Reeling after a 1-5 start in SEC play, the No. 25 Arkansas Razorbacks have backed themselves into what seems like an unfamiliar early season corner — a must-win situation.
Must-win in late January?
It seems that way, if the Hogs are to have hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.
Ranked in the Top 10 throughout November and December, Arkansas has fallen on hard times.
Injuries, poor outside shooting, lackadaisical defensive pay, and some tough calls have led the Razorbacks into a four-way tie at the bottom of the SEC barrel with LSU, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss at 1-5 in league play and a 12-6 overall mark.
The Hogs play the Ole Miss Rebels at 11 a.m. Saturday in Bud Walton Arena in what very much seems like a must-win contest for Arkansas to have a legitimate shot at making the NCAA Tournament.
That seems a bit unbelievable for a program that advanced to the Elite Eight the last two seasons and signed what was considered one of the best recruiting classes in the nation.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. Ole Miss
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 21
Where: Fayetteville, Ark.
Next 3 games
Jan. 24 – LSU – 6 p.m. (ESPN/2/U)
Jan. 28 – at Baylor – 3 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 31 — Texas A&M 6 p.m. (ESPN/2/U)
And yet that is where these Hogs sit.
Knee injuries to Nick Smith Jr. and Trevon Brazile have left the Hogs shorthanded. Brazile is out for the season. Smith is reportedly going to attempt a comeback in February, but the Razorbacks are missing their skills right now.
Teams are zoning the Hogs, who have shot incredibly poorly from the three-point line in SEC play at 26.2 percent.
The Razorbacks suffered a tough 79-76 loss at Missouri on Wednesday in which the officials goofed up a late-game charging call against Devo Davis that would have been overturned by video review if the officials had properly administered the rules. The SEC issued an official statement on Thursday admitting its officiating crew did not follow their rule book.
Had the charging call been properly overturned because of the defenders feet being inside the restricted area, there is no telling if it would have mattered in the final outcome the game.
But, Davis — a 79.4% free-throw shooter — who fouled out because of the screw up would have been shooting free throws instead of sitting on the bench for the game’s final minutes.
As frustrating as that no doubt is for Arkansas coach Eric Musselman and his team, the Hogs have to put that away and prepare for an Ole Miss team that is also trying to find its equilibrium.
Arkansas can ill-afford to be overconfident against the Rebels. Arkansas should win the game, but nothing can be taken for granted by a team that has had a difficult time closing out games.
Arkansas has had double-digit second-half leads in its last two losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Admittedly the lead against Vandy was very early in the second half, but Arkansas can’t continue to let teams have a second life when they have them down if they are going to have any semblance of they type of success the Hogs aspired to when this season opened.
The Ole Miss game is the first of three consecutive SEC games at home that offers an opportunity for Arkansas to get back on a winning track. The Hogs do take a break from league play Jan. 28 to play at No. 21 Baylor (13-5, 3-3 Big 12).
That’s a tough road trip, but a great opportunity for the Razorbacks, who need one if they plan to be in the hunt for a tournament bid.
If it is going to happen this season, now is the time for the Razorbacks to start making a move toward playing winning basketball.
At this point, any win will spell relief for the obviously frustrated Musselman, the Hogs and their fans.