Hogs face surging Baylor in SEC-Big 12 Challenge

Arkansas guard Anthony Black (0) shoots between LSU defenders KJ Williams (12) and Justice Williams (11) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Opportunity knocks for a young, injury-plagued but talented Arkansas Razorbacks squad when they visit Waco, Texas to face the No. 17 Baylor Bears in the Farrell Center as part of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.

Despite losing five of their last eight games, the Razorbacks remain a confident and capable squad even without the talent and skill of one-time starters Trevon Brazile and Nick Smith Jr. and back-up center Makhel Mitchell.

The Hogs (14-6 3-5 SEC) have won their last two games — albeit against arguably the two worst teams in the SEC in Ole Miss and LSU — but a streak is a streak.

The question is can Eric Musselman’s Hogs continue to ride their mini-wave of success against a Baylor squad that’s arguably playing its best basketball of the season?

After starting Big 12 play 0-3, the Bears (15-5, 5-3 Big 12) have won their last five games, including topping No. 9 Kansas, 75-69, last Monday in the Farrell Center.

Yes, Scott Drew and his crack Baylor staff have had the better part of a week to game plan the Hogs, who have struggled in SEC play. No doubt, he’s left no stone unturned with that much time to prepare for the Razorbacks.

Arkansas and Baylor once squared off twice a season as members of the now defunct Southwest Conference until Arkansas made its exit for the SEC for the 1991-92 basketball season. The two squads most recently met in the 2021 Elite Eight where Baylor defeated the Hogs, 81-72, on their way to the national title.

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)

So, what is the opportunity awaiting the Razorbacks?

A slim one, no doubt, but still this is a chance to post a NCAA Tournament resume-enhancing road victory against a surging team, Baylor, which plays in what many believe is this season’s best basketball conference, the Big 12.

Despite defeating LSU on Wednesday, the Razorbacks fell two spots in the NCAA NET Rankings to No. 26. That’s still a decent ranking for at team that’s 3-5 in its last eight games, but the Hogs could gain a decent bump with a road win over the Bears by the system that greatly values non-conference road victories.

The NCAA weighted its ranking system that way to encourage squads to play more challenging non-conference schedules rather than just loading up on rent-a-win home games. The move was probably to make its TV partners CBS and ESPN happy.

Of course, fans are the winners in this situation. Instead of watching this compelling matchup Saturday, Hog fans probably would have been dealing with an open date or a boring matchup against Directional U.

The Bears boast one of the best backcourts in the nation with a three-guard line up of Keyonte George (17.4 pig.), Adam Flagler (16.0 pig.), and L.J. Cryer (13.7 ppg.) that’s been ripping their way through the Big 12 of late.

Just like Baylor’s national title team of two seasons ago, the Bears spread the floor with their guards, shoot the three-pointer or drive to take advantage of the spread out defense.

The Razorbacks have to contain the Bears’ outside shooting because frankly the Hogs just don’t have the outside fire power to keep up with Baylor.

Arkansas is gifted with great length, which gives the Razorbacks a better shot at closing out effectively on Baylor’s shooters, but Arkansas’ defenders have been prone to foul a great deal this season.

With Arkansas’ bench being relatively short, the Bears will be a load for the Hogs to handle away from the friendly confines of Walton Arena.

The Razorbacks have yet to win a true road game this season. They have won on a neutral floor to their credit.

Pulling off a victory at Baylor would be huge for the Razorbacks squad, which counts heavily on freshmen and transfers.

As big a game as this is for Hogs like Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh, both of whom hail from Texas, it is key for veteran Razorbacks like Devo Davis and Kamani Johnson to not only play well but provide leadership for their younger teammates. Davis has excelled at that of late.

It would also be a good time for Ricky Council IV to have a break-out game. The zone defenses SEC opponents have thrown at the Hogs have cut off the driving lanes that Council exploited so well in pre-conference play. Baylor has the guards to man the Hogs up.

If the Bears do, that could lead to more opportunities for Council to force the issue with drives to the paint. Council needs a confidence boost. If Baylor does start in man defense, it might be just the thing to rev up his motor.

For the Hogs to have a chance to win, they honestly must play better than they have since December. A victory might be asking too much at this juncture.

However, young, talented teams like the Razorbacks can surprise at times in a good way. Saturday would be an awesome time for the Hogs to pull off the unexpected upset of an old SWC rival.

Saturday’s Games

11 a.m. — No. 15 Auburn at West Virginia (ESPN)
1 p.m. — Texas Tech at LSU (ESPNU)
1 p.m. — No. 2 Alabama at Oklahoma (ESPN)
1 p.m. — No. 12 Iowa State at Missouri (ESPN2)
3 p.m. — No. 11 TCU at Miss. St. (ESPN2)
3 p.m. — Arkansas at No. 17 Baylor (ESPN)
5 p.m. — South Carolina at Georgia (SEC Network)
5 p.m. — No. 10 Texas at No. 4 Tennessee (ESPN)
5 p.m. — Florida at No. 5 Kansas State (ESPN2)
7 p.m. — Ole Miss at Oklahoma State (ESPN2)
7 p.m. — No. 9 Kansas at Kentucky (ESPN)
7:30 p.m. — Vanderbilt at Texas A&M (SEC Network)

SEC Standings

Texas A&M6-114-6
S. Carolina1-68-12
Miss. St.1-712-8
Ole Miss1-79-11