Razorbacks punch dance card, but SEC Tourney leaves bad taste in their mouth

Photo: Craig Bisacre / Texas A&M Athletics

Razorbacks at March Madness

Opponent: Vermont
When: 8:20 p.m. Thursday, March 17
Where: Keyback Center at Buffalo, N.Y.
Tournament Bracket: NCAA.com

Coach Eric Musselman’s Arkansas Razorbacks are shuffling off to Buffalo, N.Y. for a first-round NCAA Tournament date with the Vermont Catamounts as the No. 4 seed in the West Regional at the Keyback Center.

You might wonder why the Hogs (25-8) are headed so far East to play in the West Regional?

Fair question without the greatest of answers.

Regional designations are based on where the Regional semifinal and finals are played. The first- and second-round pods aren’t always a geographical fit for their Regional. Some first- and second-round matchups have been out of sync with their regional designation for more than a decade now.

Should the Hogs defeat Vermont (28-5) as well as the winner of Thursday’s Connecticut (23-9) vs. New Mexico State (26-6) matchup this Saturday, Arkansas would advance to the West Regional Semifinals in San Francisco, where Musselman coached the Golden State Warriors from 2002-2004.

There, the Hogs could face the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed the Gonzaga Bulldogs (26-3) in the Sweet 16.

That would be a daunting but exciting task for the Razorbacks. However, that is putting the proverbial cart well before the horse.

There is a ton of basketball to be played before such a matchup could come to fruition, and unfortunately, the Razorbacks will have to perform much better than they did in their last game if they hope to advance at all in the Big Dance.

The last time we saw the Hogs play, it was their worst performance since their SEC regular-season opening loss to Mississippi State, 81-68, on Dec. 29 when they were in the throes of what would become an ugly skid where Arkansas lost five of six games.

Texas A&M punked the Razorbacks, 82-64, last Saturday in the SEC Tournament semifinals at Tampa, Fla. in a game where the Hogs didn’t look like themselves.

Following Arkansas’ 79-67 victory over LSU on Friday — the third of the season — the Razorbacks appeared sluggish and tired against the frenetic Aggies.

Texas A&M led from the opening tip to the final buzzer by as many as 23 points. Anytime the Hogs made a run A&M coach Buzz Williams shut it down by taking a timeout and redirecting his ball club.

The Aggies, which lost 60-55 to Tennessee in Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game, ran circles around the Hogs, out rebounding Arkansas 38-25 and holding Razorback All-American guard JD Notae to his lowest point total of the season of just 5 points on 2 of 8 shooting.

Jaylin Williams did gather 9 rebounds, but only managed to score 4 points and had 5 of Arkansas’ 15 turnovers. Both stars sat and watched the waning minutes of the game from the bench.

Razorback forwards Stanley Umude scored 20 and Au’Diese Toney added 18, but the outcome proved the Razorbacks, who usually play with great effort, intensity, and passion, aren’t the type of squad that can sleepwalk their way through a game and just count on their talent to save the day.

That said, bowing out of a conference tourney early doesn’t always forecast doom and gloom. Sometimes it’s a wake-up call to reset a team’s priorities.

One of legendary Razorback basketball coach Nolan Richardson’s favorite sayings from his grandmother was “all sickness isn’t death.”

Richardson’s 1994 squad lost to Kentucky, 90-78, in the semifinal round of the SEC Tournament at Memphis before going on to win the Razorbacks’ lone basketball national championship. Now, I’m not predicting another national title, but we have seen this basketball team bounce back before.

Remember that ugly streak where the Hogs lost 5 of 6 from mid December to early January? Remember how they won 14 of their next 15 games?

Maybe the Razorbacks’ poor showing against the Aggies will end up being just the right medicine to spur them on to success in the land of hot wings and snow?

As for the rest of the SEC, five other league brethren will be dancing along with the Hogs this week.

Despite firing head coach Will Wade for the recruiting mess he’s been entangled in since 2017, LSU (22-11) is a sixth seed and will play Iowa State (20-12) on Friday in the Midwest Sub-Regional at Milwaukee. Alabama (19-13) is likewise a sixth seed in the West Sub-Regional at San Diego, facing the winner of the Rutgers-Notre Dame play-in game on Thursday.

Tennessee (26-7) is a third seed, facing Longwood (26-6) on Thursday in the South Sub-Regional at Indianapolis. Auburn (27-5) is the No. 2 seed playing Jacksonville State (21-10) in the Midwest Sub-Regional at Greenville, S.C. Kentucky (26-7) is also a No. 2 seed facing Saint. Peter’s (19-11) in the East Sub-Regional at Indianapolis.

Despite the Aggies’ valiant effort in the SEC Tourney, it was deemed too little, too late. A&M is NIT bound. The Aggies (23-12) play Alcorn State at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

In other NIT action, Vanderbilt (17-16) faces Belmont at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Mississippi State (18-15) faces Virginia at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and Florida (19-13) faces Iona at 8 p.m. Wednesday.