Razorbacks can’t overlook Vandy

Arkansas freshman forward Gabe Osabuohien / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

There is no bigger game left on the Arkansas Razorbacks’ regular-season schedule than Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. game with the Vanderbilt Commodores at Bud Walton Arena.

It is a must-win game for the Hogs. You might think I’m being overly dramatic.

Doesn’t Vanderbilt have the worst record in the SEC?

Yes, the Commodores do. Coach Bryce Drew’s squad is 9-15 overall and 3-8 in the SEC. That leaves them six games out of first place. That’s not a good place to be. Vanderbilt’s chances of making the NCAA Tournament aren’t good.

Arkansas vs. Vanderbilt

Date: Saturday, Feb. 10
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
Television: SEC Network

» See full schedule

However, don’t confuse the Commodores with an incapable basketball team. That would be a mistake. Just ask Georgia.

Vanderbilt waylaid the Bulldogs, 81-66, Wednesday night at Nashville. There is no doubt in my mind that Georgia (13-10, 4-7 SEC) expected to win when the Bulldogs entered Memorial Gym, but nothing can be taken for granted in the SEC this season.

The league is a true meat-grinder this year, and there is no room for overconfidence. Alabama and Auburn also learned that this week.

Going into their game at Mississippi State (18-6, 6-5), the Crimson Tide appeared to finally be playing up to their athletic potential, but the Bulldogs cut off Bama’s air with stifling defense, leading to a 67-64 victory.

Auburn (21-3, 9-2) has proven not only to be one of the biggest surprises of the 2017-18 season but also one of the best teams in the nation, but a big play here and a controversial play there, and the Tigers felt the burn of dropping an 81-80 decision to Texas A&M (16-8, 5-6 SEC).

So, Vanderbilt remains a dangerous opponent to coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks no matter how well the Hogs played Tuesday in their 81-65 victory over South Carolina and no matter that the game is being played in Walton Arena.

Now make no mistake, this is a game that the Hogs should win, but that only puts the pressure more squarely on the Razorbacks to perform at a high level. Unfortunately, the Razorbacks haven’t been a comfortable in pressure-packed spaces this season. In fact, the Hogs have played flat through most of the their SEC schedule.

Think back to Jan. 10 when the Razorbacks allowed LSU to steamroll them, 75-54, at Walton Arena after back-to-back road losses. Now, that is Arkansas’ lone home loss this season, but that game was a blowout in LSU’s favor nearly from the tipoff.

Another nonchalant defensive performance by the Hogs like that one, and the Commodores could leave Northwest Arkansas on a winning streak.

The Razorbacks did play better defense last Tuesday in the victory over South Carolina. It was good to see the Hogs get multiple stops in a row, force turnovers and capitalize on them. However, consistency is something that has escaped the Razorbacks throughout SEC play.

Just because they played well against South Carolina, doesn’t mean I trust them to do it again against Vanderbilt. It’s not been Arkansas’ pattern the last five weeks.

While Vanderbilt is a capable team, a home loss to the Commodores in the last quarter of the season would count as an unexplainable strike on the Razorbacks’ NCAA Tournament resume if the NCAA Selection Committee were comparing the Hogs to another team.

All of that said, if the Razorbacks can build upon what they accomplished against South Carolina last Tuesday, the Vandy game could be a very positive game for Arkansas.

Momentum is built step by step, and this is exactly the point in the season when good teams ratchet up their intensity as they seek to peak for postseason play.

The Razorbacks did that last season when the Hogs won six of their last seven regular-season games as well as winning two games in the SEC Basketball Tournament to advance to the title game, where they gave Kentucky a scare.

Arkansas has the potential and the opportunity to pull it all together again, and turn its season around just like they did last season.

The question is will they?

The next step is Saturday night against Vandy, a game they can’t overlook.