Hogs alive and kicking with big opportunity at Florida

Arkansas junior forward Trey Thompson / Photo: Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

After digging themselves a hole in late January and early February, the Arkansas Razorbacks are alive and still kicking, Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson noted in his weekly press conference.

Anderson said that many folks — fans, pundits and reporters alike — had he and his team figuratively buried earlier in the month.

I must admit after the Razorbacks suffered back-to-back, double-digit losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt and falling by 28 at Oklahoma State two games earlier, my faith had dwindled, too. I had possibly even entered into the first stage of mourning. Those losses didn’t just look bad; they felt damning.

While it might be carrying the metaphor too far to compare the Razorbacks’ five-game winning streak to the biblical resurrection of Lazarus, the Hogs have salvaged their season during the last three weeks.

In Saturday’s 79-68 victory at Auburn, the Razorbacks looked more and more like the team many had envisioned going into the season. Virtually all the Hogs’ parts were not only working but also working in unison, which was definitely not the case early this month.

Now an 11-point victory over a team like Auburn might not seem that impressive at first glance; however, when you consider senior center Moses Kingsley was strapped with foul trouble the entire game, it shows the progress Arkansas has made over the last month.

The emergence of junior forward Trey Thompson has been key. The young man understands and sees the game of basketball on the court like no other member of his team. He makes his teammates better with his passing, screening, and rebounding.

His 6-9, 265-pound frame takes pressure off Kingsley by giving opponents another big body to be concerned with on both ends of the floor, and his improved play gives Kingsley important minutes of rest so the Hogs’ best rebounder and shot blocker can go all out when he is on the floor.

Thompson displays some of the skills that Oliver Miller provided for the Hogs back when Nolan Richardson’s program revved into high gear. Having a high-post passer who can not only see the floor but also shoot the mid-range shot well enough to be respected can make a motion offense hum.

Thompson makes offense easier for his teammates. Arkansas guards and Kingsley are getting better looks at the basket because of Thompson’s play, and they are taking advantage of the opportunities. Forwards Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cooke have also benefitted from Thompson’s passing and presence on the floor.

Thompson also excels at getting the ball out of the net and into transition as a defensive rebounder. That’s so important for a team that wants to push the tempo. Really it’s critical, and Thompson is becoming better and better at it.

What has opened the door for Thompson’s improvement?

He’s more under control. He’s not fouling as much and not suffering as many turnovers. That improvement has allowed his game to blossom.

But it hasn’t just been Thompson who has improved. Arkansas’ guards are mixing better together than they had earlier this year. They are learning to feed each other when they have the hot hand.

While I believe it wasn’t intentional earlier in the season, it appeared Arkansas’ guards were freezing each other out with one-upmanship, playing “my turn” basketball. Anderson said it was more a matter of them developing trust as teammates.

The Hogs have also improved at mixing and matching their defenses. Arkansas still wants to pressure with man-to-man, but the Hogs improvement in their 2-3 matchup zone adds a layer for opponents to think about. It has caused some chaos for opponents when they’ve trapped out of it.

All of that has the Razorbacks (22-7, 11-5 SEC) in a decent situation going in to the postseason. Most of the bracketology gurus project Arkansas as either a ninth or a 10th seed in the NCAA Tournament.

With that said, this week is important. The Hogs have made a great case for themselves the last three weeks, but they have not done enough to be a lock for the Big Dance.

With games at No. 12 Florida (23-6, 13-3) at 6 p.m. Wednesday and against Georgia (17-12, 8-8) at 1 p.m. Saturday in Walton Arena — which both will be televised by ESPN2 — this is no time to backslide.

If the Hogs lose both, the Razorbacks and their fans will be sweating out Selection Sunday unless Arkansas wins the SEC Tournament, held March 8-12 at Nashville.

The Gators had been on a nine-game winning streak before falling, 76-66, to Kentucky last Saturday. Florida blitzed the Razorbacks, 81-72, in Walton Arena in their SEC opener on DEC. 29. The Hogs had trouble stopping the Gators’ push of the ball in transition and also never found an answer for Florida’s penetration on the half court.

Arkansas has improved since then, but the Razorbacks have not won at the O’Connell Center since Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman suited up for their final season at Arkansas in 1995.

The Gators will be without John Egbunu, who grabbed 11 rebounds and scored 6 points in the first game, but Florida’s depth has filled in the gaps. It will be senior night for three Gators — Justin Leon, Kasey Hill, and Schulyer Rimmer — so the Florida should be primed for a big night. Of course, North Little Rock native KeVaughn Allen is the Gators’ sophomore leading scorer with 14 ppg. He scored 21 against the Hogs at Walton Arena, and will no doubt be ready to play well against the Razorbacks again.

Statistically, the biggest difference in their first meeting was their shooting percentages. The rebounding and turnovers were even at 37 and 13 apiece, but the Gators held Arkansas to 41 percent shooting for the game, while managing shoot 44.8 percent.

A loss at Florida would not hurt the Hogs’ NCAA chances, but a victory would be huge for the Razorbacks in terms of confidence with the postseason on the horizon. If the Hogs can beat the Gators at the O’Dome, it’s a strong message they can be competitive not only in the SEC Tournament but also the NCAA.

Wednesday’s game is a huge opportunity for the Hogs. We’ll see if they are capable of seizing the moment.