Surprising Hogs set to open SEC play against Aggies

Arkansas junior guard Mason Jones / Photo:

SEC Basketball Media Day Predictions aren’t something a lot of people pay too much attention to. They come in the middle of October when football season is still at the forefront of most SEC fans’ minds.

For the most part, it’s place Kentucky at the top and then write in the flavors of the year. This year that was Florida, LSU, and Auburn at Nos. 2-4 with Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and South Carolina at Nos. 5-10.

Arkansas, Texas A&M, Missouri, and Vanderbilt brought up the rear at spots 11-14.

A lot of times those last four or five spots are relegated to teams with new coaches and basically squads with young or even perceived bad rosters. Sometimes teams fall into those spots because the media just aren’t sure what programs have. It’s still football season, anyway, right?

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Texas A&M
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 4
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Jan. 8 – at LSU
Jan. 11 – at Ole Miss
Jan. 15 – Vanderbilt
Jan. 18 – Kentucky
Jan. 22 – at Mississippi State
Jan. 25 – TCU
Jan. 29 – South Carolina
Feb. 1 – at Alabama
Feb. 4 – Auburn
Feb. 8 – at Missouri
Feb. 11 – at Tennessee
Feb. 15 – Mississippi State
Feb. 18 – at Florida
Feb. 22 – Missouri
Feb. 26 – Tennessee
Feb. 29 – at Georgia
March 4 – LSU
March 7 – at Texas A&M

Well, football season is all but over now. The NCAA Championship game on Jan. 13 is of premium importance to LSU fans, but the rest of the SEC will just be interested but jealous bystanders when the Tigers meet Clemson in New Orleans.

Just over a third of the way into the season with the SEC schedule tipping off this weekend, the predictions are hard to judge.

Clearly the Arkansas Razorbacks would be the surprise of the league based on those predictions. Eric Musselman has his Hogs playing at a high level. As Arkansas’ first-year head coach enjoys mentioning, the Razorbacks are about 40 seconds away from being undefeated.

The Razorbacks are 11-1 going into their 6 p.m. SEC opener against Texas A&M (6-5), which will be televised on the SEC Network. They would be undefeated if the Razorbacks hadn’t let a five-point lead slip away in the waning moments of a 79-86 overtime road loss at Western Kentucky on Dec. 7. The Hogs took that loss to heart, though, and have improved.

That was evident in their last outing, an impressive 71-64 victory over Indiana at Assembly Hall. While the Hoosiers are probably a mid-level Big Ten squad, Indiana was undefeated at home this season prior to taking a whipping from the Razorbacks, and in terms of history, the victory ranks among the best non-conference road victories the Razorbacks have had in recent memory.

It caught the attention of Kentucky coach John Calipari.

“To go to Indiana and be down in Assembly Hall and come back and win,” Calipari said on Thursday’s SEC Basketball Teleconference. “I want to know how many teams have done that in the last 10 years?

“…I can’t remember one. But go ahead and look it up because that stuff, that’s about coaching. That’s about execution at the end of games. All that kind of stuff that matters.”

The victory wasn’t impressive enough to vault the Razorbacks into the AP Top 25, but it has them in the “Others Receiving Votes” category as well as the No. 2 SEC squad in the NCAA Net Ratings, which is a tool the NCAA Selection Committee now uses when measuring teams against each other for NCAA bids and seedings. The NCAA Net Ratings consider margin of victory and nonconference road victories are weighted heavily in its mathematics.

The rating itself doesn’t correspond to a seeding spot in the NCAA’s bracket, but if there is a question between teams for a certain seed or inclusion in the tournament, the net ranking could be used as a tie-breaker of sorts by the selection committee.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi hasn’t updated his Bracketology predictions, as of this writing, since Dec. 23 where he predicted the Razorbacks to meet Virginia Common Wealth in the play-in game for a 12th seed and the right to play No. 5 seed Virginia.

I guess that’s some respect for what the Razorbacks have accomplished early this season, but not a ton. It’s better than being ranked 11th in the SEC like in the preseason, but it seems the national media are expecting the Hogs to implode in SEC play.

Expect Musselman to continue to play the “no-respect card” with his players and the media as long as it continues to be motivation to the team which some might label as overachieving.

To me the Razorbacks are just working hard and taking nothing for granted this season as a blue-collar team that’s playing to their strengths with confidence and not making excuses.

That’s not the type of squad that’s going to implode. Teams that beat the Razorbacks this season are going to have to earn it. That’s the type of grit Musselman and his staff have drawn out of his players in the short time they have been together.

Speaking of Calipari, Kentucky is the other surprise of pre-conference play. It would be a misnomer to say the No. 17 Wildcats have struggled, but no Kentucky fan expected a 9-3 mark going into conference play. The Wildcats are No. 41 in the Net ratings.

The early season 67-64 loss to Evansville is unexplainable. Wildcats fans aren’t used to back-to-back losses either, even if they came 69-66 to a solid Utah team and 71-65 to No. 5 Ohio State in mid December. The Wildcats do enter SEC play on a high after topping in-state rival No. 3 Louisville, 78-70, in overtime last Saturday.

No matter what happens in November and December, we all know the Wildcats will have a big say in the SEC race this year, and the SEC Tournament isn’t nicknamed “The Kentucky Invitational” for nothing.

At this juncture of the season, it is sort of a surprise that any team is undefeated, but the No. 8 Auburn Tigers (12-0) were expected to be strong this year. Auburn has the highest net rating of any SEC squad at No. 8.

Nine of the league’s teams have either 9-3 or 8-4 records. The standings look like the start of a marathon with most of the competitors in a big pack together. How it all shakes out is going to be interesting to see.

I’m already convinced the Razorbacks have staying power this year, but we will know a lot more about the Hogs following next week’s road swing through Baton Rouge to face LSU (8-4) on Jan. 8 and Oxford, Miss. to play Ole Miss (9-3) on Jan. 11. Most any team would accept a split on that road swing. We’ll see what happens.

First things first, though. The Hogs have a date with the Aggies (6-5) on Saturday that they have to take seriously.

Musselman said Thursday that his team has no illusions about what they have accomplished so far, saying zero. He also added that they understand any team in the SEC can beat them if the Hogs don’t play their best, and that upsets happen every night in the NCAA when conference play gets in full swing.

However, Musselman added that the Razorbacks aren’t intimidated by SEC play, and that they feel when they play their best, they have a shot at taking down any team in the league.

Walton Arena is sold out for Saturday’s game and with the momentum from the Razorbacks’ road victory over Indiana fresh on fans’ minds, the house should be rocking for the Hogs’ SEC opener.

It’s good to feel excited about a Razorback game. It’s been too long.

SEC Standings (as of Jan. 3)

Auburn 12-0
Arkansas 11-1
Georgia 9-3
Kentucky 9-3
Ole Miss 9-3
Miss. St. 9-3
Florida 8-4
LSU 8-4
Missouri 8-4
Tennessee 8-4
Vanderbilt 8-4
South Carolina 8-5
Alabama 7-5
Texas A&M 6-5

NCAA Net Ratings: No. 8 Auburn, No. 24 Arkansas, No. 37 LSU, No. 41 Kentucky, No. 51 Missouri, No. 54 Florida, No. 56 Ole Miss, No. 59 Georgia, No. 65 Alabama, No. 67 Tennessee, No. 77 Mississippi State, No. 120 South Carolina, No. 121 Vanderbilt , No. 196 Texas A&M.