Rowdy crowds can help Hogs to a great SEC start

It’s early in the SEC basketball season, but this stacks up to big a big week for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

After getting off to a 1-0 start in league play with a 73-71 victory at Texas A&M, Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks have home games against Florida (8-5, 0-1) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and against LSU (10-3, 0-0) at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Don’t let the Gators and Tigers conference records fool you. Both will make for formidable opponents for the Razorbacks (10-3, 1-0) even within the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena.

As young and inexperienced as the Hogs are, nothing can be taken for granted, which means Razorbacks fans need to turn out this week to give Anderson’s Piglets as much support as possible.

This could be a pivotal week for the Hogs. The Razorbacks can move to 3-0 in league play if they can protect the home court before a tough week on the road Jan. 15 at Tennessee and Jan. 19 at Ole Miss.

Now, home-court advantage didn’t necessarily hold sway in the SEC’s opening weekend with three of five visiting opponents winning on the road — the Hogs over the Aggies, South Carolina 71-69 over Florida, and Ole Miss 81-71 over Vanderbilt — but maybe that had more to do with those particular matchups.

Alabama did upset No. 18 Kentucky, 77-75, on its home court, and No. 3 Tennessee throttled Georgia, 96-50, in Knoxville.

It’s too early to draw many conclusions from a weekend when only 10 of 14 teams competed, but we know from history how big of an advantage a great Walton Arena crowd can be for the Razorbacks, even for this bunch of Hogs that uncharacteristically let home games to Western Kentucky, 78-77, and Georgia Tech, 69-65, slip away.

The Razorbacks will need everything and more that their fans provide in both these games.

Florida and LSU are better than their records might lead you to believe, especially the Gators, which will bring a ton of experience to Walton Arena Wednesday with senior guards KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson, senior center Kevarrius Hayes to go freshman standout point guard Noah Locke, sophomore forward Deaundrae Ballard, and junior forward Keith Stone.

The Gators score by committee with Allen leading the way with a 10.3 ppg. average with the rest falling behind him between Locke’s 10.0 ppg. and Hudson’s 6.7 pgg.

Coach Mike White’s squad, however, hangs its hat on defense, holding opponents to just 39.6 percent shooting from the field and 30.2 percent from three-point line.

The Gators had their game against South Carolina in hand until their offense went south with Florida missing 11 of its last 12 shots in the game as Gamecocks Center Chris Sliva ignited for an 18-point half to lead South Carolina to the surprise road victory.

The Razorbacks’ win was a bit unorthodox too, with late-game outside shooting on the road being the key to the victory. I’m not sure I’ve ever written that statement before.

The Aggies seemed to have the Hogs on the ropes until freshman Isaiah Joe nailed a three-pointer and sophomore Mason Jones canned a trio of treys after missing his previous eight shots in the game.

The lead those three-point shots gave the Hogs allowed them to survive an 11-of-22 evening at the free-throw line for the 2-point victory. That’s almost unheard of.

The key to the game for the Hogs was actually their defensive rebounding effort, which had been a bugaboo since the middle of December. The Razorbacks locked down on the defensive glass and actually enjoyed a five rebound advantage over the Aggies, which is their specialty.

Another interesting note is that sophomore All-American candidate Daniel Gafford only played a little over a minute in the deciding final five minutes of the game, and it was late when the Hogs had the lead.

The Razorbacks made their comeback with Gafford on the bench with four fouls, and Gabe Osabuohien and Adrio Bailey manning the middle. Gabe does the dirty work on the glass and the floor, getting backside rebounds and taking charges, while Bailey provides much of the same, plus energy on the defensive end.

While everyone with an interest in the Razorbacks would rather have Gafford on the floor than not, it’s good to know the Hogs can operate not only at a high level with him on the bench, but also at a winning level.

Take nothing away from Gafford though. He picked up his seventh double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds. He also made ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Day with one of his rim-shaking dunks.

While Jones and Joe provided the long-distance heroics late in the game, it was guards Jalen Harris and Desi Sills who kept the Hogs afloat through three-fourths of the game. Harris had a fine game with 15 points and 9 assists, giving him a hand in at least 33 of the Hogs’ 73 points. Sills scored 13 of his 14 points in the first half, almost single-handedly keeping the Razorbacks in the game at the time.

The Hogs’ superlatives and deficiencies in the game tells me that this Razorback squad might be salty if they can pull it all together, but they play a little bit like the little Dutch boy who tried to fix the dike by sticking his finger in the hole. Fix one leak and another springs open.

The Hogs fixed their defensive rebounding issue against the Aggies, but struggles at the free-throw line made the game tougher than it had to be.

The Razorbacks also had terrible trouble stopping the ball in transition and halting the dribble penetration of Aggie guard T.J. Starks, who looked like an All-American, while scoring 23 points on numerous successful drives to the basket. His success getting to the middle of the Hogs’ defense is one of the reasons Gafford was on the bench with four fouls at crunch time.

And yet the Razorbacks escaped Aggie-land with a victory. That’s a credit to Anderson’s young squad that is still gaining experience.

The Hogs do get a chance to pull it all together again against the Gators and the Tigers, who play host to Alabama tonight at 8 p.m.

The two games this week give the Razorbacks a chance to move up in the NCAA NET Ratings, which have replaced the old RPI Index.

According to the NET, the Hogs are the No. 8 team in the SEC and the No. 71 team in the nation, with Florida right in front of them as the No. 7 team in the SEC and the No. 54 team in the nation. Guess who is No. 6 in the SEC and No. 27 in the nation? That’s right, the LSU Tigers.

That shows how important each of these games are.

But again, it’s too early in conference play to know exactly what is what. The NET ratings will be fluid, and as Anderson said last week, winning will take care of everything.

Two rowdy Walton Arena crowds this week should give the Razorbacks better chances in both games.