Razorbacks hit the road in a SEC free fall

OK, I thought the Arkansas Razorbacks had met adversity and conquered it a week ago when they bounced back to beat TCU after suffering back-to-back losses to Kentucky and Mississippi State.

In a sense, they did. First-year Arkansas coach Eric Musselman claimed the Hogs played their best game of the season analytically in dispatching the Horned Frogs, 79-67, as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. The fact they did it without the services of sharp-shooter and stud defender Isaiah Joe, who missed the game because of a knee issue, was even more impressive.

While that game was a good win, and a very much needed win, it still left the Razorbacks with a .500 mark in the SEC. At that point, the Razorbacks could go either way in SEC play.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Alabama
When: 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1
Where: Tuscaloosa, AL
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 15-5 (SEC 3-4)

Remaining schedule

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

Of course it seemed the Hogs had found their equilibrium. The next game was in the friendly confines of Walton Arena, and the opponent was a hot South Carolina squad who had played up and down all season long.

I didn’t think it would be an easy game for Arkansas, but I figured the Razorbacks would find a way to pull it out.

They almost did, but South Carolina was just a bit better last Wednesday with Frank Martin’s Gamecocks escaping Walton Arena with a well-deserved 79-77 decision.

A dozen different things could be pegged as “the reason” for a two-point loss at home. Certainly an odd technical foul on Arkansas’ bench is one of them, but there is no “one reason” any game is lost by a single basket.

The Razorbacks could have made up for two in a hundred different ways over the course of the game, but they didn’t.

Hats off to Martin and his Gamecocks. He had a great game plan, and his team out-executed the Razorbacks.

Now the Razorbacks have tumbled to 3-4 in SEC play, and despite having a solid overall mark of 15-5, Arkansas is struggling as they prepare to hit the road to face Alabama at 5 p.m. on Saturday in a SEC Network-televised game.

A week or so ago, I made a little fun at the expense of the SEC Media that picked the Hogs to finish 11th in the SEC back in November. Well, at the moment, the Razorbacks are 10th in the SEC, and those voters don’t look so clueless.

Obviously nothing is set in stone for the Hogs with 11 regular-season games left to play, but the Razorbacks have to stop grinding their gears or all that they worked for in nonconference play is going to be lost.

The Hogs are also beat-up physically as well as mentally after the tough loss to South Carolina. Musselman reported Thursday that Joe’s knee is an ongoing issue, Desi Sills has a sprained ankle, and Jimmy Whitt has a numb foot after being kneed in his calf.

That’s a scary position for the Hogs to face, considering their seven-man rotation and short bench.

I’m not sure what more junior guard Mason Jones can do to lift his squad. From an individual perspective Jones had a game for the ages against South Carolina.

Jones almost willed the Razorbacks to a victory, scoring 34 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing out 4 of the Razorbacks’ 8 assists.

Jones also had seven of the Razorbacks’ 16 turnovers. The lost possessions from those turnovers were just as costly if not more so to the Razorbacks’ cause as the 14 free throws they missed in the foul-filled game.

Jones had a hot hand and did what he could, but maybe sharing the ball a bit more would have been a more efficient way to attack the Gamecocks?

Then again maybe not.

Either way, the Razorbacks are going to have to find a way to be more effective on the road against Alabama (12-8, 4-3 SEC), which suffered a 90-76 clubbing at the hands of LSU last Wednesday at Baton Rouge, La.

This is gut check time for the Razorbacks. There is no easy win on the road in the SEC, and Coleman Coliseum can be a challenging environment when Alabama’s athletes are running and jumping in sync.

The Razorbacks won’t be the most talented or deepest team in the gym Saturday. They will have to win with grit, guts, and execution, but when the Hogs have won this season, that’s been the case.

The Razorbacks need to put the brakes on their SEC free fall and halt their conference losing streak at three games. The odds of doing it don’t look good, going into the game.

However, this Razorback squad has pulled off surprises before this season. It would be great if they can do it again Saturday.