Hogs searching for identity at midpoint of SEC race

Arkansas guard JD Notae / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The Arkansas Razorbacks (13-5, 5-4 SEC) turn the corner into the second half of their SEC schedule at 8 p.m. Tuesday by hosting the Mississippi State Bulldogs (10-8, 4-5 SEC) in a pivotal contest for both squads who are mired in the middle of the pack in the SEC race.

With aspirations of postseason play on both squads’ minds, the contest is key. Both need to play better down the stretch than they did in the first half of the SEC slate if they plan to make the cut for the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday.

The Hogs’ NCAA Net rating of No. 33 technically would have them in the tournament if the season ended today, while the Bulldogs’ ranking of No. 80 would have them on the outside looking in, but what happens over the next nine games for both squads will be more telling.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Mississippi State
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2
Where: Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network
Current Record: 13-5

Next four games

Feb. 6 – Texas A&M (5 p.m. SEC Network)
Feb. 9 – at Kentucky (6 p.m. ESPN/2)
Feb. 13 – at Missouri (3 p.m.ESPN2/U)
Feb. 16 – Florida (6 p.m. ESPN/2)

Any way you look at it, neither can afford to lose tonight’s game, although the Bulldogs have more to gain with the contest being a Quadrant 1 game for them, while it is a Quadrant 3 game for the Razorbacks.

What the heck is this quadrant stuff, you may be asking?

The NCAA has been ranking individual contests based on the team’s Net rating at the time it is played for a few years. A team’s schedule and results are now broken down in four quadrants that place greater emphasis on games played on neutral courts and in true road environments.

The quadrant breakdown is as follows: Quadrant 1: Home 1-30; Neutral 1-50; Away 1-75. Quadrant 2: Home 31-75; Neutral 51-100; Away 76-135, and so on.

Of course, the quadrant system was based on a pre-Covid-19 environment in which home teams enjoyed more of an advantage with a packed arena with most everyone root, root, rooting for home team.

The sparse Covid-19 crowds makes arenas like Bud Walton Arena less intimidating for the visitors, which skews the quadrant system which is weighted against home games because of the perceived home-court advantage.

That’s probably getting too far into the weeds of the NCAA Net rating system, which definitely has it holes. For instance, Tennessee (12-3, 5-3) is ranked ninth, while Alabama (14-4, 9-0) is 10th in the Net ratings. The Crimson Tide have clearly been the best team in the SEC through nine games.

With how herky, jerky non-conference scheduling was this season because of Covid-19, what Alabama has done in SEC play seems far more impressive to me than what Tennessee did going undefeated in November and December.

The thought is that all that stuff will work itself out by the middle of March when the conference tournaments commence and the NCAA Selection Committee actually begins its task of selecting who is in the Big Dance and who is out.

For all teams at the moment, it’s best to just heed the advice of the late Al Davis of Oakland Raiders fame and “just win baby.”

For the most part, coach Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks have done that this season.

However, the Hogs suffered a tough loss last Saturday at Oklahoma State, when Cowboys’ freshman phenom Cade Cunningham exerted himself, scoring OSU’s final 11 points in a tough, 81-77 Razorback loss.

As you’ve probably read, Cunningham, a 6-8 point guard, is a strong candidate to be the first player selected in this summer’s NCAA Draft, and he certainly did to the Hogs what top NBA Draft picks do to opponents.

His step-back shot that ultimately sealed the Hogs’ fate gave me flashback to how Larry Bird used to make space for his long-distance daggers.

The difference in that game was that when it was all on the line, OSU got exactly the shot it wanted with its best player taking the game by the collar and showing the Hogs who was boss.

Arkansas had an opportunity to take the lead and possibly even secure the victory late. They got a good shot, too, with forward Connor Vanover open at the top of the key with seconds to play. It wasn’t a bad shot, really. Vanover probably hits that shot most of the time.

However, it was the shot Oklahoma State was willing to give up as they were overplaying the other four Hogs.

It was the shot OSU decided to live or die with, and they lived, locking up a very close game with a couple of more Cunningham free throws.

In all honesty, dropping that game to OSU didn’t really hurt the Hogs that much. It’ll be viewed as a “good loss” — a close one on the road — by the NCAA Selection Committee.

However, the loss is troubling for the Razorbacks as they move forward. Even though it was a nip-and-tuck game, OSU dictated play to the Hogs down they stretch.

The Cowboys got the shot they wanted from the player they wanted to put the game in their hands in the final seconds on their next to last offensive possession.

Defensively, the Cowboys gave up a good look at the basket, but their defensive play dictated that the shot came from a player of their choosing. Even if Vanover had nailed the 3-pointer, they would have lived with that option over others.

For Arkansas, it’s not all that troubling that a player missed a 3-pointer that could have put them up by 1. Again it was a good enough shot attempt.

What is troubling is that OSU dictated how the final minute of the game would be played. OSU was the aggressor. The Cowboys were in control.

The Cowboys knew exactly who they wanted to take their last shot and shoot their last free throws, and they made it happen.

They also knew what type of shot they were willing to give up late and to who, and again they made it happen. OSU controlled the last few minutes of the game.

Arkansas dictated nothing late in the game that had the feel of an early round NCAA Tournament play.

That has to be concerning to Musselman and his staff going into the second half of their SEC schedule. What Musselman and his staff have to do is make that loss constructive.

At the moment, the Razorbacks really don’t have a strong pecking order on who to go to in a situation like they faced late against OSU.

Last year, the options were Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, Jimmy Whitt. This year the go-to role hasn’t clearly defined itself with just nine regular-season games left to play.

Sometimes that’s good because a team doesn’t live and die with one or two players; however, against OSU, it meant no Hog stepped up to take control when Arkansas needed one to do so.

The Cowboys knew exactly who the game needed to flow through, and the Hogs didn’t. That was the difference in a very exciting and close basketball game.

If the Razorbacks want to make the most of this season or even just get to the NCAA Tournament, it’s time for a Hog or two to take the reins and lead this team.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the Razorbacks play tonight against Mississippi State in a game the Razorbacks can ill afford to lose if they want to stay in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Will the Hogs grow and mature after the tough loss, or will they just keep going with the flow?

Will Musselman remain the leader of the team from the bench, or will a player or two step forward to take charge?

Either way I looking forward to seeing what the answer will be.