Razorbacks want nation to see Red when Vols come to town

Jaylin Williams / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

The Arkansas Razorbacks plan to join 20,000 or so of their closest fans at 3 p.m. Saturday in the first “Red Out” at Bud Walton Arena by wearing their road red uniforms instead of their traditional home whites when the No. 23 Hogs play host to No. 16 Tennessee for a key SEC Matchup on ESPN.

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman announced Wednesday that Arkansas (20-6, 9-3 SEC) had petitioned the SEC to wear their road colors to join in the fans’ fun, and that Tennessee (19-6, 10-3) had agreed to the alteration for the nationally televised clash between the two programs, which is arguably the biggest game on Saturday’s league slate.

Musselman was already fired up for the game at his press conference, giving off P.T. Barnum like vibes in talking up the big matchup.

Razorback Basketball

Opponent: vs. Tennessee
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19
Where: Fayetteville, Ark.

Up next for the Hogs

Feb. 22 – at Florida, 6 p.m. (ESPN/2)
Feb. 26 – Kentucky, 1 p.m. (CBS)
March 2 – LSU, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
March 5 – at Tennessee (TBA)
March 9-13 SEC Tournament Tampa, Fla.

“I think the crowd is going to supersede what we saw against Auburn,” Musselman said referring to the “White Out” Arkansas fans participated in Feb. 8 in the overtime upset of Auburn, 80-76. “That’s what I think…Right now we have two ranked teams. They just beat Kentucky. I think everybody that left the Auburn game left excited and and are hoping to experience that type of atmosphere again.

“Guess what every body, you can experience it again! Just show up to Bud Walton for the Tennessee game on Saturday. Let’s have some fun! Bring your energy, enthusiasm and let’s rock Bud Walton again!”

Fans of No. 4 Kentucky (21-5, 10-3) and No. 25 Alabama (17-9, 7-6), who play a noon on CBS in Lexington, would likely argue that point as would supporters of No. 2 Auburn (24-2, 12-1) and Florida (16-10, 6-7), who square off at 1 p.m. on ESPN.

However when you consider the Vols rest a game ahead of the Hogs in the SEC standings in a tie for second place with Kentucky and that Alabama lags two games behind Arkansas and three behind the Vols and Wildcats going into Saturday’s action, it’s clear the Razorbacks’ and Vols’ game boasts the biggest stakes in the league race.

A Razorback win Saturday would leave Arkansas and Tennessee tied for third and possibly second in the SEC, depending on the outcome of the Alabama-Kentucky game.

Auburn is practically running away with the SEC with a two-game lead with five games to play. Their lone loss in the league play was to the Hogs.

Bruce Pearl’s Tigers would practically have to fall apart over the next three weeks to lose its grip on first place, but second place is up for grabs.

Would Kentucky, Tennessee, or Arkansas make a big deal about finishing second in the SEC to Auburn?

Heck no, but the victories it would take to accomplish the task would affect their seeding in both the SEC and the NCAA Tournaments.

The Razorbacks have the most to gain and lose over the next five games, which includes Saturday’s showdown with Tennessee, a trip to Florida on Tuesday. That’s followed by playing host to Kentucky on Feb. 26 and LSU on March 2 before finishing up with a tough road trip to Knoxville to face Tennessee again on March 5.

That’s a treacherous but tantalizing schedule, full of potholes but also a chances for huge wins.

Though Tennessee is favored by some for Saturday’s game, the Razorbacks have a better than even shot to beat any college team at Walton Arena and probably will be favored in their trip to Florida. They even have a puncher’s chance against Tennessee at Knoxville.

However, the Hogs could lose any of those games, maybe even most of them if they do not continue the incremental improvement Musselman has been preaching since the Hogs turned their season around after going 0-3 in their first three SEC games.

Despite and because of winning 10 of their last 11 games, the Razorbacks sit at No. 29 in the NCAA Net rankings Friday morning, behind No. 22 Alabama, No. 16 LSU, No. 9 Tennessee, No. 7 Auburn and No. 3 Kentucky.

Alabama and LSU’s rankings are bolstered by big wins way back in December. Arkansas’ 68-67 loss at Alabama didn’t hurt them last Saturday, but it was a lost opportunity at a Quadrant 1 victory.

As far as the SEC race goes, it would be great for the Razorbacks to win enough to finish second. They would probably need to go 4-1 or maybe 5-0 in these final five games to accomplish that.

That would also put them in line for a four or possibly three seed in the NCAA Tournament, depending on how they fare in the SEC Tournament.

It would probably take the Hogs winning out in league play and capturing the SEC Tournament championship to garner a 2 seed in the Big Dance. Even that might not be enough.

However, the whole point for the Razorbacks at the moment is to play well and improve each game out. Make the most of the opportunity that is sitting in front of them and then move on.

That is how the Hogs turned their season around after starting SEC play 0-3, and that’s the plan moving forward for Musselman and the Razorbacks. Just be a bit better today than they were yesterday.

Personally, I’m expecting a big game from Au’Diese Toney, who always plays well defensively, but has been a bit off offensively in the last two games.

“[Toney] struggled against Alabama finishing at the rim, but his defense was awesome. I thought he did as good a job as I’d seen anyone do on [Jaden] Shackelford. [Against Missouri] was just one of those nights where, mentally, every time he stepped on the court he fouled a guy,” Musselman said. “It was one of those nights where the whistles were coming at him from all angles.”

Musselman has been extremely impressed by Tennessee and their three-guard lineup.

“You can tell how well they’re coached when a down-screen is set and some of the players will curl and some will fade off of screens based on how the defense is playing them,” Musselman said. “We’re going to have to mix things up on our defensive coverages – you can’t give them a steady diet because they’re so well-coached.”

Kennedy Chandler is the straw that stirs Tennessee’s drink, averaging 13.3 ppg and 4.8 assists, but Santiago Vescovi and freshman Zakai Zeigler are also key in their three-guard attack. Vescovi leads the Vols in scoring at 13.8 ppg. and has had big games against the Razorbacks before. Zeigler averages 8.7 ppg. but is coming into his own as the season progresses.

Tennessee’s guards are also pick pockets on defense and the Vols do an excellent job of flashing in to passing lanes for steals. Musselman said it would be important for the Hogs to guard against back taps with their ball handling and that players would need to meet the ball to shorten passes to help hold the Vols’ at bay.

The Razorbacks have been starting basically a four-forward and one-guard lineup with Toney, Trey Wade, and Stanley Amude becoming a latter-day, poor-man’s version of The Triplets as 6-6 versatile swing players who have done a fine job of smothering bigger and smaller opponents defensively.

JD Notae basically plays the point and the shooting guard spots at the same time, and he’s just as devilish on defense as he is prolific on offense. The 6-10 Jaylin Williams grounds everything with his defensive skills in the post and his ability to tax opponents with his vision and scoring prowess on offense.

It will be interesting to see if Musselman goes to a smaller lineup at points in the game to match Tennessee’s speed. Both Devo Davis and Chris Lykes have been playing well off the bench.

The way Tennessee handled Kentucky at home Tuesday night was impressive, but it will be hard for them to duplicate that performance in front of the first Red Out in raucous Bud Walton Arena.