Is the Ole Miss game a must-win affair for the Razorbacks?

Can you legitimately call a college basketball game played on Jan. 20 a must-win game?

There are certainly arguments against it, but if you consider the hole the Arkansas Razorbacks have dug for themselves through the first six games of their Southeastern Conference schedule, it’s not so far-fetched

The Hogs (12-6, 2-4 SEC) are three games out of first place in the SEC and only one game out of the cellar. The Razorbacks need to win Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. contest against Ole Miss badly.

Arkansas vs. Ole Miss

Date: Saturday, Jan. 20
Time: 2:30 p.m.
Location: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Television: SEC Network

» See full schedule

When you consider Arkansas’ next three SEC games are on the road at Georgia, at Texas A&M, and at LSU, the Razorbacks really need to win their game against the Rebels just to regain some momentum for a season that seems to be spiraling down the drain.

If you ponder that the Hogs are 0-3 in road games in SEC play and 0-4 in all road games this season, a win Saturday is vital.

Arkansas has already lost as many SEC road games this season as they did all of last season. They also have already lost a home game to LSU.

All of that seems to make Saturday’s game against Ole Miss downright critical.

Is it truly a must-win game?

Maybe not. This team could get on a run following the Ole Miss game, and that one game may not end up being all that important. Nobody has a crystal ball, but such a marked change seems unlikely.

Coach Mike Anderson’s basketball team is not playing well right now, and truly they haven’t played well since returning from their pre-Christmas break. They need to turn things around, and they need to do it quickly if they want to have a shot at returning to the NCAA Tournament.

Everyone has a theory on what’s wrong and how the Hogs’ issues should be solved. Some blame the free-throw shooting. Others condemn their ball movement and movement without the basketball. Some think the Razorbacks are selfish at times. Many call them lax or even lazy on defense. A lot of folks detect a lack of urgency. One suggested the offense should be run through freshman forward Daniel Gafford to create an inside-outside flow.

I certainly can’t refute those criticisms, except maybe the last one. I think Gafford’s offensive game is a bit raw to put that kind of weight on him, but then again what the Hogs are doing isn’t working well enough. Maybe the gifted freshman would rise to the occasion?

It also should be noted that the Razorbacks are dealing with some injuries. Senior Anton Beard appeared to hurt his ankle and did not return in the Florida game, and senior forward Trey Thompson tried to play through a hamstring injury against the Gators with mixed results.

Look the Razorbacks have a lot of problems. It seems like they missed a dozen or so layups and chip shots around the rim in their 88-73 loss to Florida. They got some free-throw opportunities, too, but missed many of them, and then failed to get back in transition on defense.

Anderson has been telling anyone who will listen that the issue is on defense, and that defense is where his system begins and ends.

Arkansas’ has talent and it has players with skills, but its senior core prefers to exert their energy on the offensive end, dribbling and dribbling in an attempt to create what more often than not amounts to difficult one-on-one shots. Incredibly, they sometimes make more than their fair share of those shots, but when they miss, good teams like Florida make them pay.

If the Razorbacks worked together with that much effort and intent on the defensive end of the floor, they might just get some of those cheap baskets that made them look so good in December.

Looking back at last season, the Razorbacks played very poorly in late January and early February. During that spell, their play looked a lot like it has through these first six conference games.

Last year, the Razorbacks found a way to flip the switch on defensively during the last third of the season, and by the time they got into the NCAA Tournament, Hogs were a squad no team wanted to play.

Granted this is a different team.

Last year the Razorbacks were among the best free-throw shooting teams in the SEC, and this year’s squad is dead last.

A year ago Dusty Hannahs’ offensive skills kept the Hogs in games and opened driving lanes to the basket for other players. Moses Kingsley gave the Razorbacks an elite defensive player in the middle. As talented as Gafford is, he’s not yet the overall defender that Kingsley was as a senior.

However, just like last year, if the Razorbacks are going to turn the trajectory of this season around, they are going to have to find a way to play better defensively. Getting stops needs to be their No. 1 goal.

If the Razorbacks don’t add some urgency and effort to their defensive play, they are going to end up watching March Madness instead of dancing in it.