Razorbacks seeking to get back on track against No. 20 Missouri

(UA Athletics)

It seems like a year since the Arkansas Razorbacks have played a basketball game.

Yeah, I’m sorry for the lame New Year’s joke, but when you get used to a two-game a week routine, the holidays can play a little havoc with your internal clock.

When the No. 13 Hogs tip off with the new-look No. 20 Missouri Tigers at 7:30 p.m. in Bud Walton Arena, it will have been a full week since the Razorbacks lost a 60-57 nail biter to the LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge, La., last Wednesday.

Many Hog fans who were involved with Sam Pittman’s football Razorbacks’ three-overtime shootout with Kansas in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl might have missed some or all of the LSU basketball game.

Arkansas shot horribly in the first half, but overall didn’t play poorly. However, they didn’t play well enough to win a game in which they were favored.

As talented as Coach Eric Musselman’s Razorback team is, it is young and there may be more growing pains than any of us anticipated this season, particularly with two of the most-talented Hogs unavailable to play.

Next up for the No. 13 Razorbacks

Opponent: No. 20 Missouri
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 4
Where: Fayetteville, Ark.
TV: SEC Network

Next 3 games

Jan. 7 — at Auburn 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 11 — Alabama 6 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Jan. 14 — at Vanderbilt 1 p.m. (ESPN2/U)

Sophomore Missouri transfer Trevon Brazile is out for the season after having arthroscopic knee surgery last week. Musselman reported that the young man is already back in the weight room, but the Hogs will miss his height and versatility on the court.

Likewise, Nick Smith Jr. remains sidelined while he is managing a right knee injury. When or if he will play again this season is unknown to fans or media.

Musselman has attempted to make use of the Hogs’ extra time without a weekend game to do more live scrimmaging in practice.

“It is unique to have a week off when you are used to the normal two games a week,” Musselman said Monday. “We had a couple of days off — Thursday and Sunday, and we’ve had a couple of good practices as well and need two more to get ready for a good 12-1 Missouri team.

“We’ve cleaned up some things, both offensively and defensively, and we’ve gone more live than we have in my seven and half years as a college coach to try to clean up areas we want to improve on, both offensively and defensively.”

What exactly were those areas?

“…we need to continue to do a good job defending the 3, especially knowing the 3-point shooting ability of guys like [D’Mai] Hodge, [Nick] Honor, Kobe Brown and Noah Carter,” Musselman said. “Those guys in particular that are really good 3-point shooters. …Just like every team, it’s right around Jan. 1, and you’re trying to figure out (you’re team). Not only are you preparing for you next opponent, but you’re trying to improve you’re own team. You have to self-scout areas where you can get better. Certainly our rotations have changed with the injuries.”

The No. 20 Tigers (12-1) are no slouch in Dennis Gates’ first season as head coach in Columbia. In their last two games they not only beat then-No. 16 Illinois and then-No. 19 Kentucky, but they also did so in fine fashion.

The Tigers crushed Illinois 93-71 in St. Louis on Dec. 22, and then walloped Kentucky 89-75 last Wednesday. The Tigers play a style that might remind Hog fans of Nolan Richardson and Mike Anderson’s tenures with the Razorbacks in some aspects.

The Tigers will be the first ranked opponent to visit Walton Arena for a home conference opener against a ranked Razorback team ever, magnifying just how big this border contest is.

Musselman tried to deflate some of the building hype for the game by pointing out teams are what they are no matter where they are ranked. Arkansas was ranked No. 9 last week when unranked LSU knocked them off, he reminded.

“LSU ranked or unranked, I looked that they had lost one game all year,” Musselman said. “I look at Missouri regardless of their ranking as a well-coached team that has an identity that they’ve created, a style that they’ve created on both sides of the floor with their transition basket ball, with their ability to make 3s, their ability to get to the cup, and then with their disruptive defense, playing both the 1-3-1 and a match-up zone, so to speak, and picking up full court.

“They’ve created an identity and a staple of play, which is the hardest thing to do as a coach, let alone a coach in Year One. Tremendous respect, whether we’re ranked or they’re ranked. They are a team that’s 12-1 and playing great basketball, especially in their last two games.”

While rankings don’t mean a lot to Musselman, the latest Associated Press Poll came out Monday and the Hogs fell from No. 9 to No. 13 with that road loss to LSU.

Four other SEC teams are ranked going into the second playing dates of the league schedule with Alabama at No. 7, Tennessee at No. 8, Missouri at 20, and Auburn at No. 22. LSU, Kentucky and Mississippi State hover right outside the AP’s Top 25, among the top four teams receiving votes.

The AP Top 25 is good for publicity as sports broadcasts usually report Top-25 scores, which might not mean a lot, but it is publicity.

The rankings that matter in seeding and even placement in the NCAA Basketball Tournament are the NCAA NET Rankings.

The NET rankings, which weights non-conference and road games more heavily than conference or home games, sees the SEC similarly at the top but it varies after the top three teams.

NCAA Net Rankings for SEC teams as of early Tuesday are No. 3 Tennessee, No. 8 Alabama, No. 11 Arkansas, No. 32 Missouri, No. 35 Auburn, No. 37 Mississippi State, No. 41 Kentucky, No. 61. Florida, No. 75 LSU, No. 87 Ole Miss, No. 99 Texas A&M, No. 116 Vanderbilt, No. 127 Georgia, and No. 263 South Carolina.

After a slow 0-3 start in league play last year, the Razorbacks struggled in the NET rankings all year long, not breaking the Top 20 before the NCAA Tournament. Of course the Razorbacks advanced to the Elite Eight for the second season in a row.

Clearly neither NET nor AP rankings are full proof. They are mostly just something to talk about.

With dominating victories over Illinois and Kentucky, Missouri poses a clear threat to a talented but still young and inexperienced Razorback team.

Arkansas’ students probably aren’t all back on campus yet, but Walton Arena should still be rocking for this Top-20 showdown. A victory for the Hogs is critical with a road trip to Auburn set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday and then Alabama visiting Walton Arena on Jan. 11.

It’s not inconceivable that Arkansas could be anywhere between 3-1 or 1-3 coming out of those three games.

While we know Musselman’s teams have proven to really start humming in late January and early February from the past two years, a team dominated by freshmen and transfers like this one might need league success earlier than the last two teams.

Veterans Devo Davis and Kamani Johnson need to set a tone for their teammates. Their leadership along with that of junior transfer Ricky Council IV should help talented but young Hogs like Jordan Walsh and Anthony Black cope with any growing pains.

It’s going to take a complete fusion of old heads, transfers, and freshmen to maintain or perhaps elevate this program to where its lofty goals can be met.

Upcoming SEC Games

Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023

South Carolina at Vanderbilt 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Miss. State at No. Tennessee 6 p.m. (ESPN2)
LSU at Kentucky 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Ole Miss at Alabama 8 p.m. (SEC Network)

Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023

No. 22 Auburn at Georgia 5:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Texas A&M at Florida 6 p.m. (ESPNU)
No. 20 Missouri at No. 13 Arkansas 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

SEC Standings

Miss. St.0-111-2
Ole Miss0-14-3
Texas A&M0-08-5
S. Carolina0-07-6