Hog fans might pump brakes on ‘Sweet 16’ expectations, just yet

Arkansas beat Texas A&M 69-59 Saturday night before a sold-out crowd at Bud Walton Arena.

Staff photo

For the first time in a number of years, there is legitimate excitement building behind the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team.

And why not?

The Razorbacks are 12-1 overall and last Saturday opened SEC play with a solid 10-point win over Texas A&M. Eric Musselman’s first Hog squad is undersized, but what they lack in height and girth, they so far have made up for with hustle, grit, and defense, defense, defense.

The Hogs defend the three-point line like mad, holding opponents to just 22.3 percent from behind the arc, which is the best in the nation. The Razorbacks also win turnover margin with a positive 5.1 advantage, which leads the SEC thanks to making a league-leading 9.6 steals per game.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at LSU
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 8
Where: Baton Rouge, La.

Remaining schedule

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

The Razorbacks are 2-1 in road games this year, and Musselman has said the Razorbacks should be 3-0 in that department letting a game at Western Kentucky slip through their fingers. As he said a few weeks ago, Arkansas is just seconds away from being undefeated.

Hog fans have responded by making the next four Saturday games in the 19,000-seat Walton Arena sellouts. Weeknight games are tough to sell out because of travel for some of the fanbase, but if the Razorbacks keep winning, those tickets will keep selling, too.

All of that should get any fanbase excited. This is the time to enjoy Razorback basketball!

However, as we fans often do, let’s not put the cart before the horse. It’s still early in the season with just one of 18 conference games down. The Razorbacks haven’t even played an SEC road game yet, and some are talking about the Sweet 16?

To me, that kind of thinking is just setting yourself up for a fall.

This may very well end up being a special team. There is a lot to like about it. The players know and understand their roles, and they play to those roles better than any Razorback squad in recent memory. They hustle, they grind, they team rebound, and they generally make opponents pay for their mistakes.

Musselman and his staff have molded them into a position-less team of seven nearly interchangeable parts. The Razorback staff has made the team’s size and versatility an asset by forcing teams to match up to them more so than the Hogs trying to match up to their opponents’ size.

So far, the Razorbacks have been able to find the right answer to neutralize an opponents’ big men by putting pressure on their guards and getting pesky and tenacious play from Jimmy Whitt Jr., Adrio Bailey, and Reggie Chaney in the post.

Offensively, the Razorbacks have ridden the scoring tandem of Mason Jones (19.5 ppg.) and Isaiah Joe (17.4 ppg.) with Whitt (13.4 ppg.) and Desi Sills (10.0 ppg.) making consistent double-figure contributions.

Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams spoke about the trouble Jones and Joe create in the pick-and-roll game the Hogs have been effectively using with the pair around the top of the key.

To paraphrase, he said if you don’t guard Jones, he’ll kill you off the bounce but when you make Jones give up the ball, Joe is going to shoot from distance.

Joe shoots better from 25 feet and out than he does from 21 to 25 feet. He and Jones are a deadly pair that no team has found a suitable answer for yet.

However, don’t believe that coaches around the league aren’t working on it, and understand that the Razorbacks have not seen the athleticism on a game-in and game-out basis that they are going to see for the rest of the season in SEC play.

Yes, the SEC lost some outstanding talent to the NBA last year. No, the league isn’t as good at the top as it was a year ago, but the conference is still filled with talent, and every game is going to be a battle.

Don’t get me wrong, the Razorbacks are a talented and skilled team, but they did not beat the good or solid teams on the schedule by overwhelming them with their talent.

The Hogs are winning with execution, defense, and volume three-point shooting. That’s been a great formula so far, but as of yet, we don’t know how it will stand up against the rigors of SEC play.

We will know a lot more by this time next week. The Razorbacks face a tough road swing this week with a trip to LSU at 8 p.m. Wednesday and a stop at Ole Miss at 5 p.m. Saturday. That’s a tough row to hoe for any SEC team.

The Razorbacks won’t be intimidated. They’ve proven their toughness and grit over and over this year. But the Tigers and Rebels aren’t going to concede anything either.

My biggest concern for the Razorbacks in road SEC games is their shooting percentage. There is no doubt rebounding and turnover margin are important statistical categories, but shooting percentage has and always will be the most important statistic in basketball other than the final score.

The Razorbacks are only an average shooting team at 44 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range. They mitigate that by holding opponents to 39.1 percent from the field and 22.3 percent from behind the arc, which are outstanding numbers.

However, if the Razorbacks are off either way, it will be a struggle for them to win. That’s going to happen this year. It’s just a matter of how many times will it happen?

Realistically, a split would be a pretty good week for the Razorbacks.

However, for the moment, all the Razorbacks have to do is concentrate on upending an LSU squad that may have played their best game of the year last Saturday in blasting Tennessee, 78-64, at Knoxville.

Taking down the Tigers on their home floor will be a tall task for Musselman’s smallish herd of Hogs.

I’m not saying the Razorbacks can’t or won’t win Wednesday night, but I do believe it would be wise for Hog fans to see how a bit more of this season plays out before placing Sweet 16 aspirations on this basketball team.

Let’s lock up a NCAA Tournament bid first.

SEC Standings (as of Jan. 6)

Auburn 1-0 13-0
Arkansas 1-0 12-1
Kentucky 1-0 10-3
LSU 1-0 9-4
Florida 1-0 9-4
Miss. St. 0-1 9-4
Missouri 0-1 8-5
Tennessee 0-1 8-5
Alabama 0-17-6
Texas A&M 0-1 6-6
Georgia 0-0 10-3
Ole Miss 0-0 9-4
Vanderbilt 0-0 8-5
South Carolina 0-0 8-5