Winning streak has Hogs back in the middle of the SEC race

Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman and senior guard Chris Lykes / Photo:

The Hogs’ three-game winning streak has moved them from the bottom of the barrel in the SEC two weeks ago after their 0-3 start to the middle of the pack.

Going into this weekend’s SEC slate, the Razorbacks are tied with No. 13 LSU (15-3, 3-3), No. 24 Tennessee (12-5, 3-3), and Alabama (12-6, 3-3) for fifth or eighth in the league, depending on how you want to look at it.

That’s not a bad place to be with 12 conference games to play as well as a home non-conference contest with West Virginia on Jan 29 as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Texas A&M
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22
Where: Bud Walton Arena
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

Jan. 22 – at Ole Miss, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 29 – West Virginia, 1 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Feb. 5 – at Georgia, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 5 – Mississippi State, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 8 – Auburn, 6 p.m. (ESPN2/U)

However, the Hogs can’t get comfortable. To use a football term, they have to continue to strain to get better in all areas because No. 2 Auburn (17-1, 6-0) and No. 12 Kentucky (15-3, 5-1) are not only talented but also playing some of the best basketball in the nation.

Mississippi State (12-5, 3-2) – which took the Hogs to the woodshed, 81-68, in both squad’s SEC opener — LSU, Alabama, and Tennessee aren’t slouches either.

Based on the league’s current NET rankings, this is a year when the SEC could get seven, eight, and maybe even nine teams in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s not going to be easy to finish in the top half of the league.

Squads like Florida (11-6, 2-3) and Ole Miss (9-8, 1-4) are also dangerous, and regardless of records, for a team like the Hogs, there are no sure bets on the road in the SEC, even against the worst opponents. Remember Vanderbilt, which is tied for 10th in the league, scalped the Razorbacks, 75-74, at Walton Arena on Jan. 4.

It’s great to have home contests with Auburn (Feb. 8), Tennessee (Feb. 19), Kentucky (Feb. 26), and LSU (March 2) on the schedule. When rocking, Walton Arena provides one the greatest atmospheres and best home-court advantages in all of college hoops. However, each of those teams are talented enough to beat any team anywhere in the nation on the right night.

The Texas A&M Aggies (15-3, 4-1) may or may not be as talented as some of those four teams, but they are playing some of the most consistent basketball in the league. The Aggies are just a half game out of second place behind Kentucky going into their 7:30 p.m. Saturday contest with the Razorbacks at Walton Arena. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.

Though it capped a three-game losing streak for the Hogs and a period where Arkansas lost five of six games, the Razorbacks did show some competitive spirit at College Station in their 86-81 loss to the Aggies on Jan. 8. Texas A&M just made two or three more plays in a hotly contested game.

However, the Hogs didn’t play well against a tough Aggie defense, turning the ball over 18 times and shooting just 40.9 percent from the field. Arkansas also allowed A&M to shoot a hot 56.3 percent from the field.

When you look at those stats, you’d think A&M should have blown the Hogs out. That’s probably why Razorback head coach Eric Musselman was more disappointed during his postgame press conference than perturbed. He knew his team played hard even if it didn’t play well.

Arkansas has played considerably better since that game, particularly on the defensive end. As former Razorback coach Nolan Richardson would have said, the Hogs’ took a “sludge” hammer to Missouri, running the Tigers out of the Arena, 87-43, on Jan. 12.

The Razorbacks played stifling second-half defense in their 65-58 victory at LSU on Jan. 15, and they clamped down on South Carolina Tuesday night in the second half for a 75-59 victory over the Gamecocks after trailing by 7 at the half.

Defense has been the key for the Razorbacks’ resurgence a third of the way through their SEC schedule. The Razorbacks are playing better team defense, now that Musselman and his staff have gotten the Hogs to lock in rather than taking risky chances at making steals.

The Razorbacks are rebounding well, beating all six SEC opponents on the glass, but their offensive rebounding has been impressive in their three-game winning streak.

While the Hogs do have capable scorers with JD Notae just a 10th of a point behind Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen as the SEC’s leading scorer, long-distance shooting has proven not to be this team’s forte.

As you’ve likely read or heard, the Hogs’ steak of games with a 3-pointer ended Tuesday at 1,092 games when the Razorbacks failed to make a 3-pointer in their victory over South Carolina for the first time since Jan. 7, 1989 in a 99-92 victory at Texas. I vaguely remember watching that game with buddies in college.

Think about it. That Hog team, which featured freshmen Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, and Oliver Miller, senior Keith Wilson and juniors Lenzie Howell and Mario Credit, put up 99 points on the Longhorns without a single 3-pointer. That’s the definition of Hawg Ball.

While that streak was great, and it ending was certainly notable — only Duke and UNLV topped it — the important thing Tuesday night was the victory.

Had the Hogs lost but kept that 3-point steak alive, few if any would have cared.

Musselman pointed out after the game that this team’s greatest offensive strength is attacking the rim for hoops and drawing fouls for trips to the free-throw line.

The Hogs get to the line often, ranking first in the nation in free-throws made (311) and second in the country in free-throws attempted (422). They lead the SEC in both categories and rank first in the league in free-throw percentage at 73.7 percent (311-of-422).

Arkansas’ three-game winning streak has Hog fans revved back up. When the Razorbacks made their second-half run against the Gamecocks, fans got into the game like old times.

Walton Arena remains a fantastic venue for college hoops in its 28th year, but it has always been the fans — prompted by the Razorbacks’ play — that has given it life.

Those fans may be just the edge the Hogs need to extend their winning streak to four games Saturday when the Aggies come to town. And who knows, maybe their support Saturday will be rewarded not only with a win but the start of a new 3-pointer streak.