Hogs in NIT limbo after early SEC tourney exit

The harshest aspect of postseason play is what makes it so compelling. It’s either survive and advance or lose and you’re done.

The 2018-19 Arkansas Razorbacks felt the harsh numbness of being “one and done” Thursday afternoon in the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville when the Florida Gators put a stranglehold on the Hogs with a simple but potent brand of man-to-man defense.

The Gators squeezed the life out of the Razorbacks’ motion offense to post a 66-50 victory and held Arkansas to its lowest point production of the season.

The Razorbacks, who had won three-consecutive games going into the tournament, just submitted to the Gators’ consistency and tenacity, and the Hogs didn’t seem to want anymore as the contest devolved from a close game to a blowout in the final eight minutes.

The Razorbacks controlled the tempo very early, jumping out to a 17-9 lead, but Florida coach Mike White got his Gators to rein in the Hogs, and the Gators controlled the tempo from the middle of the first half on.

Strapped to a half court game, the Hogs competed for a while, but ultimately submitted as the Gators’ defense became more and more constricting as the game went along.

All-SEC forward Daniel Gafford played a very efficient game for the Hogs, making 6 of 9 shots and 3 or 5 free throws for 15 points. He also grabbed 6 rebounds, but the Gators did an excellent job of limiting his touches and making it difficult to for him on the glass with a text-book five-man rebounding effort.

Led by Keyontae Johnson’s 12-rebound effort, the Gators out rebounded the Hogs 41-26 in the low-scoring affair and absolutely shredded Arkansas on the offensive glass, 19-9.

Arkansas counts on turnovers to manufacture possessions and make up for their rebounding lapses, but the Gators won the turnover contest, too, with on 12 turnovers to the Razorbacks’ 13.

The Gators held the Razorbacks to 37 percent shooting from the field and 25 percent from the free-throw line. The Gators didn’t shoot much better from the field at 38.2 percent, but by hitting 8 of 22 three-points for 36.4 percent, and by being a terror on the offensive glass, Florida overwhelmed the Razorbacks in the final eight minutes of the game.

The Razorbacks had hoped to flip the script on the Gators, who applied the same strategy in their regular-season meeting on Jan 9 and earned a 57-51 victory, but White’s strategy was even more effective against the Hogs, who wilted in the final eight minutes.

Freshman guard Isaiah Joe is the only other Hog to score in double figures with 12 points, but he pumped up 11 three-point shots to do it.

What I had interpreted as a promising matchup for the Razorbacks in the first round turned out to be a nightmare scenario for coach Mike Anderson and his Hogs.

Now, the Razorbacks are left in limbo until Sunday, waiting to learn if they will be invited to the NIT or not. Arkansas’ athletic department sent out an e-mail last Sunday to season-ticket owners so they could commit to tickets in case the Razorbacks slipped into the NCAA Tournament or were invited to the NIT. So one assumes, Arkansas would accept the NIT bid, should it be offered.

While the sting of an early exit from the SEC Tourney makes me wonder if it might not be better for Arkansas to just put this season to bed, if there is an opportunity to play more games in the NIT, this squad, with no seniors and just one junior, could use more playing time together.

Though it would be fantastic to see what type of college player he would be as a junior, we know Gafford is headed to the NBA. Even if he opted not to participate with the Hogs in the NIT — which isn’t likely — playing more would be good for the remaining Razorbacks.

However, what must be foremost on Anderson’s mind is restructuring his roster to add more front court talent..

The Razorbacks have a very solid backcourt core in Joe, Jalen Harris, Mason Jones, and Desi Sills. Point guard Justice Hill, who has been practicing with the Hogs since January, will only improve that mix.

The Razorbacks need some men in the front court in the worst way. Freshman Reggie Chaney has upside, but Anderson needs to add a couple of players with size to what is already on hand.

What about the scholarship numbers?

Anderson has always said “the numbers will take care of themselves.”

As for Anderson, himself, though some still are calling for his removal, a 17-15 record after back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances the previous two seasons doesn’t seem like grounds for dismissal with the program on firm footing academically and organizationally.

That said the type of pressure the Arkansas basketball program is feeling from the outside right now doesn’t just dissipate on its own.

Bygones won’t just be bygones to those who believe the only way to fix an issue is firing someone.

It’s not a matter of just having a winning program that is run with integrity, it’s about winning enough to placate fans who remember and long for glory days long since past.