The Arkansas Razorbacks and West Virginia Mountaineers appear to be squads going in opposite directions as they prepare for their 1 p.m. ESPN2-televised contest Saturday in Bud Walton Arena as part of this year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
After struggling through mid December and early January when the Hogs lost five of six games including their first three SEC contests, Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks (15-5, 5-3 SEC) have rebounded of late.
The Hogs are on a five-game winning streak following their 64-55 road win at Ole Miss on Wednesday. The Razorbacks are now tied for fourth in the SEC with No. 18 Tennessee (14-5, 5-3) behind No. 1 Auburn (19-1, 8-0) and No. 12 Kentucky (16-4, 6-2).
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: vs. West Virginia
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 29
Where: Bud Walton Arena
TV: SEC Network
Next 5 games
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)
Feb. 12 – at Alabama, 11 a.m. (ESPN/2)
Feb. 15 – at Missouri, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
The Razorbacks’ victory over the Rebels jumped them from No. 55 in the NCAA Net rankings to No. 48.
Conversely, legendary West Virginia coach Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers have been skidding. West Virginia (13-6, 2-5 Big 12) has lost five of their last seven games and four in a row after starting the season 11-1.
The Mountaineers have probably played the most challenging four-game schedule in the nation since Jan. 15 when they fell 85-59 to No. 9 Kansas at Lawrence.
From there, West Virginia lost 77-78 at home to No. 5 Baylor on Jan. 18, 78-65 to No. 18 Texas Tech at Lubbock last Saturday, and 72-62 at home to Oklahoma on Wednesday.
West Virginia’s Net ranking fell from 50 to 57 since the weekend. After facing that murder’s row of opponents, the Mountaineers are currently in ninth place in the 10-team Big 12 Conference.
Huggins sounded like he was searching for answers following the team’s loss to Oklahoma.
“When your attitude goes, your game goes,” Huggins said in a report at Rivals.com. “You can see that from the NBA down. We have guys who aren’t the same people. For that matter, I’m not sure I am.”
Huggins said there were some attitude issues that could need correcting before their ship can be righted. He said he had made difficult choices about playing time before when attitudes were out of hand and that he won’t hesitate to do it again.
“All I know is, I’m gonna do my best,” Huggins said. “I know how important Mountaineer basketball is to the people in the state of West Virginia … I understand how important it is and I understand how much they plan their schedules around it. And I apologize to them.”
On the surface, one might surmise the rolling Razorbacks might have an easy time with the struggling Mountaineers on Saturday. However, that might not be a wise assumption.
Huggins will ultimately be a Hall of Fame college basketball coach when his career is done, and he has long coached one of the toughest brands of basketball in the NCAA. While the Hogs are 1-0 all-time against West Virginia, thanks to a 71-64 decision in 2006, that was the year before Huggins returned to his alma mater.
Nolan Richardson’s Razorback squads were 1-2 against Huggins’ Cincinnati Bearcats squads, defeating them 84-75 in Hawaii during the 1994-95 season, but falling to them 82-67 in Walton Arena in 1995-96, and again 92-57 at Cincinnati in the 1996-97 season.
The loss at Cincinnati in 1996-97 was perhaps the most brutal beatdown ever absorbed by a Richardson-coached Razorback team.
In the locker room after the game, several Hogs sat with their jerseys pulled over their heads to avoid talking to the media. Only sophomore Pat Bradley was mature enough to stand up to take questions that day. I’ve had a great deal of respect for Bradley ever since.
The Razorbacks may win on Saturday, but it won’t be because West Virginia limped into Walton Arena defenseless.
West Virginia and Huggins, who made his bones coaching pressure defense, will target the Hogs where they are the most vulnerable, their ball handling.
The Razorbacks have had issues with turnovers all season, averaging 12.9 on the season. Musselman would prefer to see that number around 9; however, the Hogs have suffered as many as 18 turnovers in SEC play.
During the Hogs’ five-game winning streak, Musselman has deployed what essentially is a four-forward, one-guard starting lineup with JD Notae at the point and Au’Diese Toney, Stanley Umude, Trey Wade and Jaylin Williams filling the other spots. The slightly unorthodox lineup has thus far created mismatches in the Hogs’ favor, particularly on the defensive end and in terms of rebounding.
Defense has been the key to the winning streak with the Razorbacks holding opponents to dismal shooting percentages during their turnaround. No doubt, the Hogs will attempt to turn up the defensive heat on the Mountaineers, but in like manner, Huggins’ squad will attempt to test the Hogs’ offensive mettle, too.
All four of the forwards handle the ball at least decently well, but the Razorbacks had better be ready for West Virginia’s pressure despite the fact the game will be played on the Hogs’ home turf. The Mountaineers have nothing to lose by trying.
At times the Hogs do a fine job with ball movement, but at other points, the ball seems to stick with Notae and back-up point guard Chris Lykes a bit too much.
Both guards have to realize ball movement is their friend against the press, and that decisive passing is the way to ease the pressure, not their dribbling skills as good as they may be.
Athletic guard Devo Davis, who exploded into a key player last year about this time in the Hogs’ Elite Eight run, may have to gear down just a little bit against the press and make sure he’s strong with the ball and not moving too fast for his and the Hogs’ own good.
Foul trouble and turnovers have held Davis back to an extent this season, but the sophomore is talented and has the ability to be one of the Hogs’ best defenders if he will just let the game come to him.
Williams’ handle and the way he sees the game from his 6-foot-10 vantage point could prove pivotal against the Mountaineers’ press. He has done a fine job working with Notae against some pressure Texas A&M and Ole Miss threw at the Hogs in recent games. He can be a pressure-release valve for Notae when brining the ball up and on the half court.
The Walton Arena crowd could be a difference-maker for the Hogs on Saturday. Tickets for the game are sold out, but attendance lagged in December with minds still on football and the holidays. However, with students back on campus, and with a break in the weather, the arena should be rocking for the Mountaineers.
With the intensity and difficulty of Arkansas’ SEC schedule about to heat up, the Razorbacks are going to need their fans rabid and ready when the likes of Mississippi State (Feb. 5), No. 1 Auburn (Feb. 8), No. 18 Tennessee (Feb.19), No. 12 Kentucky (Feb. 26), and No. 19 LSU (March 2) visit Fayetteville.
How well the Razorbacks do in those home games will have a tremendous say in whether this Hog squad will make the Big Dance, settle for the NIT, or have spring break off this year. Any of the three is still possible at this juncture, but a victory over West Virginia on Saturday will move Arkansas one step closer to their goal.