Diamond Hogs soar as Hog hoopsters swoon

Like a super hero swooping in to save a family from a burning building, Razorback baseball has arrived on the scene to rescue Hog fans from their swooning basketball season.

With last night’s 73-68 loss to Florida, the Razorbacks (16-10, 4-9 SEC) have lost five consecutive SEC basketball games and six of their last seven. Those losses have taken what would’ve seemed like a sure bet to be participating in the NCAA Tournament in January to the Razorbacks having a slim chance of even making the NIT if things don’t turn around.

With just five regular-season games left to play, the Razorbacks may not have enough games left to win in order to boost themselves back into the NCAA Tournament picture, short of winning the SEC Tournament, which begins March 11 in Nashville, Tenn.

Good news is that Isaiah Joe might be able to return to the floor as soon as Saturday when the Hogs host Missouri at noon for an SEC Network-televised game; however, it just seems like the Razorbacks don’t have enough left in the tank to fight their way back into NCAA Tournament contention.

The Razorbacks’ miss the attention that Joe draws from opposing defenses and his defensive skills at the other end of the floor, and oh yeah, the 16 points he averaged per game. Joe’s return will take some pressure off Mason Jones, Jimmy Whitt, Jalen Harris, and Desi Sills. It will also allow the Razorbacks to play their five-guard lineup that was very difficult for some teams to match up with offensively and defensively.

Despite the recent run of losses this has been one of the more fun Razorback teams to watch in recent years because they play so hard and for much of the season executed so well.

Led by senior Adrio Bailey, the Razorbacks made a valiant run at the Gators Tuesday, crawling back from a 19-point deficit in the first half to cut Florida’s lead down to a single basket, but the Hogs couldn’t string enough offense together or garner enough defensive stops to get over the hump against a very good Gators team.

Even though the losses are piling up, this is still a team I like to watch because they continue to lay it on the line night in and night out. That’s not easy. It’s a tribute to the heart of the players and to first-year coach Eric Musselman and his that his squad is continuing to compete.

Photo: Tim Casey, FloridaGators.com

Thankfully, though, the No. 7 Razorback baseball team appears to be every bit as good as the various polls project after starting hot out of chutes with a three-game sweep of Eastern Illinois last weekend, 5-1, 10-1, and 12-3.

National Collegiate Player of the Week Heston Kjerstad showed why he was a consensus preseason All-American by posting some Ruthian numbers over the weekend. Kjerstad, the Hogs’ right fielder, had seven hits in 12 at-bats, including 4 home runs and 10 RBI. He’s batting .583 and slugging 1.667 with a .643 on-base percentage.

It’s early so numbers can be deceiving, but six Razorbacks are hitting .300 or better after the first weekend with center field Christian Franklin and third baseman Jacob Nesbit both batting .417, left fielder Braydon Webb at .357, designated hitter Matt Goodheart at .309, and shortstop Casey Martin at .300. In all, the team is batting .324.

Sophomore Connor Noland, who is targeted to be the Hogs’ Friday starter, showed why, getting his first win against Eastern Illinois. In the 5-1 victory the right-hander struck out 11 in 6.2 innings and giving up no runs. He showed better velocity and command than a year ago, and was named SEC Pitcher of the week for his effort.

Day Two starter Patrick Wicklander was nearly as strong. The left-hander struck out 7 in five innings of work and also did not give up a run in the 10-1 victory.

Head coach Dave Van Horn was fairly pleased with what he saw from the Razorbacks, although he’d like to see fewer strike outs and better performances out of the bullpen. Pitchers generally did well on their first inning out of the pen, but not quite as well in their second.

The Razorback could have a sterner overall test this week when Gonzaga (2-2) visits Baum Stadium for a four-game series. The game times are set for 2 p.m. Thursday, 3 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday. However, foul weather could force adjustments.

Van Horn said Tuesday that if the weather forecast is bad for Sunday there is a possibility of playing a doubleheader on Friday, but that a firm decision won’t come until Thursday.

Kole Ramage will start Thursday with Noland going Friday and Wicklander Saturday, Van Horn said. Sunday’s starter will be announced later.

Either way Hog fans should be in for some exciting baseball this weekend, and maybe Musselman’s Razorbacks will be able to break their losing streak as well.