Wednesday is a double header day for the Arkansas Razorbacks, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Hog baseball.
Sam Pittman’s Razorback football squad (6-6) closes out the 2022 season at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at Memphis against the Kansas Jayhawks (6-6) on ESPN, and at 8 p.m. Eric Musselman’s No. 9 basketball Razorbacks (11-1) embark on the SEC portion of their schedule, opening play against the LSU Tigers (11-1).
That’s about a six-hour block of Razorback sports, and it’s a great post-Christmas gift for Hog fans that will be viewing from home.
Those who are going to the Liberty Bowl will be able to listen to the hoop Hogs on their drive home. If staying over in Memphis, it’ll be tight to get back to your hotel or your favorite watering hole for tipoff with the traffic, but with some hustle, most Hog fans should be able to make it to a TV in time for the second half.
In reality, the Liberty Bowl closes the door on the 2022 season, and will literally determine if it will be remembered as a winning one or not with the Hogs going into the game with a 6-6 record.
Arkansas Football (6-6)
Opponent: Kansas (6-6)
When: 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 28
Where: Liberty Bowl Stadium, Memphis, Tenn.
However, considering the upheaval of the Razorbacks’ roster due opt-outs to train for the NFL draft, injuries, and players looking for perceived better opportunities through the transfer portal, the Hogs have traveled light to the Bluff City with a roster of around 65 active scholarship players.
The Razorbacks who play Wednesday clearly are players that want to be Razorbacks. Bowl workouts have been to prep for Kansas, but perhaps even more importantly, they’ve been a glimpse at the immediate future of the Razorback program.
No doubt the message to the Hogs is similar to the one Pittman had for his squad prior to games during his first season when Covid-19 impacted the season. “All we have is all we need.”
However, Pittman has declared that after the bowl, he and his staff will go about rebuilding the Razorbacks’ numbers through the transfer portal.
While injuries did a number on the Razorbacks this season, Pittman has recruited well through the portal.
The poster child for that is Drew Sanders, the Razorback linebacker who was a third-down pass rusher for Alabama, but who developed into a consensus All-American linebacker in one season with the Razorbacks. Better yet, Sanders is projected to be a first-round pick in this spring’s NFL Draft after one season as a Hog.
Now, I like every other Hogs fans wishes Sanders would have played another season, but I totally understand his decision to move on to the NFL and wish him well.
Sanders was the first consensus All-American for the Hogs since running back Darren McFadden in 2007. Sanders would not have had that opportunity at talent-abundant Alabama and a few other programs like Georgia, Ohio State, USC where potentially great players have to sit and wait for playing time.
The message to potential portal recruits is why sit when you could play and possibly star at Arkansas.
One season with the Hogs, and Sanders is on his way not only to the NFL to make his playing dreams come true but also life-changing money for him and his family.
That’s a huge selling point for Pittman and other Razorback recruiters as they scour the transfer portal for potential Hogs.
Sanders is proof to potential transfer-portal recruits that if you have the talent but it’s not shining where you’re at, with hard work and discipline, it can shine bright at Arkansas against the talent of the SEC.
If Sanders could do it at Arkansas then so can you!
I’m looking forward to the Liberty Bowl and the showdown with the Jayhawks, but I’m also interested in seeing the how Pittman rebuilds his team through the portal in the coming months.
I’m not sure the current recruiting situation with the portal can maintain itself, but at the moment, it’s like a mid-week shopping trip when you know exactly what you need, and if you have the means, you can go out and get it.
Unfortunately, the injury storyline that dominated Razorback football season has continued into the early portion of basketball season.
When the Hogs face LSU on Wednesday, they will be without two of their most-talented players in Trevon Brazile, the 6-10 do-it-all forward who thrilled Hog fans with his athleticism and skills before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee, and Nick Smith Jr., the nation’s No. 1 recruit last year who is out indefinitely with a knee injury or “knee management” as Muscleman has labeled it.
Next up for the No. 9 Razorbacks
Opponent: at LSU
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17
Where: Baton Rouge, La.
Next 3 games
Jan 4 — Missouri 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 7 — at Auburn 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 11 — Alabama 6 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
That’s an awful lot of talent to be shelved for the foreseeable future, but Musselman recruited so well, it seems he has a never-ending bench of ultra-talented reserves to call upon.
With talent like Brazile and Smith Jr. watching from the bench, Arkansas arguably played its best game of the season in an 85-51 demolition of North Carolina-Asheville last Wednesday before taking a few days off for Christmas.
Along with No. 7 Tennessee, No. 8 Alabama, No. 19 Kentucky, No. 20 Auburn, and No. 21 Mississippi State, the Hogs are expected to vie for the SEC crown. Though the Tigers are unranked at the moment, you might as well throw them into the mix with their outstanding start to the season.
You might have to go back to the Razorbacks’ earliest days in the league to find a time when league had as many high-level contenders for national prominence.
Certainly, a few of those teams will probably turn out to be pretenders, and how a team plays early in conference play certainly isn’t the end-all and be-all.
If you remember, last year the Razorbacks went 0-3 to start the conference schedule before winning nine consecutive games to turn their season around and go on to finish with their second trip to the Elite Eight in a row.
But you have to like the way the Razorbacks played against UNC-Asheville. They played smothering defense, and as the old saying goes, defense travels.
Some see the Hogs’ three-point shooting as a detriment. It’s not particularly impressive at 31%.
However, personally, I’m glad that the Razorbacks are athletic and strong enough inside that they don’t have to rely on their 3-point shot as a crutch like the Razorbacks had to the previous three seasons. No doubt, Musselman and his Hogs made it work, particularly the last two seasons, but the Hogs don’t have to force 3-pointers like J.D. Notae did at times last season. They can just take them as they come in the flow of their offense.
I like that their offense centers around scoring in the paint whether through drives to the basket by Ricky Council IV, Anthony Black, and Devo Davis, or post-ups by Makhi Mitchell — I love his sticky fingers — and Jalen Graham or powerful put-backs by Jordan Walsh and Kamani Johnson.
This is a very versatile team that can shoot the trey, but it doesn’t live and die by how well they’re falling on a particular day.
In truth, what these Razorbacks do live and die by is their defense. Their height, length, and versatility is fantastic, and it allows them to be so effective on the defensive end.
It’s not exactly the same style of defense that the Hogs used to win their national title in 1994 and make it back to the title game in 1995, but the Razorbacks’ skill, technique, and physical ability is impressive even without Smith Jr. and Brazile.
The great thing is defense does travel. Certainly, the Razorbacks will have to gauge how aggressively they can play on the road early in games, but withering defense is something a team can hang its hat on night in and night out.
All that said, this is a young team, and there are bound to be some growing pains at some point this season. But judging on how the Hogs have played thus far, I do expect them to be in the hunt for a regular-season SEC title, which Arkansas hasn’t won since 1994.