LSU presents huge challenge for Hogs’ Senior Night

Arkansas junior Mason Jones was named as one of the five finalists for the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award / Photo:

Since its opening for the 1993-94 basketball season, Walton Arena has been a safe haven for the Razorbacks.

When the Hogs couldn’t buy a win on the road, they generally were able to count on the friendly confines of the “basketball palace of Mid-America” to enliven their play and provide the energy for them to pull off an upset when they needed it most.

At times it has been hard to count the value of playing in Walton Arena. I’ve heard coaches and fans opine that it’s worth 10 to 15 points to the Razorbacks at any given time.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. LSU
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 4
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 18-11 (SEC 6-10)

Remaining schedule

March 7 – at Texas A&M

At least, it seemed that way for the longest time. Much of that is hyperbole, though.

There is no doubt that over the years the Razorbacks have tended to play better at home than away, but Walton Arena in truth is like every other basketball venue or any sports venue. The better the team housed in the venue, the better the home-court or home-field advantage.

The Razorbacks are 4-4 in SEC games in Walton Arena this year with victories over Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Missouri and Tennessee, and losses to Kentucky, Auburn, Mississippi State, and South Carolina.

No doubt Arkansas’ educated fanbase knows how to crank up the heat in Walton Arena; however, as Nolan Richardson began saying late in his coaching tenure at Arkansas that fans had become a bit spoiled. Fans don’t come to the arena jacked up like they once did, at least not every night. The Razorbacks have to play well before the fans are willing to respond and return that energy to their team.

Now granted, it’s hard to enter an arena amped up just to watch mediocre basketball. In fact the product at Arkansas has been so mediocre for so long that much of what made the venue and Razorback basketball so special had seemed to wear off.

Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek didn’t fire former coach Mike Anderson last spring because he was a bad basketball coach or because the Razorbacks were horrible. He made the change because the Razorbacks had been mediocre for too long and there was no clear sign of change coming. From his perspective, the program had stagnated.

Enter Eric Musselman as the Hogs’ latest head coach. Coach Muss’ personal energy and basketball style no doubt inspired his players and in turn revved up the fanbase.

The Razorbacks’ 12-1 start to the season proved there is life in this program and it’s given everyone the hope that when Musselman has a full roster with taller, longer bodies to call upon that we very likely will see a resurgence in Razorback basketball.

After all, look how well he’s done with a roster full of guards and small forwards. Give him some more length, and a true power forward or three, and the Razorbacks stand to be more formidable.

However, since starting 12-1, the Hogs have fallen on tough times. The Hogs are 6-10 since beating Texas A&M in their first SEC game on Jan. 4, including a victory over TCU. Most of those games have been close. Only two of the losses have been by 10 or more points.

No one can say these underdog Hogs don’t play hard or ever give up. They have made every game this season interesting except for their 82-61 loss to Tennessee one Feb. 11. To the Razorbacks’ credit, they avenged that loss with an 86-69 victory over the Vols on Feb. 26. It might have been the Razorbacks’ best game of the season.

I have no doubt the Razorbacks (18-11, 6-10 SEC) will bust their tails tonight when they host LSU (20-9, 11-5) at 6 p.m. at Walton Arena for a SEC Network-televised game. It’s what they’ve done for Musselman, his staff, and themselves all year.

It’s Senior Night and possibly the last time Adrio Bailey, Jimmy Whitt Jr., Jeantal Cylla, and Jamario Bell will play in Walton Arena.

However, there is a good chance the Razorbacks will host an NIT game or possibly more with Arkansas’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament looking ever so slim.

It also could be the last time junior star Mason Jones plays at Walton Arena. Being named as one of the five finalists for the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award, given by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame places Jones in rarefied air.

The 6-5 junior is leading the SEC in scoring 21.3 points per game and was named SEC Player or Co-Player of the Week for the fourth time this season on Monday. That ties the record held by Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks and Vanderbilt’s Shan Foster.

Jones is also chasing the great Sidney Moncrief’s record of most free throws in a season of 212, which he surely will break needing just six to top the record set in 1978-79.

Jones is also creeping up on Todd Day’s Arkansas record of most points scored in SEC play in a single season of 368 points. Jones with 358 points needs just 11 points to pass Day’s record, which was set in 1991-92, Arkansas’ first season in the SEC.

It’s highly possible Jones will break both records tonight.

It would be great for the program if Jones feels he has some unfinished business at Arkansas after the end of this season, but no one could begrudge him if he does decide to enter the NBA Draft, even if he ends up playing for pay overseas next season. He is truly in the midst of one of the best single seasons by a player in Razorback history.

It’s always touching to watch a Razorback in their last home game, and it’s even better when the Hogs are able to win.

However, beating LSU will be a tall order for a Razorback team short on length.

Musselman said the Tigers have one on the most talented rosters in college basketball on Monday, and it is hard to disagree with him. They are long, lean, and mean. The final score to their victory at Baton Rouge, La. was just 79-77, but they pummeled the Razorbacks with an amazing athletic display that reminded me in instances of Houston in their Phi Slamma Jamma days.

Sophomore Javontee Smart and senior Skylar Mays make for an athletic and skilled backcourt that will tax Arkansas’ defense, and the Razorbacks simply do not have a physical answer for 6-9 Trendon Watford, who is one of the most dominant freshmen big men in the land.

In a straight up comparison, LSU has the physical advantage in this game. For the Razorbacks to pull off a victory tonight, they will have to be at their best on both ends of the court for 40 minutes. That kind of consistency has been tough for this team in SEC play.

If the Hogs spot LSU a 14-point lead or anything close like they did Georgia last Saturday, it could be an ugly night for the Razorbacks.

Hopefully the players will respond to their coaching and play smart and disciplined as well as hard. Maybe this will be a night when the Walton Arena crowd comes ready to yell from the get go like the Kentucky and Auburn games earlier this year, but maybe tonight the outcome will favor the Razorbacks.

Then the Hogs, who are playing their last regular-season game at Walton Arena tonight, will be able carry a warm feeling with them about their final appearance wherever they may go.