Tennessee victory gives Hogs a boost going into Kentucky contest

With two games a week, the college basketball schedule seems to move at lightning speed compared to college football’s.

With football there’s generally a week to bask in glow of a great victory or to wallow in the mire of a particularly distasteful loss. There’s just not as much time commiserate, analyze, dissect and digest any one basketball game as there is with football. It’s just the nature of the game. Sometimes that’s good, but other times it’s unfortunate.’

However, with four days between Arkansas’ 82-78 victory at Tennessee last Tuesday night and the Hogs trip to Rupp Arena to face No. 6 Kentucky at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in an SEC TV-televised game, it’s not a bad time to look back at that win.

We can’t say for sure how big the victory at Tennessee will ultimately be for this season. There are 16 more league games plus an important nonconference game at Oklahoma State on Jan. 28 to be played. The Hogs may win enough or lose so many that the Tennessee game might be inconsequential in the grand scheme.

However, I don’t think so. That victory was a huge one for the Hogs for a number of reasons.

First, as noted by nearly everyone, a loss to the Vols would have likely doomed the Razorbacks to a 0-3 start in SEC play. Florida bushwhacked the Razorbacks in the SEC opener, and chances are the Razorbacks aren’t coming away from Rupp Arena on Saturday with a victory either.

A 1-2 start in SEC play isn’t ideal in anyone’s book, but it’s infinitely better than 0-3.

Why, you might ask?

Secondly, a win like that can breed confidence. Winning the first SEC road game sends the message to the team that games are going to be won and lost on their own merits not the environments they are played in. Players know this in their heads, but experiencing a road victory locks in the idea that they can be as successful on the road as the Razorback generally are at Walton Arena.

It’s more important for the Hogs which are still integrating seven new players into the program to have experienced winning on the road rather than just intellectually acknowledging that the place where the game is played shouldn’t be important to a mentally tough player or team.

It’s too soon to label this team mentally tough, but the Razorbacks did show a degree of desire, will, and resiliency in that victory.

Third is the manner in which the Razorbacks won the game. Yes, like every other fan, I love blowouts. It would have been fun to watch the Hogs rock the rims and shoot the lights out Thompson-Boling Arena. But a win like that is like eating cotton candy. It’s pretty, and sweet, but ultimately insubstantial.

Coming from behind to grit out a victory in a closely contested game is substantial. It sticks to the ribs of a team. It fortifies the heart and mind for other close games that the Razorbacks will no doubt play as they move their way through the season.

Before the Razorbacks made their first-half, 11-0 run to cut Tennessee’s lead to just two points before the half, I was more than a bit worried. It did not look good for the Razorbacks whose offense stagnated and defense looked flat-footed as the Vols built a 13-point lead.

However, the Hogs dug down and found another gear. The 16-7 run Arkansas opened the second half with not only gave them the lead but also ultimately gave them control of the game. The contest tightened up at the end, particularly when Arkansas gave up a three-point play to Detrick Mosetella, who cut the lead to a single point. But even then, I had the feeling the Razorbacks had the game in control.

A lot of that had to do with the play of JUCO transfer guard Daryl Macon who nailed clutch free throw after clutch free in the waning seconds of the game. He hit six freebies in the final 18 seconds and a total of 12 of 13 for the game to score 15 points.

Anton Beard played great off the bench, hitting 6-of-8 shots and 4-of-5 free throws for 16 points. Jaylen Barford scored 14, and Dusty Hannahs added 13 to round out the double-digit scorers.

Moses Kingsley only scored seven, but he did everything else with 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 assists, and 2 steals. Yes, I personally would like to see him post up more to draw fouls and open up lanes and shots for his fellow Hogs, but any way you look at it, his play against the Vols equals winning basketball.

The Razorbacks are a guard-oriented basketball team, and while all of them can make the three-pointer, none of their games are totally dependent on treys. Yes, Hannahs is a fine shooter, but his mid-range game and crafty drives to the basket are a pleasure to watch.

No one likes to watch a parade to the free-throw line, but teams that earn shots from there tend to win a lot of games, so it’s great to see Macon, Hannahs, Barford, and at times Kingsley accept a little charity and make team pay for fouling them.

The Hogs are still a work in progress. Arkansas experienced a serious offensive draught in the first half when they fell behind by 13 points, and during the same time period struggled to get stops against the Vols.

They can’t make it a habit of falling behind by double digits on the road or at home and expect to have the kind of season they want. However, after Tuesday night, the Razorbacks do know that it’s possible to stage a comeback and to hold on to a victory under tenuous circumstances. Hopefully that will serve them well.

As for Saturday against Kentucky and their super-star freshman guard Malik Monk, a Bentonville grad, it will likely be a long, tough night for the Hogs. As a consolation, it’s the only scheduled game against the Wildcats this season, although the Hogs could run into them again at the SEC Tournament.

To me the Kentucky game should be viewed as a free shot to shock the world. At the moment, I doubt any SEC team is capable of beating the Wildcats at Rupp. Florida might have a outside shot, but I doubt it.

The Hogs just need to play their game as best they can and keep improving. Not to say there aren’t challenges ahead, but Arkansas won’t face another three-game stretch as tough as they have to open SEC play during the regular season.