Razorbacks need wins and help to make the NCAA Tournament

It will be a shame if the Arkansas Razorbacks don’t make the NCAA Tournament this season.

It truly will.

The rest of the nation deserves a chance to see the Hogs play, even if it is just for a single game.

There isn’t another team like the Razorbacks in the nation. No team plays small ball like the Hogs, and when they are at their best no team plays harder than the Razorbacks.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Texas A&M
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7
Where: College Station, Texas
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 19-11 (SEC 7-10)

Remaining schedule

March 11-14 – SEC Tournament

Junior guard Mason Jones is a three-ring circus all by himself as a scorer. As his teammate Jimmy Whitt Jr. said Wednesday night after the Razorbacks’ 99-90 victory over LSU at Walton Arena, Jones going for 30 plus points has become normal. It’s what Jones does.

Speaking of Whitt, who had the game of his Razorback career with 26 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists in the win, his game is perhaps even more compelling than Jones’. Not only does he usually take to the toughest defensive assignment each game as a shut-down defender, but he also has a mid-game range that’s uncanny.

The way he flicks in 10- to 17-footers with that behind-the-head, fall-away release is a sight to behold. He forces teams to guard him with a much taller player to slow him down, and when that happens it creates mismatches for other Razorbacks to exploit.

Isaiah Joe was off his game Wednesday night against LSU, going 1 of 7 from the field for 11 points, but he had averaged 23 points in his previous three games since returning from a knee injury. Joe has such a deadly shot and so much range that even with players like Jones and Whitt, he is always an opponent’s primary concern. When he gets open looks, those are generally the games when the Razorbacks are at their best.

The Hogs play such a unique brand of basketball because of their literally and figuratively short roster. Ethan Henderson and Reggie Chaney are both listed at 6-8 and that’s as tall as the Razorbacks stand this year. First-year head coach Eric Musselman has constantly had to devise ways to put his Hogs in a position to win all season long. Usually, the Razorbacks play with what amounts to four guards and a small forward.

When all hands are on deck, the Razorbacks have been impressive. The Hogs are 18-6 in games with their top six or seven players healthy. They are 1-5 in the six games played without Joe. Arkansas was able to beat TCU at Walton Arena with Joe sitting out, but the Razorbacks went 0-5 after defeating Alabama, 82-78, at Tuscaloosa on Feb. 1 when Joe was out with his knee injury. The Hogs didn’t win again until Joe’s return Feb. 22 against Missouri, 78-68.

That five-game slide included overtime losses to Auburn (79-76) at home and to Missouri (83-79) on the road. It also featured a 77-76 loss at home to Mississippi State, a 73-68 loss at Florida, and a 82-61 blowout loss to Tennessee.

The Razorbacks were possessions away from winning four of those five games, but almost only counts in horseshoes as the old saying goes.

The Razorbacks still hold onto the slightest of chances of making the NCAA Tournament. Some feel the Hogs are in a position to make the Big Dance by winning two or three games.

However, it’s not that simple. The Razorbacks have not won enough this season to give them a so-called Magic Number. As a league, the SEC, unfortunately and maybe unfairly, is ranked too low in NCAA’s Net Rankings to carry much clout into Selection Weekend.

Nationally, the SEC is viewed as a front-running league with a bunch of competitive also-rans. Kentucky owns the SEC’s highest Net Ranking at No. 22 in the latest posting with Florida at No. 29, LSU at No. 33, Auburn at No. 35, and Arkansas at No. 43. Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina ring in at Nos. 51, 52, and 60.

According to that, Arkansas is not in bad shape. However when you consider Mississippi State and South Carolina are three games ahead of the Hogs in the SEC standings at 10-7 and the Razorbacks lost two games to the Bulldogs and their only game to the Gamecocks at Walton Arena, the Net Ranking don’t seem to be as meaningful as actual play on the court.

Remember, Net Rankings are just a tool for the Selection Committee, not the end all and be all on the debate whether a team deserves a bid or not.

That’s just a look at where the Razorbacks stand among SEC teams. The Selection Committee evaluates teams against the entire nation. With the SEC not being considered as strong this season, it’s going to hurt the Razorbacks when compared against other teams from leagues considered stronger than the SEC.

Right now, I could see the NCAA Selection Committee going with the SEC’s top four teams — Kentucky, Auburn, LSU and Florida — which are virtually locks for the tourney, and leaving it at that.

Teams like Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Arkansas are going to have to do something impressive to earn their dancing shoes.

For the Razorbacks to make the NCAA Tournament, they not only need to win as many as possible, but they also need Mississippi State and South Carolina to falter down the stretch.

It wouldn’t hurt if the Hogs got another crack at one or both of them in the SEC Tournament, which opens Wednesday in Nashville, and beat them both. Given the way the previous games against the Bulldogs and Gamecocks went, I’m not so sure the Hogs would win on a neutral court.

That said each time I discount this Razorback team this season, they’ve proven me wrong. I hope they do so again.

The Razorbacks making the NCAA Tournament this season would be a strong and promising start to the Musselman era of basketball.

The Razorbacks play their final regular-season game at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Texas A&M. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.