SEC Tourney: Hogs’ postseason hopes on the line against Vandy

The SEC Basketball Tournament, which is held Wednesday through Sunday at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, is almost a cruel joke for every team other than the top four seeds.

It offers every one of the 14 participants a shot at redemption with the winner of the five-day tournament receiving the SEC’s only guaranteed bid to the NCAA Tournament.

However, the format of the tournament is so stacked against the bottom 10 teams that it’s more like trying to beat a rigged carnival game than a real opportunity for a team to win its way into the promised land.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: SEC Tournament vs. Vanderbilt
When: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 11
Where: Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 19-12 (SEC 7-11)

It’s like unmercifully dangling a bite of meat out of a dog’s reach and then popping it in your own mouth, leaving the pup hungry.

It truly is March Madness for teams like Georgia (15-16, 5-13 SEC) and Ole Miss (15-16, 6-12 SEC), who face each other at 7 p.m. Wednesday, and Arkansas (19-12, 7-11 SEC), and Vanderbilt (11-20, 3-15) which meet in the late game at around 8:30 p.m Wednesday. Each of them would have to win five SEC games in five days to capture the league’s coveted automatic bid.

All four have a shot at that automatic bid and the Big Dance, but not much of one.

Right now Arkansas first-year coach Eric Musselman is only concerned about Wednesday night and the Commodores, calling the game a one-game season.

“I had a meeting with our staff,” Musselman said in his press conference Monday, “and it was like, ‘Look, between now and when the game ends against Vanderbilt, I don’t want anybody talking about anything other than, ‘How do we beat Vanderbilt?’ That’s how much respect I have for them. That’s how I feel about how well they’re playing.”

“…Vanderbilt is playing good basketball. They get to sleep in their own beds, they’re not traveling. This is a problematic game in a lot of ways.”

The teams that finished fifth through 10th receive a bye into Thursday’s second round. This year fifth-seed Florida (19-12, 11-7) awaits the Georgia-Ole Miss winner for a 2:30 p.m. tipoff. Sixth-seed South Carolina (18-13, 10-8) gets the winner of the Vandy-Arkansas game.

Ninth seed Alabama (16-15, 8-10) faces eighth seed Tennessee (17-14, 9-9) at noon, and seventh seed Texas A&M (16-14, 10-8) faces 10th seed Missouri (15-16, 7-11) at 6 p.m.

Even though Missouri and Arkansas finished tied in the standings and split their two games this season, the Tigers received the 10th-place seed over the Hogs because they upset No. 2 seed Auburn in the regular season.

Kentucky (25-6, 15-3) is the top seed, followed by Auburn (25-6, 12-6), No. 3 seed LSU (21-10, 12-6), and No. 4 seed Mississippi State (20-11, 11-7).

No team has completed the five-victories in five-day gauntlet since the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC in 2012 and forced the league into its current tournament set-up.

Only Arkansas in 2000 and Georgia in 2009 were able to win the tournament in its previous format when the bottom eight teams played each other for the right to face the top four teams, which received an opening round bye.

For Kentucky and Auburn, the tournament is a mere formality before heading into the NCAA Tournament. Both are locks for the NCAA Tournament no matter whether they bow out early Friday or win the event Sunday. Their NCAA Tournament seeding might be slightly affected either way.

Kentucky is expected to be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. Auburn is in the neighborhood of fourth to a sixth seed.

LSU and Florida feel like locks for the tournament, even if either loses their opening game in the tournament.

Mississippi State appears to be on the outside looking in going into the SEC Tourney. The Bulldogs are probably the team with the most to gain from the tournament.

As the No. 4 seed, MSU would play fifth seed Florida on Friday in the quarterfinals if the Gators advance.

I think Florida locks up a NCAA bid with a win Thursday, but if the Bulldogs beat the Gators, that might be enough to get them in the tournament, too, for a fifth SEC team.

However, the NCAA Selection Committee might use that contest as a virtual play-in game, leaving the loser for the NIT.

The winner of a Florida-MSU showdown would face Kentucky in Saturday’s semifinals barring an upset of the Wildcats on Friday. If the Bulldogs beat Florida and Kentucky in succession, consider their dance card punched.

So what do the Razorbacks’ postseason opportunities look like?

It appears the Hogs will miss their season goal of making the NCAA Tournament.

Too many close losses dot their schedule and too many other more deserving squads are ahead of them in the SEC and around the nation to even imagine the Razorbacks getting their dance card punched without winning the SEC Tournament for the automatic bid.

Even if the Hogs won four games to make the championship game, I don’t think that would be enough to get them in, and the chances of that happening are slim.

Arkansas’ longest SEC winning streak this year was two games. Arkansas went 2-0 in their first two SEC games against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in early January and beat Missouri and Tennessee back to back in late February.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that the Razorbacks will make the NIT. A loss to Vandy would probably send them to spring break instead of to the postseason.

Vanderbilt did finish last in the SEC, but the Commodores, along with the Aggies, carry the longest winning streak into the tournament by winning their final two games of the regular season.

The Razorbacks didn’t play terrible in their 77-69 loss at Texas A&M, but they certainly didn’t play well, particularly on defense.

Defense was the Razorbacks’ calling card early in the season, but since early in the SEC schedule there have been lapses. Early it was allowing penetration, but when adjustments were made to seal that up, the Hogs started allowing teams to hurt them from the 3-point line.

Rebounding and depth issues are struggles the Hogs have dealt with all season because of their lack of height and depth. Those issues will only be magnified the longer the Razorbacks play in the SEC Tournament.

As for the Razorbacks’ draw, it isn’t that bad if they can upend Vanderbilt in their hometown Wednesday night. Musselman has good feelings about Bridgestone Arena. His 2018 Nevada squad advanced to the Sweet 16 there.

Should Arkansas beat Vandy, they would play a physical South Carolina team that nipped them 79-77 on Jan. 29 when Isaiah Joe’s knee injury was becoming problematic. Beating a Frank Martin-coached team is never easy, but it’s certainly not impossible for the Razorbacks if they play well.

LSU would await Friday, if they Hogs get that far. As big and talented as the Tigers are, the Razorbacks match up better with them than they do Mississippi State, Florida, Auburn or Kentucky.

The major concern would be fatigue at that point with two games under the Hogs’ belt. Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, and Jimmy Whitt Jr. all regularly are counted on to play at least 35 minutes a game. I question how much juice they would have remaining in their legs after playing Wednesday and Thursday. Playing against a fresh LSU squad might get ugly if the Razorbacks’ legs grow heavy.

Of course, I’ve speculated well past what Musselman is comfortable with. While members of his staff have no doubt started prepping scouting material on South Carolina and probably even LSU, he’s not allowing any of them to speak to the players about any opponent other than Vanderbilt.

So, it’s down to a one-game season in his mind against Vandy. It would be a shame for this team if the season does end Wednesday night.

It just seems too early for this squad to bow out.