The Arkansas Razorbacks may have played their best overall game in a month last Saturday at Waco, Texas, but the Hogs suffered late-game offensive and defensive lapses that strapped them with another loss.
No. 17 Baylor posted a 67-64 victory over the Hogs when freshman Keyonte George took over the game offensively, plundering the heart of the Razorbacks’ offense on multiple trips down the floor when the game was on the line to all but put the contest away.
Razorback freshman Joseph Pinion, cold off the bench, did get off a desperation three-pointer from the corner at the buzzer that could have tied the game, but it was well off the mark.
The Razorbacks, who started the season ranked in the top 10, have suffered through a tough first month of SEC play, losing five of eight games. The loss at Baylor just rubbed salt into that open wound.
The Hogs were a defensive stop or a couple of fewer turnovers away from pulling off an upset of the Bears, but several lapses at various points in the game kept them from leaving Waco with a significant victory.
If the Razorbacks weren’t 21 games into the season, it could be laid off as freshmen mistakes or to developing chemistry among so many transfers and young guys playing key roles, but the truth is if this team that appeared so promising in the preseason is going to make the NCAA Tournament, they have to start playing smarter, tougher, and less mistake-prone basketball.
As a team, the Hogs must lift their level of play a couple of notches or they will be playing in the NIT and not the Big Dance.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: Texas A&M
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31
Where: Fayetteville, Ark.
Next 3 games
Feb. 4 — at South Carolina 2:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 7 — at Kentucky 8 p.m. (ESPN/2)
Feb. 11 — Miss. St. 5 p.m. (ESPN/2/U)
There is no doubt this squad misses the talent, skill and bravado of Trevon Brazile and Nick Smith Jr., who are out with knee injuries. I guess there is still a possibility of Smith returning at some point?
There is no doubt the return of Smith could help this squad. He is the best three-point shooter on the team, and his shot might force opponents out of the zone defenses that have stymied the Razorbacks since the beginning of SEC play.
But, the truth is even if Smith does return, it will take at least a few games for him to get into basketball shape and for his teammates to adjust again to playing with him.
The Razorbacks have fallen to a spot where they have to make a move immediately if they don’t want to see their opportunity for a NCAA Tournament bid fade away. Hog coach Eric Musselman recently likened the Hogs’ situation to playing in a Super Bowl in each game they play.
The loss to Baylor slipped the Hogs in the NCAA Net rankings to No. 28, which remains the third best in the SEC. Tennessee is at No. 2, and Alabama is at No. 4. Auburn is at No. 31, Kentucky No. 35, Texas A&M No. 42, Missouri at No. 44, Florida at No. 50, Mississippi State at No. 54, Vanderbilt at 93. The rest of the SEC is outside the top 100.
Interestingly enough, it was Texas A&M, the Hogs’ 6 p.m. opponent Tuesday at Walton Arena, that made a second-half of the season surge a year ago that had them on the bubble of making the NCAA field. However the Aggies had to settle for an NIT bid instead. They lost 73-72 to Xavier in the championship game at Madison Square Garden.
Coach Buzz Williams had his Aggies primed for SEC play from the get-go this season. It’s not necessarily a surprise A&M is playing so well, but their 7-1 mark in SEC play is impressive. They are tied with Tennessee for second in the league and just a game back of 8-0 Alabama. The Aggies would have to fall off a cliff over the last six weeks of SEC play to not have their NCAA dance card punched in March.
While much of the rest of the league were participating in the final SEC-Big 12 Challenge, the Aggies ground out a 72-66 victory over Vanderbilt at home last Saturday. A&M was more impressive in their 79-63 dismantling of Auburn on the road last Wednesday, but the win over Vandy showed the Aggies can grit out a victory.
Wade Taylor, a 6-0, sophomore guard, leads a balanced A&M attack in scoring with 14.8 points per game. His senior backcourt mate Tyrece Radford pitches in 13.6 points and 5.3 rebounds. The pair of experienced guards pose a challenge for the Hogs’ backcourt. Dennis Dexter, a 6-5 swingman who averages 8.1 points and 5.5 rebounds, rounds out a strong back court.
Henry Coleman, a 6-7, 230-pound junior forward, muscles his way to 10.0 points and 5.8 rebounds, while 6-8 junior forward Julius Marble adds 9.8 points and 4 rebounds.
So, it will be the Razorbacks length and athleticism versus the Aggies’ quickness and toughness.
The Hogs must concentrate on playing sound basketball and stay under control. Avoid their scoring lapses and turnover tendencies if they hope to have a chance to pull off an upset.
This would be a game where Walton Arena’s home-court advantage could be a key, but with icy conditions expected, the question is how many Hog fans will be able to make it to the arena for the game’s 6 p.m. tipoff?
This is a crucial game for the Razorbacks, which really did play well at Waco last Saturday. Arkansas needs a similar effort against the Aggies. Maybe it will pay off, and the Razorbacks can start another midseason run similar to the last two seasons?