Hogs pick up momentum with LSU victory

Arkansas guard Davonte Davis (4) tries to drive past LSU forward Jalen Reed (13) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. AP Photo/Michael Woods)

The Arkansas Razorbacks fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 this week for the first time this season, but the Hogs are on a two-game winning streak after defeating the LSU Tigers, 60-40, at Bud Walton Arena on Tuesday night.

Despite wet snow blanketing Northwest Arkansas, it was toasty inside Walton Arena as the Razorbacks built a 25-point first-half lead as easily as kids might build a snowman.

However, predictably, the Hogs had one of their turnover meltdowns in the second half that allowed the Tigers to trim Arkansas’ lead to 11 before Arkansas found its equilibrium and put the game away for good.

The victory had the 15,000 or so fans who made it to the Bud despite the snowy weather celebrating along with Boss Hog, Sue E. Pig, head coach Eric Musselman, and the Razorbacks themselves.

Whipping even a bad if not awful LSU squad is worth celebrating.

Add to that fact that it made two wins in a row for a Hog squad that’s had a bumpy January, and it was a great time for all involved to let loose.

The Razorbacks did look better in the game, particularly on defense than they have in recent weeks. They looked locked in behind the stellar play of Devo Davis, who is playing excellent defense as well as shooting exceptionally well, nailing 7 of his 8 shots for a team-leading 16 points.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at No. 17 Baylor
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28
Where: Waco, Texas

Next 3 games

Jan. 31 — Texas A&M 6 p.m. (ESPN/2/U)
Feb. 4 — at South Carolina 2:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 7 — at Kentucky 8 p.m. (ESPN/2)

The junior was joined in double-figures by freshman Anthony Black with 14 points, with 10 apiece by junior Ricky Council IV and senior Makhi Mitchell.

Mitchell led a well-rounded Razorback effort on the glass with 8 rebounds. Black and Davis contributed 7 boards apiece with Council tracking down 4.

Council had a 7-assist night, complemented with 3 each by Black and Davis.

What has been most impressive, though, in the Hogs last two games is the leadership Davis has shown. Devo’s never been a shy young man, but you can see him step forward and the rest of the team falling in line behind his experience. That’s a good sign for the Razorbacks.

While Davis has played well all season long, it hasn’t been clear that he was the leader on this squad until recently, and perhaps that’s the ingredient that has been missing this January as much as the absence of solid three-point shooting.

Arkansas actually shot the three-pointer relatively well last night, hitting 5 of 13. Not spectacular, but it was better.

The game wasn’t perfect. The Razorbacks allowed LSU to almost creep back into the game at one point in the second half with a scoring lapse created a flurry of bad turnovers, which the Tigers capitalized on.

Against a better team, that lapse might have spelled trouble or perhaps even another double-digit loss. To their credit, the Razorbacks responded and put the game away in proper fashion.

But this team is very much still a work in progress. The two-game winning streak has come against two bottom-of-the-barrel SEC squads. Still, these wins are progress.

The question remains, though, is this progress sustainable or just a factor of the schedule and feeding off the bottom of the SEC?

At the moment, it’s a question we can only guess at. However, confidence grows with success, and sometimes confidence is the missing ingredient for a young team that has been underachieving.

So, the big question on Razorback fans’ minds is whether this squad is going to make the NCAA Tournament or not.

I’d say it’s truly up in the air.

A couple of weeks ago, I inaccurately wrote that the SEC looked strong, maybe nine teams deep. As things have shaken out through the rest of January, it looks like a top-heavy league at the moment with Alabama way out front and Tennessee and Auburn trailing behind.

Texas A&M is playing really well, but I’m just not ready to put them on the same rung with the Vols and Tigers. Kentucky is making a move, and no doubt has the talent to play with the league’s best when the Wildcats’ ship is in order.

I would like to say the Razorbacks have that potential, too, but I’m not ready to go there yet based on a couple of victories at home against two bad teams.

Look, the Razorbacks’ first six conference games were tough with four of them on the road and a visit from Alabama, which might be the best team in the nation right now. But great or even good teams find a way to win more of those than just one.

Right now, Arkansas’ overall schedule isn’t quite as tough through the next five games. Winning at Baylor on Saturday might be an impossible task, and the Hogs’ trip to Rupp Arena on Feb. 7 is admittedly a tough one, but the other four are winnable.

I may not be giving the Aggies enough credit, but if the Hogs can come out of their next six games 4-2, they would be around .500 in the SEC. Getting above .500 in SEC play is imperative.

Arkansas’ final three SEC regular-season games are extremely tough – at Alabama Feb. 25, at Tennessee Feb. 28, and then the regular-season finale against Kentucky at Walton Arena on March 4.

I can see Arkansas going 6-4 in their final 10 SEC games with continued progress. I don’t envision the Hogs topping No. 17 Baylor on Saturday at Waco, Texas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

If all that comes to pass, the Razorbacks would be 20-11 going into the SEC Tournament on March 8-12 in Nashville, probably needing a win or two to ensure themselves an NCAA Tournament berth.

One thing the Hogs do have going for them at the moment is a decent NCAA NET Ranking of No. 24.

That’s fourth in the SEC behind No. 2 Tennessee, No. 3 Alabama, and No. 23 Auburn. A win at Baylor on Saturday would enhance that ranking. For whatever reason, the NCAA NET rankings weigh non-conference road wins more heavily than any conference victories?

As Musselman has told his team, they have a ton of must-win games or Super Bowls ahead of them. That’s a lot of pressure, but maybe that pressure will push his talented squad to rise to the occasion.

The last two seasons, we’ve seen Razorback teams pick themselves up and begin to play progressively better basketball around this time of the season.

Those teams were not facing the same injury or inexperience issues that these Hogs are with Nick Smith Jr. and Makhel Mitchell out indefinitely and Trevon Brazile out for the season. But, I wouldn’t totally count this Razorback team out yet.

There is still time to salvage the season.