Poor defense leaves Razorbacks in desperate shape for postseason play

Arkansas senior Anton Beard / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The Arkansas Razorbacks’ NCAA Tournament clock is ticking. In fact, it’s ticking more like a time bomb waiting to explode than a clock.

The Hogs’ crack in the door of opportunity to turn their season around is getting smaller and smaller.

The window of opportunity to make postseason play is about to slam painfully on the Razorbacks’ fingers.

Arkansas vs. South Carolina

Date: Tuesday, Feb. 6
Time: 6 p.m.
Location: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Television: ESPN2

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Take your pick of unimaginative cliches, but Coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks’ appear to be on the ropes and their hopes of making postseason play are up against the wall. Arkansas’ next four games are critical if they want to stay in any type of contention for postseason play, short of winning the SEC Tournament and earning the league’s automatic bid.

Why are the next four of their final eight games so important? Because there might not be a winnable game among their last four regular-season contests based on the way the Razorbacks have played of late.

The Hogs (15-8 overall, and 4-6 SEC) play Kentucky (17-6, 6-4), at Alabama (15-8, 6-4), Auburn (21-2, 9-1), and at Missouri (17-6, 5-5) to close out the regular season. That might be the toughest final two weeks of basketball facing any SEC team.

Going into last week, I saw those last four games as opportunities for the Razorbacks, but considering how poorly Arkansas played at Texas A&M in an 80-66 loss and at LSU in a 94-86 loss, it’s hard to see any daylight there, even with the Kentucky and Auburn games being played in Bud Walton Arena.

In fact, if you look at the SEC standings, it might already be too late for Arkansas to win their way into the tournament based on their regular-season resume.

The SEC is a much better league this year, and it is cannibalizing itself in the middle. Based on the league’s strong RPI, there was a thought going into conference play that six to eight SEC teams might make the SEC field.

However, the way the league is shaking out — regardless of what the braketology experts are saying — it looks more like five SEC teams will be dancing at this point of the season.

At the moment, Auburn (9-1), Tennessee (7-3), Kentucky (6-4), Alabama (6-4), and Florida (6-4) have distinguished themselves as NCAA Tournament caliber. The rest of the league looks like a mud ball all glommed together.

The next eight teams are clogged in the middle with Mississippi State and Missouri at 5-5, and Arkansas, Texas A&M, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, and Ole Miss all at 4-6.

Maybe a team stuck in that big wad of mediocrity can fight its way to a NCAA bid during the next four weeks, and maybe not. However, I don’t have a lot of confidence that the Razorbacks can do it based on the way they have been playing.

Teams are shooting at an alarming rate against the Razorbacks in conference play. The Hogs are allowing SEC opponents to make 47.4 percent of all of their shots, and 40.4 percent of their three-point shots. Considering that stat, it’s hard to believe Arkansas has won four conference games.

For an individual game, 47 percent isn’t a fantastic shooting percentage, but it is very good. Teams that average 47 percent shooting from the field usually have a good chance to win their games.

I’ve danced around it enough. Arkansas has been a poor defensive team throughout SEC play, and nothing I saw last week leads me to believe that is going to change a great deal.

I have no doubt they are capable of playing better defense, but teams don’t play that poorly on defense and suddenly flip a switch and turn into a great or even a good defensive team in the last eighth of a season.

Hopefully, I’m wrong about that assessment.

The Hogs host South Carolina at 6 p.m. tonight at Walton Arena in an ESPN2-televised game.

It’s the first of four winnable games — South Carolina, Vanderbilt, at Ole Miss, and Texas A&M — before the aforementioned brutal final four regular season games.

The Gamecocks have lost their last three games, but last week Texas A&M and LSU broke out of similar slumps when they played the Razorbacks. Granted the Hogs were on the road in both of those games, and Arkansas generally plays better at home. However when a team allows opponents to shoot 47 percent from the field, there is no guaranteed victory.

Losing can become habitual, and it tears at the fiber of teams, particularly ones that had great expectations like the Razorbacks. Anderson’s call for leadership among his players in his press conference Monday is telling.

It’s a challenge he probably needed to make, and it will be interesting to see how the Razorbacks’ senior-laden roster responds.

We’ll get our first glimpse at a response tonight.