Surging Razorbacks seek to extend streak at Missouri

The more a team wins, the bigger each game becomes.

The Arkansas Razorbacks (15-5, 7-4 SEC) are learning more about that lately thanks to their five-game SEC winning streak, which is currently the longest in the league.

The Hogs did absorb an 81-77 road loss at Oklahoma State in the midst of their SEC streak, but currently all thoughts among fans are on the SEC and how the Hogs might improve their stock for the NCAA Tournament.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Missouri
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13
Where: Columbia, MO
Current Record: 16-5

Next four games

Feb. 16 – Florida (6 p.m. ESPN/2)
Feb. 20 – at Texas A&M (7:30 p.m. SEC Network)
Feb. 24 – Alabama (8 p.m. ESPN/U)
Feb. 27 – LSU (1 p.m. ESPN/2)

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, however, is trying to make sure his squad is wearing blinders as they approach the final month of regular-season play. Their complete focus has to be on the next opponent.

No. 10 Missouri, whom the Hogs face at 3 p.m. Saturday in Columbia, Mo., is more than a plateful for the Razorbacks, who are showing signs of coming together as a team at just the right time.

Returning only two players from last year’s squad, Musselman and the Hogs have struggled at times to find just the right combinations, particularly early in their SEC slate when the Hogs faced a tough stretch that saw them get off to a 2-4 start in league play.

Those games coincided with an ankle injury to grad-transfer Justin Smith, who has proven to be a key cog for Arkansas in their five-game winning streak, much like grad-transfer Jimmy Whitt Jr. did for the Razorbacks last year.

Former Razorback coach Nolan Richardson would have called Smith a “fixer” because he tends to “fix” things when they are broken on defense and offense.

Smith is a stout 6-7, but he’s quick and athletic enough to be the lynchpin in the Hogs’ half-court trap that has been very effective at forcing opponents’ key ball handler to give up the ball in recent games.

Smith is also the Razorbacks’ most consistent and versatile rebounder, leading the Hogs with 6.5 boards game and pitching in 11.1 points per game.

Smith missed the Razorbacks’ 81-68 home loss to Missouri on Jan. 2 in which the Tigers bullied the Razorbacks on the boards with their veteran roster.

Smith adds a measure of toughness to the Hogs’ game that’s just not there when he was injured.

The Razorbacks should be better outfitted to face Missouri, which suffered a surprising 80-59 loss at Ole Miss Wednesday night.

In recent games, 7-3 sophomore Connor Vanover and 6-10 freshman Jaylin Williams have both played well while sharing time at the post. Neither played particularly well against the Tigers in the first matchup.

The Hogs have not only played better in the front court of late, but guards Jalen Tate, Devo Davis, JD Notae, and Desi Sills have meshed well together, almost becoming interchangeable even though they all excel at different skills.

Tate is showing a good bit of maturity and leadership after struggling through a slump early on in SEC play.

Davis seems to improve each game, bringing hustle, heart, and nice dose of athleticism to the floor. He’s a crafty passer, though, who sometimes catches his teammates off guard.

Notae likes to freelance and is skilled with getting off his shot. His shot selection is improving, and his teammates are learning to play with the combo guard.

Sills is currently dealing with a shoulder injury he suffered against Mississippi State. His scoring and defense will be needed at Columbia.

While the Tigers are likely to fall in next week’s Net rankings because of the loss to Ole Miss, a win over Missouri would still be deemed the best win of the year for the Hogs, whose NCAA resume is lacking a Top 25 victory.

No doubt the Tigers’ loss to Ole Miss will be a wake-up call to Cuonzo Martin’s squad, which is having an outstanding season. The game before falling to Ole Miss, the Tigers notched the league’s lone victory over SEC frontrunner Alabama, 68-65.

The Tigers also own a victory at No. 16 Tennessee, 73-64, on Jan. 23. Coincidentally, Missouri’s only home loss came to the Vols, 73-53, in their SEC opener on Dec. 30.

With Smith available and Vanover and Williams both playing well, the Razorbacks should have more answers for the Tigers’ size than they did in their loss at Bud Walton Arena.

No doubt, Musselman will have something special devised to try to strap the Tigers down defensively.

Missouri is a balanced scoring team with Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson each averaging 14.2 ppg. Jeremiah Tilmon leads the Tigers in rebound with 7.8 boards a game, which scoring 12.8 points. Mark Smith averages 10.1 ppg. and Javon Pickett adds 7.5 ppg.

The Tigers average 73.8 ppg., enjoying an offensive pace that’s not quite as frenetic as the Hogs, who lead the SEC in scoring at 82.7 ppg.

The Tigers are only shooting 30.7 percent from the 3-point line, so the Razorbacks might pack their defense inside much like they did against Kentucky to entice Missouri to take some quick shots.

A victory over the Tigers would be a huge win for the Razorbacks, who need to continue to build their resume for the NCAA Tournament.

It’s not a must-win game, but it is the type of victory the Hogs need if they want to be better than an eighth or ninth seed in the NCAA Tournament, which is about where their body of work would land them if the NCAA Selection Committee were doing their seeding now.

Just making the NCAA Tournament would be good for Musselman’s burgeoning program at Arkansas, but it would even be better if the Hogs could land a seed where they might be able to make more than a one-night appearance in the Big Dance.