The Arkansas Razorbacks are playing for pride in the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament this season, and that’s right where head coach Mike Anderson wanted his squad to be.
By closing out the regular season winning six of their last seven games, the Hogs don’t face a do-or-die situation in Nashville this year. If they happen to lose Friday night against the winner of Thursday night’s Ole Miss-Missouri game, they won’t be happy, but they won’t be sweating out Selection Sunday either.
That relieves some pressure off the Razorbacks who are still improving as a basketball team. Now, that doesn’t mean the Hogs don’t have anything to prove in Nashville. That’s far from the truth.
Anderson made that clear earlier in the week when asked about the SEC All-Conference team. The Hogs finished in a tie for third in the league with South Carolina with a 12-6 conference mark and a 23-8 overall record, but the media and SEC coaches recognized only senior center Moses Kingsley on its all-league squads. Kingsley was on the All SEC Defensive team and a member of the All-SEC second team.
Anderson said he believed the Razorbacks deserved more consideration. I like that. Anderson stuck up for his players, and that should make them want to play that much harder and that much more together for the remainder of the year.
Realistically, though, it’s hard to determine which other Razorback should have been honored. I could make a case for Dusty Hannahs, Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford.
Their scoring averages are in the same neighborhood with Hannahs at 14.6, Macon at 13.1 and Barford 12.5, and they have traded the baton of hero among each other throughout the season. In the end, for opposing coaches and the media, it was easier to vote for a player from another team than to pick among the trio.
That perceived slight could work in the Razorbacks favor. By speaking out, Anderson put a chip on his team’s shoulder that the best Razorbacks teams have always competed with regardless of the sport.
Being an underdog or an underhog, if you will, is part of the DNA of Arkansas’ athletics program. When Razorback teams understand and embrace that they have to work harder than their opponents to compete, they undoubtedly perform at a higher level.
A couple of examples are John McDonnell’s track and cross country teams and Nolan Richardson’s 1994 national championship team. Most of McDonnell’s squads were elite, but McDonnell had them competing against the accomplishments of previous UA champions as well as their on-the-track opponents. His athletes didn’t want to be known as the ones who didn’t win a title or let the tradition die.
Likewise, Richardson played mental games with his Hogs. Though his 1994 team had been ranked No. 1 in the nation longer than any other team that season, Richardson had them playing the underdog role and they embraced it.
When Detroit columnist Mitch Albom opined on ESPN’s “Sports Reporters” that the “smarter” team — referring to Duke — would win the championship, it played right into Richardson’s hands.
When asked about the comment in a press conference, Scotty Thurman, now an assistant for Anderson, said the smarter team would win, and it’s us.
McDonnell and Richardson’s best teams were talented, but that mental edge and toughness they honed into their teams played a vital role in making those squads championship caliber.
With the Hogs heads above the water and in the NCAA Tournament, Anderson is attempting to instill that type of edge into his Razorbacks.
No doubt it did not go unnoticed in the Razorbacks locker room that Arkansas natives Malik Monk of Kentucky and KeVaughn Allen of Florida made first-team All-SEC. They spurned the Razorbacks for what they perceived as better opportunities elsewhere. One really can’t fault the logic of their decisions. Monk and Allen were talented enough to be successes no matter where they played their college ball.
However, Monk and Allen’s decisions have to rub anyone with an ounce of Razorback pride the wrong way. While none of the Hogs will admit publicly that it provides extra incentive should they face Florida or Kentucky this weekend, it’s part of the mix. And there is nothing wrong with a rivalry or some heated-blood in an athletic competition.
How useful it will be to the Razorbacks, though, is uncertain. Kentucky has proven to be the undisputed class of the SEC. Florida is a notch or two below that. And realistically, the Razorbacks, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are a notch or two below that.
If all teams play well, we’ll see a third matchup between Kentucky and Florida in the title game at noon Sunday.
Florida’s defensive tenacity and quickness were tough for the Hogs to deal with in their two regular-season meetings, and if they do end up playing in the semifinals on Saturday, I’m not sure the situation won’t play out the same.
The Razorbacks have more depth than the Gators, but Florida is more talented and more athletic. I don’t like the matchup, but I would like to see Arkansas get another chance.
I don’t have the imagination to speculate past a SEC semifinal game for these Razorbacks, but it would be a major accomplishment for them to make it to the title game against what I’m assuming would be the Wildcats.
Playing Kentucky again might not be pretty, but it might be valuable for the Hogs to play against another elite level squad before the NCAA Tournament.
Based on seeding projections, the Hogs would run into a team of Kentucky’s ability or better should they win their opening round game in the Big Dance.
With a team like the Razorbacks that is continuing to improve this late in the season, every new experience only makes them better. Experience gained this season should only make next year’s Razorbacks that much more savvy.