If you are reading this column, I probably don’t have to tell you how big this week is for Razorback basketball, but just to get it straight in my mind, let me do it.
The opportunity in front of Eric Musselman’s No. 20 Arkansas Razorbacks is simply huge. This type of opportunity is why young men want to play major college basketball in a league like the SEC.
Everything from NCAA Tournament seeding to pride and self-respect are on the line for the Razorbacks this week.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. No. 6 Alabama
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24
Current Record: 17-5
Feb. 27 – LSU (1 p.m. ESPN/2)
March 2 – at South Carolina (5:30 p.m. SEC Network)
March 10-14 – SEC Tournament
The Hogs (17-5, 9-4 SEC) play host to No. 6 Alabama (18-5, 13-1) at 8 p.m. Wednesday on ESPN2, and turn around three days later for a 1 p.m. date with LSU (14-6, 9-4) also on ESPN2.
Let’s hope the Deuce is lucky for the Hogs.
Again, it’s a huge week for Arkansas basketball, one that can propel this Razorback team and the program forward in the eyes of everyone that cares about college basketball.
Win these two games, and the Razorbacks are not only a certified lock for the NCAA Tournament, but also looking at a seed that could allow them to make some noise in March Madness.
Arkansas has a proud basketball history, but it has unbelievably been since 1996 — Pat Bradley’s freshman season — since the Razorbacks have made the Sweet 16.
That’s a quarter century of mediocrity — slightly better some years and slightly worse in others — Hog fans have endured.
O.K., that amount of history might be a little much to strap on the shoulders of the current team. Heck, none of them were even born in 1996.
But, they all no doubt remember the mid-January drubbings Alabama and LSU administered to them. LSU and Alabama whooped them like step-children when Musselman’s team of freshmen, transfers, and grad-transfers were struggling to find their way.
LSU ravaged the Razorbacks, 92-76, on Jan 13, and Alabama rubbed dirt in the Hogs’ faces with a 90-59 rump-kicking on Jan. 16.
The Razorbacks were without their “fixer” grad-transfer Justin Smith against the Tigers, and he played through pain against Alabama on what likely was a high ankle sprain. Anyone who has ever dealt with that injury knows for sure just how tough and how bad the 6-7 forward wanted to play.
Those losses were embarrassing, but they also were the catalyst for the improvement we’ve seen from the Hogs over the last month.
Musselman held grueling practices following the LSU loss that likely hurt their performance the following Saturday against Alabama, but ultimately that work was key in righting the Razorbacks’ ship.
The Hogs have improved incrementally since those two games, winning seven consecutive SEC games, including a two-game road swing through Kentucky and then-No. 10 Missouri, that has turned the season around.
The only loss in that span was an 81-77 nail-biter at Oklahoma State where the Hogs collectively watched OSU point guard Cade Cunningham steal the game from them with a key 3-pointer and a couple of free throws late.
Since then, the Razorbacks have turned up the volume on their play, and grad-transfers Smith and point guard Jalen Tate have played their best basketball of the season and shown the type of leadership that Musselman was looking for when he recruited them.
Scrappy Devo Davis has come to the fore, too. Everything he does, he does at 100 m.p.h., and the majority of it is good for the Hogs.
Moses Moody has been steady as he can be for the Hogs, affecting nearly every aspect of the game from scoring, defending, rebounding, and leading in his own quiet way.
Seven-foot-three Connor Vanover and 6-10 Jaylin Williams are both contributing in different ways, tag-teaming at the 5 spot, and guard Desi Sills and J.D. Notae have been effective on and off for the Hogs.
How ready are the Hogs for Razorback Revenge Week?
That’s hard to know. No doubt the Razorbacks want to show not just the Crimson Tide and Tigers how much they have improved since mid January but also their fans and the nation, who will be watching, particularly Wednesday’s Top-20 showdown between the Razorbacks and Alabama.
Musselman has said the Razorbacks’ intensity in practice continues to improve and grow as the the season has matured.
“I think we have had our best practices over the last three weeks,” Musselman said. “We’ve had our most intense practices.”
Musselman likes what he has seen from his Hogs, but he also knows Alabama and LSU are two very talented and athletic ball clubs.
“I don’t know how the game’s going to go Wednesday or Saturday or the following Tuesday in South Carolina,” Musselman said. “But I do know we’ve practiced really, really hard and we’ve practiced extremely focused — and physical.”
It’s too bad this isn’t a normal year. Covid-19 crowd restrictions have neutralized much of the chaotic home-court advantage that Walton Arena is known for. The building would have been rocking this week with deafening crowd noise that most of these Razorbacks have never experienced.
If fans could pack the arena like in pre-Covid days, I’d feel much better about the Razorbacks’ chances this week.
Personally, I still feel like the Hogs have a solid chance in both games.
Musselman will have something new that both opponents will have to deal with in the game. He always does, and I like the gritty toughness the Razorbacks have been playing with since that loss to Oklahoma State. They are much more in the mode of making something happen rather than reacting to what is happening.
We’ll see what the Razorbacks have in store for Alabama on Wednesday, and then worry about LSU.
Hopefully the Razorbacks will be riding an eight-game SEC winning streak going into Saturday’s game.