Razorbacks’ raggedy ride keeping Hog fans excited but uneasy

The Arkansas Razorbacks’ game at 8 p.m. against Texas A&M at College Station is basically the midpoint of the Southeastern Conference season, and the outcome will give us some idea where the Hogs are at as a team.

With a 4-4 league mark and a 15-6 record overall, Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks will either be one-game above .500 at the turn or one-game under when they leave Agggieland. That is objective. No one can argue a team’s record. It simply is what it is, to trot out a phrase that seemed ancient the first time I heard it.

But subjectively, what is “it”? Where exactly do the Razorbacks stand?

Arkansas at Texas A&M

Date: Tuesday, Jan. 30
Time: 8 p.m.
Location: Reed Arena, College Station
Television: ESPNU

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With their recent, last-second victories juxtaposed against several blow-out losses, I’m not sure if the Hogs are gathering momentum or teetering on the edge of a collapse.

Through Christmas — except for that horrible, unexplainable 91-65 loss at Houston — the 2017-18 Hogs looked like a team that could make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks appeared to be a team that could possibly vie for their first SEC championship in ages, and a team that might get a No. 5 or maybe even a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Yeah, there might have been some Kool-Aid tasting going around at the time. The Razorbacks were playing well as a team, but there is a difference in playing teams in December and playing conference games. In December most teams are just playing through their schedule working more on themselves than actually prepping for an opponent.

Certainly, there are scouting reports in December, but coaches tend to work on the totality of their team’s play, rather than locking down on how to we defeat a said opponent like they do in conference play.

To quote the SEC’s well-worn if not tired ad campaign, conference play “just means more.”

Though Arkansas did not play particularly well in its SEC opener, the Hogs held off Tennessee for a 95-93 overtime victory. Then the Hogs promptly lost three consecutive games.

Mississippi State nipped them on the road, 78-85, before Auburn made a statement against the Razorbacks with an 88-77 home victory. LSU blew the doors off the friendly confines of Walton Arena, drubbing the Hogs, 75-54.

That Houston game was bad, but it was on the road, and even Arkansas fans were more wrapped up in the outcome of the SEC Football Championship Game and its implication on the school’s search for its next football coach that day than the basketball game.

The LSU game was tough to swallow. It’s one thing to lose to a top tier team in Walton Arena, but to get whacked by 21 points by a mid-level — at best — conference opponent is concerning.

To Anderson and his player’s credit, the Razorbacks have rebounded by winning four of their last five games. Yes, the 88-73 loss at Florida was ugly, but when all is said and done, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Gators ended up going further than any SEC team in the NCAA Tournament.

But what about the Hogs?

They way the Razorbacks constantly fall behind by double digits, the way they count on three-point shooting and one-on-one play by guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, and the way they play defense in spurts has me concerned.

Give the Hogs credit, in four of their last five games, several Razorbacks have stepped up at the right time to make plays. Trey Thompson has made key blocks late in the their last two wins over Georgia and Oklahoma State. Even though freshman forward Daniel Gafford seems to have hit a bit of a wall, he made a key tip-in against OSU. Anton Beard is protecting the ball and dishing out assists. Dustin Thomas does the dirty work on defense and on the boards, while also contributing baskets here and there. Macon and Barford are talented, and in the Hogs’ victories, they have made some astounding and clutch plays to bring their teams back and get the Hogs over.

And yet the Hogs are just 4-4 in SEC play, and it’s a tenuous 4-4 at best. Arkansas’ most comfortable victory in league play was a 97-93 win over Ole Miss at Walton Arena. Yes, the Hogs had to score more than 93 points to win a home game against an average SEC team.

Now, a win is a win, and as former Razorback coach Nolan Richardson coined and Anderson often repeats “a raggedy ride is better than a smooth walk,” but as a fan, it’s hard for me to have a lot of faith on the road to the NCAA Tournament while riding in the back of Jed Clampett’s pre- Great Depression era, flatbed truck.

This Razorback team confounds me. It can play disruptive defense, but Arkansas only chooses to do so sporadically. As a result, they have spent many games frantically digging themselves out of double-digit holes.

The squad has moved and shared the ball well at times, but too often the players fall into what seems like a “my-turn” mode that generally yields bad shots and long rebounds.

I have no clue what kind of performance we will see out of the Razorbacks tonight on ESPNU. After appearing to be one of the better SEC teams in December, the Aggies (13-8, 2-6 SEC) have struggled worse than the Hogs in conference play.

If it’s a close one, the Razorbacks are 10-1 in their last 11 one-possession games. That is a strong stat, and it says a lot about the opportunistic and clutch nature of the team. But, with the game not tipping off until 8 p.m., I certainly wouldn’t mind if the Hogs settle things a bit earlier tonight.

Quite an Honor

Daryl Macon picked up his third SEC Player of the Week honor of the season Monday, which is the most ever earned by a Razorback in a single season. It’s also his fourth such honor in his two-season career with the Hogs, which is also the most in school history.