Bulldogs provide board-crashing challenge for Hogs

The Arkansas Razorbacks missed an opportunity last Saturday against the No. 10 Kentucky Wildcats.

Their chance was slim against one of the most talented rosters in the nation, but Coach Eric Musselman’s upstart Hogs had a shot of upsetting Kentucky thanks to the outstanding effort his players give night in and night out and because of an epic crowd at Bud Walton Arena, one Musselman called Monday the best he’d ever been a part of.

But sometimes a team — especially one as limited in size as the Razorbacks — just doesn’t have enough to get over the hump against a more talented team. That’s reality.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Mississippi State
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22
Where: Starkville, Mississippi
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 14-3 (SEC 3-2)

Remaining schedule

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

Could the Razorbacks have played better?

Sure, the Hogs left points on the table at the free-throw line that might have made a difference. Obviously, rebounding is always an issue with this team.

The Razorbacks needed a Herculean effort on the boards by every man that played just to have a shot at reducing Kentucky’s rebounding advantage. Arkansas didn’t get that Saturday, but then again the Hogs are only human.

Arkansas fans understand that.

Certainly, every Razorback fan laments losing a game that at one point appeared winnable, but few if any fans are truly upset about last Saturday’s loss. Kentucky was supposed to win and despite great opposition by the Razorbacks, the Wildcats did.

The loss, though, leaves the Razorbacks in a precarious situation in SEC play going into Wednesday’s 6 p.m. game at Mississippi State.

At 14-3 overall and 3-2 in the SEC, the Hogs lag two games behind SEC frontrunner LSU (13-4, 5-0) and a game behind Kentucky (13-4, 4-1) and Florida (12-5, 4-1).

The Razorbacks are firmly stuck in the upper middle of the league at the moment tied with Auburn (15-2, 3-2), Tennessee (11-6, 3-2), and Alabama (10-7, 3-2).

The situation is precarious because while Mississippi State is just 2-3 in SEC games and 11-6 overall, Ben Howland’s Bulldogs have obliterated their last two opponents. A week ago, Mississippi State smashed Missouri, 72-45, and throttled Georgia, 91-59, with their bruising brand of basketball in Starkville.

No doubt, the Bulldogs will be fired up to add the Razorbacks’ name to that list of blowouts this Wednesday.

It will even out over the course of the season, but the way the SEC schedule is set up leaves me scratching my head about how the Bulldogs got three SEC home games in a row?

Humphrey Coliseum has always been a difficult environment. Even Arkansas’ 1993-94 national championship team took a lump at the Hump, falling, 72-71, in one of their two regular-season SEC losses during that magical season.

Kentucky’s size, length and talent made for a difficult matchup for the Razorbacks to overcome, but physically it gets no easier Wednesday night at Hump.

The Bulldogs occupy three of the top-nine rebounding slots in the SEC with 6-10 Reggie Perry leading the way with 10.1 rebounds a game. He’s followed by 6-7 Robert Woodard II at seventh with 7.6 rpg., and 6-11 Abdul Ado at ninth with 6.9 rpg.

Grabbing that many rebounds with just three players adds up to a lot of misses by opponents which speaks to how well the Bulldogs defend. It also allows Mississippi State’s guards to get out in transition after a stop for easy transition buckets.

The Bulldogs are a dangerous team, particularly to an undersized Arkansas team with a short bench.

Though Kentucky dominated the glass against the Hogs, they did not physically pound Arkansas like LSU did.

Mississippi State, which lost 60-59 to LSU at Baton Rouge, will look to brutalize the Hogs on the boards like momma taking a tenderizing mallet to a piece of round steak.

As talented as Kentucky was, the Bulldogs might be a bigger specific challenge to this Razorback team.

I’m not going to say the Hogs aren’t going to win Wednesday night because we’ve seen how hard and how well this Arkansas team can play, but I will say that if this Razorback squad can pull off a victory at the Hump, it would be a huge win for them going forward. Not many teams are going to leave Starkville this season with a victory.

The SEC isn’t getting a ton of respect nationally. It’s early, but the SEC might only receive four or five NCAA Tournament bids. Escaping with a road win here or there could be the difference in the Hogs dancing in the NCAA tourney or settling for another trip to the NIT.

Musselman said Monday in his press conference that he’s gone over the advantages and disadvantages of making changes to the starting lineup and to his rotation.

He’s considered starting Adrio Bailey and Reggie Chaney together or even calling little-used 6-9 forward Ethan Henderson’s number. He’s also thought about starting his five-guard lineup which has often been his best rebounding lineup because of spacing and hustle.

However, Musselman said that there is “beauty in consistency,” and that the advantages of changing up the lineup doesn’t outweigh the strength they’ve developed with the seven-man rotation that has developed so far.

As we’ve seen, teams have had trouble matching up with the Razorbacks’ unorthodox lineup in most games this season.

Arkansas is a good basketball team. The Razorbacks execute so well and play with so much effort that they have been a pleasure to watch. They also are talented, but their lack of size means their margin of error can be very slender almost every night out.

The great thing is this squad has so much grit and such a never-say-die attitude along with an ability to make 3-pointers in clusters. That gives them the opportunity to hang around and turn a game with their defense at almost any point.

I don’t like Arkansas’ matchup with MSU at Starkville, but one thing this Razorback team has done all season is prove their doubters wrong. Hopefully they will do it again Wednesday at the Hump in the SEC Network-televised game.