Rivalry or not, Texas game key to Hogs’ future

To say the least, there is history between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Texas Longhorns on the basketball court, but it’s of the ancient variety, at least in the minds of the current players.

None of the Razorbacks were even alive the last time the two opponents met as Southwest Conference rivals, and the two schools’ four meeting’s since haven’t been exactly historic. Oh, they were important in the moment for both schools, but there really isn’t a rivalry there, not any more, according to Arkansas coach Mike Anderson.

“Lot of history there,” Anderson said in a press conference Thursday. “I think it’s big for our fans without a doubt.

“But to me it’s the next game on our schedule and I want our guys to understand it is the next game on our schedule. To me it’s another test to let us know where we are.

“It just happens to be the Texas Longhorns.”

The Hogs (8-1) meet the Longhorns (5-4) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Toyota Center in Houston. The game will be televised by ESPNU.

The game may certainly stir up some old feelings for Hog fans, and that’s great. Something needs to jar us awake from our hardwood apathy. But at this time, it might be better for Anderson to play down the game for the current Razorbacks than to make more out of it than there really is.

While the Hogs have some veteran pieces on this basketball squad with seniors Moses Kingsley, Dusty Hannahs, and Manuel Watkins, the squad does not appear to have gelled just yet from an outsider’s standpoint, and throwing the team into a pressure-cooker situation of a hostile rivalry might not be the best thing for it at this point.

Anderson is trying to set a tone with his squad, and establish a work ethic that places an emphasis on each and every game, not just so-called big games. Competitors will respond in big games, if the work ethic is there.

That said this game is big for the team, and it could be meaningful for the program itself.

It’s big for the team because despite putting together a very solid 8-1 start to the season, the Razorbacks need to pick up any away victory both for their NCAA Tournament resume and for their own confidence going into SEC play, which begins in just 13 days.

The Razorbacks took one on the chin in their only road game so far this season, 85-71, at Minnesota on Nov. 22. That Golden Gophers squad looks like a solid team with an 11-1 mark so far. The loss won’t hurt the Hogs’ resume as long as Arkansas picks up some away victories a long the way.

Saturday’s game is one of two neutral-court contests on the regular-season schedule. The other is next Thursday’s contest with Sam Houston State at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock. Even though the Razorbacks have had a notoriously tough time winning in central Arkansas in recent years, the NCAA Selection Committee likely will and should view that game as a home contest.

While Texas’ record is middling at best, their losses have been to Texas-Arlington, Northwestern, Colorado and Michigan. The game against the Wolverines at Ann Arbor was tight with Michigan pulling out a 53-50 victory.

The common opponent is UT-Arlington, which the Razorbacks struggled with on Nov. 18, winning, 71-67. Texas lost to the Mavericks, 72-61, on Nov. 29, in Austin.

Shaka Smart’s Longhorns then beat Alabama, 77-68, at Austin before the loss at Michigan. Texas most recently upended Long Beach State, 71-65, at Austin.

Texas has more “name” opponents on their schedule, but at this juncture of the season, it’s hard to say if their schedule has been more competitive than the Razorbacks. It definitely has included more away games. The back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Colorado came on a neutral court in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A victory tomorrow isn’t going to skyrocket Arkansas’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament, but it would be a nice building block with conference play fast approaching on Dec. 29 when Florida visits Bud Walton Arena for a key, early SEC game.

The Florida games is huge for the Hogs’ aspirations in league play, and it’s made even bigger since the Razorbacks next two SEC games are at Tennessee on Jan 3., and at No. 6 Kentucky on Jan. 7.

That’s three big games right out of the SEC gate for the Razorbacks. To be able to handle those games, the Razorbacks need as much confidence as they can generate over the next few weeks, and that starts Saturday with the Longhorns.

Arkansas’ fans need to pick up some confidence in their team, too. It will make them more apt to show up for the games. A win over Texas, even a 5-4 Texas squad will make Razorbacks fans take note. A loss, I’m afraid, will only contribute to the feeling of malaise that seems to permeate the program early this season.

A win over Texas might be the wake-up call that the fans really need.

With finals in the rearview mirror, the Razorbacks have a chance to concentrate only on hoops the next two weeks with Christmas as the only diversion.

How much improvement can be made over the next two weeks might be critical to getting off to a good start in SEC play.

So far, I like the Razorbacks’ pieces better than the whole. Anderson has solid talent and depth at guard. All of them can score, but other than swingman Watkins, none of them excel on the defensive end of the floor yet on a consistent basis. The tools to be good defensively are there, if the individuals will dedicate themselves to it.

What makes me most hopeful for the Arkansas’ guards is that they all can attack the basket, which not only leads to field goals, but also free-throw attempts and assists. They all shoot relatively well from the 3-point line — particularly Hannahs and Daryl Macon — but this won’t be a Razorbacks team that is dependent on the trey. That’s a very good thing.

However, the guard play has not fully meshed yet with Kingsley’s game, and the 6-10 center was thought to be the Hogs’ greatest weapon going into the season. Part of the issue, though, is with Kingsley rather than his teammates. He seems intent to prove that he is a face-the-basket scoring forward rather than a 6-10 post player with the option to move out at times and shoot the jumper.

That’s not playing to his strengths, and it’s not in the best interest of this basketball team, which lacks a low-post presence if Kingsley is not going to be it.

If Kingsley would post up more, he would get more shots, better shots, and more free-throw attempts. All of that would help the Razorbacks, and it would help Kingsley’s NBA stock, too.

Arkansas’ guards should look at him as the first option in the offense, but then again Kingsley needs to post up strong and present himself as that option. He seems more intent to screen and pop out than to screen and post his man up in Arkansas’ motion offense.

All of the Hogs’ guards are scorers themselves. If Kingsley doesn’t demand the ball, then they will be more than happy to do the scoring themselves. That’s not necessarily bad, but it would be better for the team’s prospects if Kingsley would make himself a willing option on the blocks.

I like the improvement we are seeing with the Razorbacks squad. They are a much better defensive squad than they were in mid November, but they still have a lot of work to do.

They are really good in transition, and there are more scoring options in the half-court game than Anderson has had in his tenure at Arkansas. They do share the basketball well, but there is a tendency for a few of the guards to dribble a bit much.

I love the blue-collar attitude and play of Dustin Thomas to go along with the similar tenacity of Watkins.

There really are the makings of a good basketball team among the Razorbacks. I think the key, though, is Kingsley fully accepting his role as the center of attention.