Eric Musselman’s Arkansas Razorbacks are the hottest basketball team in the SEC and arguably in the country after winning 14 of their last 15 games.
The No. 14 Hogs’ (24-6, 13-4) only slip-up since mid-January was a one-point loss at Alabama on Feb. 12 in an 11 a.m. game at Tuscaloosa.
That’s worth noting going into the Hogs’ final regular-season game against the No. 13 Tennessee Vols (22-7, 13-4), which will be played at 11 a.m. Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, where Rick Barnes’ squad is undefeated this season.
Opponent: at Tennessee
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, March 5
Where: Thompson Boling Arena, Knoxville
Up next for the Hogs
March 9-13 – SEC Tournament Tampa, Fla. (SEC Network/ESPN)
Musselman, who makes no qualms about the secret to his Razorback program’s success being preparation and hard work, lamented Thursday that circumstances will limit the Hogs’ prep time for the Vols in a key matchup that will have postseason seeding implications for next week’s SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament at Tampa, Fla.
The Hogs face a tough turnaround for the Vols just like they did against Alabama a few weeks ago.
After winning a down-to-the-last-shot battle against LSU, 77-76, at Walton Arena on Wednesday, Musselman limited practice time on the floor Thursday, essentially going with just film work on Tennessee to allow his Razorbacks to recover physically.
Arkansas’ practice time will be limited Friday by classes as well as the team’s flight to Knoxville. Saturday’s 11 a.m. tipoff means the Hogs won’t have time for a pre-game shootaround for the Vols, just player warmups prior to the game.
Compounding the situation, the Vols had Wednesday off after defeating Georgia, 75-68, on Tuesday, giving them an extra day to recover physically and practice for the Razorbacks.
Circumstances created a perfect storm in which the Vols should not only be more rested but also better prepared than the Hogs, who defeated Tennessee, 58-48, in Walton Arena on Feb.19.
While the Razorbacks have wrapped up one of four double byes in the conference tournament, Saturday’s games are key in establishing the pecking order for the league tournament.
Depending on Saturday’s results, the Hogs could finish as high as a tie for first place in the SEC with Auburn or in fourth place all by their lonesome.
Going into Saturday’s games, No. 5 Auburn (26-4, 14-3) owns at least a piece of the SEC title. If Auburn beats South Carolina (18-11, 9-8) at home, the Tigers win the league outright.
Thank y'all for helping us protect our Palace all season long. It was so good to have you back.
17-1 at home, ending the year with NINE STRAIGHT WINS at Bud. pic.twitter.com/VpGLUYpSL9
— #14 Arkansas Razorback Men's Basketball ? (@RazorbackMBB) March 3, 2022
Arkansas, No. 7 Kentucky (24-6, 13-4), and Tennessee are in a three-way tie for second. The Wildcats play Florida (19-11, 9-8) at 1 p.m. in Gainesville in a pivotal contest for the Gators, who are on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A victory over Kentucky might be the difference in Florida going to the Big Dance or the NIT.
A victory Saturday would guarantee the Razorbacks at least a tie for second place in the league and by virtue of head-to-head competition a second-place seed in the SEC Tournament.
In the unlikely event of an Auburn loss coupled with a Razorback victory, the Hogs would tie the Tigers for first in the league and garner the top seed in the SEC Tournament based on their 80-76 overtime win over Auburn at Walton Arena.
Most teams would rather avoid being the third seed in the tournament which opens play in the quarterfinals with the final game of the day next Friday at around 8 p.m. There is a quick turnaround with a victory. Tipoff for their Saturday game is set for 3 p.m.
The Hogs would be the third seed if they lose to Tennessee on Saturday in combination with Kentucky losing to Florida.
The top seed opens play at noon Friday, with the No. 4 seed playing at approximately 2 p.m. The second seed plays at 6 p.m.
Musselman, who appeared tired Thursday in his Zoom press conference with media, opted not to say much more after expressing what appears to be a legitimate gripe about a blind spot in the NCAA Net Rankings following the LSU victory. The NCAA Selection Committee uses the Net Rankings not only in selecting teams for the NCAA Tournament but also in the seeding of the tournament.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) March 3, 2022
Despite winning 14 of their last 15 games, the Hogs seem mired in the Net Rankings. In the update including games played through March 2, Arkansas was ranked No. 21, five spots behind No. 16 LSU, a team the Razorbacks swept in regular-season SEC play.
The Vols are No. 9, Auburn is No. 10, and Kentucky is No. 5. With the Net Rankings weighted favorably toward road and neutral-court games, it would seem a victory over the Vols might allow the Hogs to move up?
However with the bulk of the games tabulated already, no one victory is going to have much of an impact this late in the season. Last week No. 19 St. Mary’s upset No. 1 Gonzaga but stayed at No. 19. in the Net Rankings.
The Net Rankings use a mathematical formula to rate the teams, but it doesn’t judge heart, conviction, and determination, three key qualities that have served the Razorbacks well since their turnaround in mid-January.
While the Net Rankings are frustrating to Hog fans at the moment, I’d say it’s best not to worry about them. If the Razorbacks keep winning, things will sort out.
In ESPN’s Bracketology column by Joe Lunardi, the Hogs are a fifth seed as of his Friday, March 4, update. A victory over Tennessee on Saturday, coupled with a championship-game finish in next week’s SEC Tournament might move them to up a seed line or so in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee?
We will just have to see.
Either way the Hogs are going to the Big Dance, extending what has already been a very enjoyable season for Razorback fans across the state.
And if the Hogs do “upset” the Vols on Saturday, the Razorbacks will clearly be the hottest team going into next week’s SEC Tournament.