Hogs’ spirit gives them fighting chance for NCAA bid

With the Arkansas Razorbacks’ NCAA hopes resurrected last Saturday in a 78-68 victory over Missouri at Walton Arena, Hog fans have a reason to believe going into the final two weeks of the regular season.

That’s the resiliency of the Razorback fans, but right now, Arkansas’ chances of making the Big Dance hinge more on the resiliency of the Hogs’ themselves, and what they can build with these final four games.

No doubt, the Razorbacks (17-10, 5-9 SEC) looked a lot better with sophomore shooting guard Isaiah Joe back on the floor. He had missed the last six games recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. It took him about a quarter of the game to get back into the flow, but once he did, his play reminded me and everyone else watching that he’s more than just a shooter.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Tennessee
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 17-10 (SEC 5-9)

Remaining schedule

Feb. 29 – at Georgia
March 4 – LSU
March 7 – at Texas A&M

Now, don’t get me wrong, Joe is a shooter. The Hogs wouldn’t have won without his 5-of-10 shooting from 3-point range, his 6-of-12 shooting from the field, and his 4-of-4 shooting from the free-throw line. All that added up to a smooth game high of 21 points.

Joe also added 3 assists, 3 rebounds and a steal on a solid stat line for anyone, much less considering it was his first game back from knee surgery. The Razorbacks needed every bit of that to win.

Naturally, Joe’s range helped the offensive spacing which allowed Desi Sills to pop for one of his best offensive showings of the season with points, including hitting on 4-of-6 3-pointers.

It enabled Jimmy Whitt Jr. to plunder the middle with his mid-range game for 14, and for Adrio Bailey to pick up 11 points in a variety of ways.

It wasn’t a big day for Mason Jones, who had 12 points and 8 rebounds, but it had to take some pressure off the young man, who needed to score 30 a night to keep the Hogs competitive while Joe was injured.

However, what was so apparent with Joe’s return is how much better the entire team functioned with him on the floor for nearly 38 minutes

Again, it took a bit for Arkansas to get going. The Hogs fell behind by 13 with 9:59 remaining in the first half before surging to take a 35-33 lead at halftime, but once the Razorbacks locked in, they looked much more like the defensive squad that gave teams fits through the first half of the season.

With the defense locked in, the Razorbacks’ intensity level began to rise and their offensive flow improved and their confidence grew. Joe is just that type of player who makes the team better by being on the floor.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Joe’s all-around game prior to his return from the injury, but what I failed to recognize was that he actually is the Razorbacks’ glue guy. He just makes everything function better.

It was great to learn on Monday that Joe’s knee held up well after playing nearly 38 minutes on it, and that he and the rest of the Razorbacks are ready for a crucial game at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday against Rick Barnes’ Tennessee Vols (15-12, 7-7) on the SEC Network.

It’s no secret the Vols put the orange crush on the Razorbacks at Knoxville, 82-61, administering the Razorbacks their worst beating of the season. Their quickness and length confounded the Hogs on both ends of the floor. It’s the one game this season that the Hogs never were in and never really made a legitimate run at winning.

Arkansas never truly threatened in their home loss to Kentucky, 73-66, either, but at least the final score was respectable. That wasn’t the case at Tennessee. It was a butt-whooping from start to finish.

Thanks to that five-game losing streak that still looms in the rearview mirror, the Hogs cannot afford another trip to the woodshed against the Vols or any of their other three regular-season opponents.

ESPN Bracketology maven Joe Lunardi said the Razorbacks could still be on the bubble if they finished 4-1 in their last five games. While he is considered an expert if not the expert, I personally would feel a lot better about their chances of getting an NCAA bid if Arkansas went into the SEC Tournament on March 11 on a five-game winning streak.

I have no doubt the Razorbacks are capable of upending any one of Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, and Texas A&M in a given game. But after watching the Razorbacks lose 8 of their last 11 contests, it’s hard for me to forecast the Hogs beating all four in a row.

For Hog fans, this is familiar territory. It seemed like every season under previous coach Mike Anderson that the Razorbacks needed to make a big, late-season run to in order to make the NCAA Tournament. Some years it worked out, but others it didn’t.

Considering the lack of size on the Razorbacks’ returning roster, I thought it was a bold goal for first-year coach Eric Musselman to set an NCAA Tournament appearance as a goal for the Hogs, but it’s one I liked. Musselman is aggressive, and he’s willing to push his players hard to reach their individual and team goals. And making the NCAA Tournament was a worthy goal for this team to fight for.

However at some point, talent and depth have to be there along with the desire.

I don’t question the Razorbacks’ heart one bit. Lesser teams would not have played as hard and would have given in to the situation when facing a five-game losing streak, but there’s no quit in this Razorback basketball team.

And that’s what’s going to make these last four regular-season games so interesting.