Challenges ahead for surging Razorbacks

So far streaks — winning and losing — have defined the Arkansas Razorbacks’ basketball season.

The Hogs (17-5, 6-3 SEC) are currently riding a seven-game winning streak after defeating Georgia, 99-73, Wednesday night in Athens.

That run came after the Razorbacks opened SEC play with a three-game losing skid that was part of period where the Hogs lost five of six games.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Mississippi State
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 5
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

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)
Feb. 22 – at Florida, 6 p.m. (ESPN/2)

Prior to that, Arkansas’ rolled to a 9-0 start to open the season with back-to-back victories over Kansas State, 72-64, and Cincinnati, 73-67, being the highlights in the Hall of Fame Classic at Kansas City during Thanksgiving week.

Perhaps Arkansas’ most notable victory of the season came against then No. 12 LSU on Jan.15, when the Hogs tamed the Tigers, 65-58, in Baton Rouge. LSU has struggled some since but were still ranked 25th in Monday’s Associated Press Top 25.

Arkansas is currently tied for fourth in the SEC with Tennessee (15-6, 6-3) behind Auburn (21-1, 9-0) and Kentucky (18-4, 7-2) with the meat of its SEC schedule still to come.

The Hogs’ final nine regular-season games are against the best the SEC has to offer, starting at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in a return game against Mississippi State (14-7, 5-3), which sits a half game behind the Razorbacks and the Vols in 5th place. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.

The Hogs then host No. 1 Auburn on Tuesday before traveling to defending SEC champion Alabama (14-8, 4-5) on Feb. 12.

Arkansas absorbs back-to-back road trips when it visits Missouri (8-13, 2-6) on Feb. 15 before returning home to face No. 21 Tennessee on Feb. 19.

The Razorbacks head to Florida on Feb. 22 before back-to-back home games when the Hogs play host to No. 5 Kentucky on Feb. 26. and No. 25 LSU on March 2.

The Razorbacks close out the season on the road with a trip to Knoxville to face the No. 21 Vols.

Any way you size it up, that is a demanding schedule, but it’s also one loaded with opportunity. Five of the nine games are in the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena.

Winning five of the nine games would probably put the Hogs in good position for an NCAA bid going into the SEC Tournament, which is played at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. this season, but considering the opponents, home games can’t be counted as automatic victories.

Auburn and Kentucky are talented enough to beat anyone — including Arkansas — anywhere — including at Bud Walton Arena — even when that opponent plays their best game.

Not taking anything away from Walton Arena, but squads like LSU, Tennessee, and Mississippi State are talented enough to win on the Hogs’ home floor if the Razorbacks are not on their game.

As for the trips to Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee, expect the Crimson Tide, Gators, and Vols to be favored. Missouri (8-13, 2-6) has struggled this year, but the Tigers can’t be taken for granted. Some very good Arkansas teams have been tagged with losses at Columbia.

While it’s good for fans to access the lay of the land at the midpoint of the SEC schedule, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman plans to attack the second half of the league schedule one step at a time.

Musselman said he wants incremental improvement from his Hogs from game to game. Though his Razorbacks ultimately pounded Georgia at Athens on Wednesday, he felt the Hogs took a step back with their defensive play in the first half, and he let them know in no uncertain terms at halftime.

“Yeah, he really got on us at halftime,” Stanley Umude said following the victory with a bit of a smile.

After holding opponents to less than 40 percent shooting in their six previous games, the Hogs allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 58.3 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from the 3-point line in the first half.

Arkansas led 53-47 at the half, but the Razorbacks did not give the type of defensive effort that had turned their season around in the previous six games.

The Razorbacks responded to their scolding and turned up the heat defensively in the second half to hold Georgia to just 34.5 percent shooting from the field and 16.7 percent from behind the arc.

Umude exploded for 31 points in the game to pace the Hogs with 12-of-20 shooting from the field, including hitting 6-of-8 3-pointers. Arkansas and the SEC’s leading scorer JD Notae wasn’t shy either, dropping 23 points on the Bulldogs.

Neither of those performances were one dimensional. Umude had 4 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals to go with his Razorback career high in points, while Notae filled up his box score line with 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and a block.

While Umude’s scoring stood out, Musselman congratulated the grad-transfer for his defensive play when he checked out of the game for the final time, commenting that Umude did a great job of staying low but having active hands in the shooter’s face.

Fellow grad-transfer Chris Lykes, perhaps, had his best all-around game as a Razorback. He scored 9 points, dealt 7 assists, and made 4 steals. If he can continue to give Arkansas similar play off the bench, it will only make the Razorbacks that much better and take some wear and tear off Notae and Devo Davis.

Mississippi State whipped the Razorbacks, 81-68, at Starkville on Dec. 29 in a game that Notae and Razorback back-up forward Kamani Johnson missed.

“Any time you face a team for a second time there’s always going to be changes from both sides, ” Musselman said. “We feel like we’re a different team than we were, I’m sure Mississippi State has improved in areas as well.”

Iverson Molinar leads the Bulldogs in scoring with 18.1 points per game, followed by Tolu Smith with 13.1 ppg., Garrison Brooks with 11.3 ppg., and Shakeel Moore with 9.9 ppg. Smith and Brooks lead MSU in rebounding, averaging 6.6 and 6.4 rebounds respectively.

The Bulldogs are coming off a 78-64 victory over South Carolina on Tuesday and are the best shooting team in the SEC in league games, averaging 48.3 percent.

It will be a challenge for the Hogs to clamp down on the Bulldogs’ shooting accuracy, but Musselman believes his Razorbacks have improved enough defensively since their previous matchup for fans to see a difference.

“We’ve kind of eliminated the ‘your turn, my turn’ basketball and we’ve grown as playmakers on the offensive side,” Musselman said. “Defensively we’re certainly a much more connected defensive team that seems to operate and clock as five defensive members maybe more than we were earlier in the year.”