help. They face back-to-back road trips to Vanderbilt (8-8, 1-2 SEC) at 1 p.m. Saturday and then head north for their annual trip to Columbia, Mo, for an 8 p.m. Wednesday rematch with Missouri (13-3, 2-3).
The Razorbacks need to get a least a split in these two games to keep their head near the surface. The roe to hoe doesn’t necessarily get easier, but they do have three SEC home games in a row after that. There is also a non-conference game at Baylor tucked in there.
None of those games with Ole Miss, LSU, and Texas A&M will be easy, but it might give the Hogs a chance to be .500 in league play going into the pivotal month of February.
As legendary Razorback coach Nolan Richardson liked to say, “all sickness isn’t death,” but the Razorbacks need to show some signs of life during this two-game road swing to have hopes of turning the season around.