Arkansas sophomore Dominic Fletcher / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
It’s a blustery, partly cloudy but unseasonably warm 70-degree morning in Northwest Arkansas as I tap away at this column, but the forecast for Friday at 3 p.m. is 41 degrees with a good chance of rain when the Arkansas Razorbacks are scheduled to take the diamond for their season opener against Bucknell.
Ah, college baseball season. You’ve got to love it, even if the weather is lousy for about half the season.
The weather doesn’t bother Razorback skipper Dave Van Horn who has dealt with Northwest Arkansas weather for the Hogs’ 15 previous season openers, and it probably won’t bother his team much each either. Good teams take on the attitude of their coach, and this Razorbacks squad isn’t expected to be good this season, it’s expected to be one of the nation’s best.
Baseball America ranks the Razorbacks fourth in the nation behind No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Oregon State, and No. 3 Florida State. Of course, that’s just an educated projection based on what teams return from last season plus what they added through recruiting, transfers, and the return of injured players. It’s not concrete, but the Hogs do look like contenders to play in the College World Series.
Seasons are long, though, and things change, just like the weather.
We don’t know what this Razorback team will be like in mid March or late May, but the prospects for an outstanding season are all there with a veteran lineup, a healthy bullpen of pitchers, and the infusion of some young talent.
Van Horn noted in his press conference earlier in the week that he drew up three potential starting lineups, and added depth will have him platooning on the corners at least during the early portion of the season.
Senior Jared Gates will likely start Friday at third, but Jack Kenley and Hunter Wilson gives Van Horn options. Evan Lee will likely man first base in the opener, but Jordan McFarland could start Saturday in the three-game series. Gates is also an option at first base, should Kenley or Wilson be playing third.
Jax Biggers returns to his familiar shortstop spot and will be backed by Kenley. Fayetteville native Carson Shaddy is back at second base for his senior season with the Hogs. All-American candidate Grant Koch is an anchor for the team at catcher.
Dominic Fletcher will man center field with Eric Cole in right field and freshman Heston Kjerstad in left field.
Van Horn announced the starting pitchers for the series with junior ace Blaine Knight taking the mound on Friday, sophomore Isaiah Campbell on the hill for Saturday’s 11:30 a.m. first pitch, and Keaton McKinney getting the ball for Sunday’s series capper at noon.
With the possibility of rain for all three days, keep watch on social media for gam- time changes. Van Horn said they plan to get all three games in this weekend, but starting times could be changed in an attempt to avoid rain.
Hogs’ stretch run to tell tale of their season
Arkansas senior Jaylen Barford / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
So far, the Arkansas Razorbacks have had what I would call just an average basketball season.
Going into Saturday’s 3 p.m. game with Texas A&M (17-9, 6-7 SEC) at Walton Arena, the Hogs are 18-8 overall and in sixth place with a 7-6 mark in the SEC, which might not only be the most improved league in the nation but also the most competitive.
With five games left to play in the regular season, the Razorbacks balance on the teeter totter of respectability. The Razorbacks can finish the year out and be just average like they are now. That would probably get them in the NCAA Tournament with a good showing in the SEC Tournament.
They could dip below average, too. Considering, three of their five opponents are ahead of them in the league race, and the other two are behind them by single a game, it’s conceivable the Razorbacks could stumble and win just one of the next five games or even go 0-5 if there is some kind of injury. I hate to mention it, but anything can happen.
Hopefully, the Razorbacks, who have momentum after winning their last three games, are getting on a roll. Possibly, the Hogs are on the rise at just the right time so they can peak in postseason play. Maybe, the Razorbacks can win four of the next five, or even win out and steamroll into the postseason on an eight-game winning streak.
It could happen, especially if Razorback freshmen Darius Hall and Daniel Gafford keep coming, keep improving, and keep performing like they did against Ole Miss in the Hogs’ 75-64 victory Tuesday night.
The Razorbacks needed every point and every rebound that Hall mustered in posting his first double-double as a Razorback with 14 points and 7 rebounds. Likewise, Gafford’s 19 points showed upcoming opponents if they sell out to double team Daryl Macon or Jaylen Barford on the perimeter, Gafford has the ability to make them pay inside.
Now, we do need to remember that Ole Miss isn’t a good basketball team. The Hogs’ next five opponents are quite a bit better than the Rebels.
After the Aggies, the Razorbacks play host to Kentucky on Tuesday before heading down to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama on Feb. 24. No. 10 Auburn visits Walton Arena on Feb. 27, and the Hogs close out the regular season March 3 at Missouri.
The Aggies are a game behind Arkansas in the standings, but they also bushwhacked the Razorbacks, 80-66, at College Station, Texas on Jan. 30.
A&M big men Robert Williams (10.8 ppg. 9.5 rpg.) and Tyler Davis (13.9 ppg. and 8.7 rpg.) are capable of dominating the paint on both ends of the floor. Duane Wilson (9 ppg. and 3.4 apt.) runs the point for the Aggies and Admon Gilder (11.8 ppt.) and D.J. Hogg (11.8 ppg.) provide perimeter and mid-range scoring.
However, A&M does their work best on the defensive end of the floor, holding opponents to just 39.6 percent shooting from the field and 31.5 percent shooting from the three-point range. Even in Walton Arena, the Razorbacks won’t win if they shoot that poorly.
The Aggies are a dangerous team for the Razorbacks. They can run, but they generally make very good decisions with the basketball, and they know how to maintain a lead by playing tight defense and efficient offense. This is not the team for the Razorbacks to fall behind against. The need to stay within striking distance of the Aggies throughout the game.
Like the Hogs, the Aggies are fighting to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The team that survives Saturday won’t punch their ticket into March Madness, but it will push their way that much closer to the bouncer that is the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
At this point, every game is meaningful for the Razorbacks. Each win pushes them forward, and every loss represents ground that can’t be made up.