Winning streak positions Hogs for NCAA Tournament bid

The Arkansas Razorbacks are on a six-game winning streak thanks to victories at Ole Miss and over West Virginia in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge last week, and according to ESPN NCAA Tournament analyst Joe Lunardi, the Hogs have gone from being the first team left out of the tournament in last week’s Bracketology report to being a No. 9 seed if the Big Dance today.

The Hogs’ (16-5, 5-3 SEC) NCAA NET ranking of No. 46 is in line with Lunardi’s assessment.

However, with six weeks of play remaining before the wheat is ultimately separated from the chaff and the NCAA Tournament gets underway, there is a lot of basketball left to play, according to Razorback head coach Eric Musselman, who admitted he once spent too much time worrying about where his Nevada team stood at mid-season in his first few years as a college head coach.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Georgia
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 2
Where: Athens, Ga.
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)
Feb. 19 – Tennessee TBA (ESPN/2)

The Razorbacks join Auburn (20-1, 8-0), Kentucky (17-4, 6-2), Tennessee (14-6, 5-3), Alabama (14-7, 4-4), LSU (16-5, 4-4), and Florida (13-8, 3-5 SEC), who Lunardi considers one of the last four squads in, as SEC teams currently in the dance as things stand today.

Interestingly enough, Arkansas’ schedule still offers the Razorbacks opportunities to play each one of those teams — Tennessee twice — as well as a rematch with Mississippi State (13-7, 4-3) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday in Bud Walton Arena.

The Bulldogs roughed the Hogs up at Starkville, 81-68, on Dec. 29 in both team’s SEC opener in which the SEC’s and Arkansas’ leading scorer JD Notae missed because of health precautions.

The Razorbacks were in the throes of losing five of six games before going on their current hot steak.

The Hogs have the opportunity to play their way into NCAA Tourney or out of it. However, Musselman doesn’t believe in getting ahead of himself.

His and the Hogs’ concentration is on the Georgia Bulldogs at the moment, whom the Razorbacks play at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Athens, Ga. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.

Tom Crean’s Bulldogs are struggling at the bottom of the league with a 6-15 overall mark overall and a 1-7 record in SEC play. However, the Bulldogs remain dangerous. Georgia’s lone SEC win came Jan. 25 in Athens when the Bulldogs upset defending SEC champs Alabama, 82-76.

The Bulldogs basically owned the Crimson Tide in January, with that victory rubbing Alabama’s nose in their loss to Georgia in the College Football National Title Game. But I digress.

Musselman said the Hogs must maintain focus on the moment rather than on the big picture as they work their way through their SEC schedule.

“It’s really hard to sustain focus and energy when you’re winning game after game,” Musselman said. “Nobody in Athens gives a crap that we’ve won six in a row. They’re going to come after us. We’ve got to get ready to play.”

Musselman is seeking incremental improvement by his Hogs as the season progresses.

“We have to get better every day, just like we did last year,” Musselman said. “Regardless of outcome, we have to get better when we practice than we were [last Saturday against West Virginia] in some way, shape or form. Whether it’s pick-and-roll coverage or whatever. But certainly, we’re in a better spot than we were.”

While Musselman would like this squad to follow a similar path as last year’s team that improved throughout the season before their run to the Elite Eight, he pointed out that every team is unto itself.

“I think every year your team takes on a different personality,” Musselman said. “We have this road game coming up. It’s so difficult to win on the road. We saw what Georgia did in their last home game by beating Alabama.

“Our schedule is really difficult moving forward, and you can’t say that last year we did this and that is going to be duplicated. Every game takes on its own theme. You may have a plan… but you need a plan B and Plan C because you’re going to have to adjust to that set of circumstances.

“…Winning six games in a row you do build some confidence, camaraderie, but you can never lose your competitive nature and desire even though we played well the last six games.”

Coaches and players can’t look past the next game, but fans certainly can.

If the Razorbacks can take care of business at Georgia on Wednesday as well as pull off a win Saturday at home against Mississippi State, it sets up a huge opportunity next Tuesday when No. 1 Auburn visits Walton Arena, particularly if the Tigers hold onto the top ranking for another week.

It’s hard to judge how big that game would be. Maybe Top 10 in the history of Walton Arena going into it?

I’d personally rank the Jan. 29, 1995 — Super Bowl Sunday — contest between No. 5 Kentucky and the No. 9 Hogs as the biggest and perhaps best game ever played in Walton Arena. The Hogs won 94-92. Scotty Thurman drained the game-winner, and Corliss Williamson and Corey Beck were beasts as always.

However, the 1999 Razorbacks’ 104-88 blowout of then No. 2 Auburn was a big victory, too. What a great night for seniors Pat Bradley, Kareem Reid, and Derek Hood.

The biggest game ever on campus when judged by pre-game hype was when defending national champs and No. 1 UNLV came to Barnhill Arena in 1991 to play the No. 2 Hogs.

The first half was great, but Larry Johnson, Stacy Augmon and et al crushed the Hogs in the second half. The final score was just 112-105 thanks to several late-game three-pointers by Razorback walk-on Ernie Murray, but the game wasn’t really that close.

The Razorbacks’ upset of No. 1 North Carolina and Michael Jordan in 1984 was not on campus, but rather at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.

Still, Charles Balentine’s baseline jumper for the win remains immortal like few other shots in school history. It’s up there with U.S. Reid’s 49-footer to beat Louisville in the NCAA Tournament in 1981 as well as Thurman’s 3-point dagger to put the Hogs up late over Duke in the 1994 NCAA Championship game.

In the old Southwest Conference days, the Hogs had many great battles with Houston, Texas, and Texas A&M, and even when the Hogs were struggling throughout the 2000s, there were some big games and wins over likes of Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Who could forget Michael Qualls rebound-dunk of a Ky Madden miss for the win against the Wildcats in 2014?

Who knows what we are in for when Auburn comes to town next Tuesday?

However, what we are certain of is that game will be much bigger if the Razorbacks win Wednesday at Georgia and upend Mississippi State at Walton Arena on Saturday.