Razorbacks, LSU struggling down the stretch but for different reasons

Jabril Durham drives versus the Missouri Tigers on Saturday

Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

A split is better than two losses, but any way you look at it, last week wasn’t a great one for the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team.

The Hogs did a halt a three-game losing skid Saturday with an 84-72 victory over the Missouri Tigers on an evening dedicated to former head coach Eddie Sutton, but the Razorbacks’ 90-86 loss to Auburn last Wednesday might have put a fork in Arkansas’ already slim postseason chances.

The Razorbacks (13-14, 6-8 SEC) will have to win the SEC Basketball Tournament, held March 9-13 at Nashville to make the NCAA Tournament. I only mention that because it’s a possibility, but it’s one all the best Razorbacks teams of the SEC era failed to accomplish.

Yes, the 2001 Razorbacks did make a four-game run to win SEC Tourney title, but that squad wasn’t close to being one of the Hogs’ best teams. So, I guess there is a ray of postseason hope, but then again, I don’t see a player any where close to as good as Joe Johnson on the Hogs’ sideline or Brandon Dean for that matter. Dean was the MVP of that tournament, but Johnson set the table for team’s success that week in Atlanta.

As for the NIT, if the Hogs were to win out and make a deep run in the SEC Tournament, there’s a shot, but that’s too hard to predict this far out. Going into this week’s games, Arkansas is 10th place in the SEC. Nine SEC teams could conceivably make postseason play this year, but it’s doubtful. I’m guessing five to seven.

Kentucky (20-7, 10-4), South Carolina (22-5, 9-5) and Texas A&M (20-7, 9-5), barring complete letdowns the rest of the way, are headed to the Big Dance. Beyond that, it’s dicey.

Play over the next three weeks could push Florida (17-10, 8-6), LSU (16-11, 9-5) or Alabama (16-10, 7-7) into the tournament. The same could possibly said for Vanderbilt (16-11, 8-6) or Ole Miss (17-10, 7-7). But if the tournament started today, those five would be in the pool from which the NIT would select. The NIT won’t take more than four SEC teams, maybe not that many.

As fans, we have the luxury to think about stuff like that. The Hogs right now can’t worry about March Madness. They have more than their hands full attempting to defend Bud Walton Arena with Tuesday’s 6 p.m. ESPNU-televised game against LSU.

The Tigers have lost their last two games and are in a desperate situation themselves. Going into last week, LSU appeared to be building for a NCAA tournament run, but a 76-69 loss to Alabama and an 81-65 blowout loss to Tennessee has Johnny Jones’ club reeling.

Forward Ben Simmons is one of the best talents in the league, but the freshman didn’t start against the Vols because of an off-the-court issue. That’s not a good look for a player or a team this late in February.

The big question for the Tigers is will they bounce back from a bad week, or will they let it drag them down further. LSU certainly has the talent to rebound. Craig Victor (16 points and 3 blocks), Antonio Blakeney (10 points) and Josh Gray (15 points) made big plays down the stretch to beat the Hogs in Baton Rouge, while Simmons (16 points, 18 rebounds) kept the Tigers steady the whole game.

Like so many Razorbacks games this season, Arkansas seemed to have a measure of control to the ballgame before a flurry of mistakes allowed the opponent to take over the game.

Some of the Hogs’ woes in those situations come down to careless play or a lack of toughness or inconsistent focus, but it also has to do with a lack of talent. The more talent a team has the more capable it is of making up for its mistakes or not making them at all. Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said in one of his first press conferences of the season that the Hogs’ margin of error was slim. That has proven to be true over and over this season.

While some are down on Anderson and his staff, Anderson has gotten a lot out of his team of role players this year. Has it been enough? It certainly has not been enough to please Razorbacks fans or Anderson.

The program was caught by surprise by the early departure of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls. They progressed at a quicker pace than anyone expected and looked to capitalize on their success by making the jump to the NBA.

By the time it became apparent that they were going pro, there was no real way to come close to replacing their talent. Most of the best college players sign in November’s early period, and it’s impossible to build a relationship with a truly good player in the weeks between the end of the season and the late signing period in April.

So two struggling teams meet Tuesday. The Tigers are the more talented team by my estimation, but I think the Hogs are bettered coached.

The Razorbacks will need lights-out shooting to win the game. That should keep the middle open enough for Moses Kingsley to be effective inside. However, more than anything else, the Razorbacks must bring the energy and effort on the defensive end of the floor that makes Anderson’s system viable. It was absent last week against Auburn, and a loss was the result. LSU is not only more talented that Auburn, but also a better team.

If the Hogs play as nonchalant as they did last week against Auburn, it could be long night for the Razorbacks.