SEC race jumbled with Hogs stuck in the middle

Rich Schmitt Photography

With the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament commencing next week, I thought it might be fun to look at the bracket and the league standings to see when the Arkansas Razorbacks might end up playing.

With five teams tied for third place, three for second place, and two for first place, it was a pointless exercise with two playing dates remaining in regular-season play. Even if I had Einstein and Nostradamus as advisors, I’m not sure I could make heads or tails of the log jam in the middle of the league standings.

After picking up a much-needed 75-65 road victory over the Tennessee Vols last Saturday, the Razorbacks advanced to 15-14 on the season and 8-8 in SEC play. Ole Miss (18-11), Alabama (17-11), Florida (17-12), and Georgia (15-12) are also 8-8 in conference play.

LSU (17-12), Vanderbilt (18-11) and South Carolina (23-6) are all 10-6 in league play, while Kentucky (21-8) and Texas A&M (22-7) are both 11-5 in knot at the top.

The exact seeding for the tournament will work itself out in league play this week. What we do know is that the Razorbacks will in all likelihood open play in the tournament on Thursday, regardless of what happens this week.

Even if the Razorbacks lose both their games this week, they will not fall past the 12th seed. The 13th and 14th seeds face each other on Wednesday for the right to play the fifth-seeded team on Thursday.

However, even if the Razorbacks win both games this week, there is only the slimmest of mathematical chances of the Hogs tying for fourth in the league and holding the tiebreaker to actually gain one of the four buys into Friday’s semifinal round.

The standings are too mixed up at this point to even ponder where Arkansas might land and what matchups would be advantageous. That’s frustrating if you like to speculate about such things, but for the Razorbacks, it’s actually a good thing. A wide-open tournament is what they need to keep hope alive for possible berth in the NCAA Tournament.

While teams like Kentucky, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, LSU and South Carolina have proven to be the most consistent over the course of the conference schedule, none have been truly dominant. In fact, the Razorbacks have beaten three of the five and will get their chance to beat the Gamecocks at Walton Arena on Saturday.

Certainly, Kentucky is the SEC’s most talented team, and the league tournament is not nicknamed the Kentucky Invitational for no reason. The Wildcats are always the favorite to win the SEC Tournament, but it doesn’t always happen.

There is hope that a surprise team — like the Razorbacks — could get hot at the right time and make a run at the tournament title. While it’s doubtful that will happen, it could. That hope could flicker into a flame or become a dying ember based on the outcome of this week’s games.

The Razorbacks do take a three-game winning streak with them on the road to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to face Avery Johnson’s Crimson Tide at 8 p.m. Wednesday. That winning streak makes Arkansas one of the hottest teams in the SEC at the moment. The Aggies are riding a four-game winning streak, and Vandy has won three in a row, too.

The Razorbacks close out the regular-season schedule at 4 p.m. Saturday against Frank Martin’s Gamecocks. It will be Senior Day for guards Anthlon Bell and Jabril Durham who could be their final games in Walton Arena. The only way it wouldn’t be their last is if the Hogs host a NIT game.

After the Tennessee victory, Arkansas coach Mike Anderson complimented his team’s defense and the play of his bench. Anderson added that his teams are geared to perform at their best this time of the year.

If the Razorbacks are going to keep their winning streak alive, they are going to have to play their best. Alabama is a tough, athletic basketball team that has made strides in Johnson’s first year as head coach.

Senior Retin Obasohan has had one of the best seasons of any player in the SEC, averaging 17.4 points and 4 rebounds per game, and he is the clear leader on the court of the Crimson Tide. While Arkansas’ defense is predicated on a team concept, Obasohan is the type of player who will require extra attention as he attempts to slash to the basket.

The Gamecocks are the bullyboys of the SEC, but they also are a very disciplined basketball team that dotes on capitalizing on opponent’s mistakes. This will be a game where it’s imperative for Arkansas center Moses Kingsley to keep his cool and not get frustrated by South Carolina’s physical play. The fact that the Razorbacks play host to South Carolina is in their favor, but the Gamecocks are an experienced team, and it’s doubtful they will get too shaken up even if Walton Arena is rocking.

I don’t like either of these matchups for the Hogs. If they win either game, they will truly have earned the victory. If they win both, there might be a reason to hope for a better than done-in-one stay at the SEC Tournament next week in Nashville.

I will say that the Hogs have surprised me all season. Whenever I have begun to write them off, they have bounced back up and vice versa. I’ve learned not to be surprised at whatever happens with this team.

As has been noted, Anderson has never had a losing season as a head basketball coach. With the Hogs one game above .500, he can keep that fact intact if the Razorbacks can get a split this week.

With a split this week, the Razorbacks would go into the SEC Tournament one game over .500. Even if Arkansas lost its first game in the tournament, the Razorbacks would finish the season at .500. That’s not much consolation, but a .500 season is still so much better than a losing one.