The term “must-win game” is usually reserved for opponents at the top or near the top of conference standings, but that’s not the case for the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 2:30 p.m. Saturday contest against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Columbia.
Coach Lamont Paris’ Gamecocks (8-14, 1-8) are tied for last in the SEC with Ole Miss, while the Hogs (15-7, 4-5) are stuck in the wide middle of the league race after winning their last three SEC games.
That makes this a “must-win” game for the Razorbacks or maybe a “can’t-lose” contest if the Hogs want to keep their hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament on track.
Though South Carolina did upset Kentucky, 71-68, the Gamecocks have a Net ranking of just No. 284. The Razorbacks have a solid Net ranking of No. 27 on Friday morning, but that mark would take a hit should the Razorbacks take a tumble in Columbia.
A loss to South Carolina would build the kind of hump that’s hard to get over if the Razorbacks are on the bubble when Selection Sunday rolls around.
Considering how the Hogs played in January and their upcoming schedule, it’s not hard to imagine Arkansas being on the bubble, either.
Honesty, if they don’t play better in February than they did in January, the Razorbacks are looking at an NIT bid, if that.
Next up for the Razorbacks
Opponent: at South Carolina
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4
Where: Columbia, S.C.
TV: SEC Network
Next 3 games
Feb. 7 — at Kentucky 8 p.m. (ESPN/2)
Feb. 11 — Miss. St. 5 p.m. (ESPN/2/U)
Feb. 15 — at Texas A&M 8 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Of late, ESPN bracket specialist Joe Lunardi sees the Hogs as a No. 9 or 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now his opinion isn’t anywhere near official, but ESPN doesn’t pay him because he’s bad at his job. If Lunardi views the Hogs that close to being on the bubble, then they probably are.
The Razorbacks are 0-5 in true road games. Four of those five have been SEC losses. If the Hogs do beat South Carolina Saturday, it’s not going to impress anyone, but it is a building block for a Razorback squad that is talented but is still putting it together as a team.
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman talked about how difficult it has been for his Hogs to get over the hump in SEC play, particularly on the road.
“We’re continuing to try to get better, continuing to try to evolve,” Musselman said in his preview press conference for the South Carolina game. “We were one play away from wining at LSU, one play away from winning at Missouri, and one play away from winning at Baylor.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve played bad basketball on the road; I’d say we have been unfortunate. We can’t catch a break. Obviously we need to try and create one more possession on the road than we have in those three games.”
Musselman pointed out that one of the losses was at Auburn, which has become a truly tough environment the last nine years with Bruce Pearl reviving the program. The Razorbacks’ success the last two seasons with Elite Eight finishes has created sell-out environments at all of the Hogs’ road games.
February has been an outstanding month for the Razorbacks in 2021 and 2022, with Hogs combining for a 13-1 record. That’s probably not going to be the case this year, Musselman warns.
“We’ve lost three one-possession games on the road,” Musselman said. “This is the most difficult conference schedule we’ve had by far. Sometimes that’s just the luck of the draw.
“We have a really difficult schedule going forward… This is a really, really challenging schedule. Some of the teams you would hope to play twice, we are not getting that opportunity this year. We’re playing a lot of teams that are really, really good, and any time you play on the road , it’s extremely difficult.”
The Razorbacks have games remaining at Kentucky on Feb. 7, at Texas A&M on Feb. 15, Florida at home on Feb. 18, at No. 4 Alabama on Feb. 25, at No. 2 Tennessee on Feb. 28, and Kentucky again at home on March 4.
Each of those teams are ranked ahead of the Hogs in the current SEC standings. That’s a lot of opportunity, but it’s also a lot of challenges for a squad that’s 0-5 in true road games this season.
Again, this game at South Carolina is one the Hogs can ill afford to lose.
The Razorbacks’ 81-70 victory over Texas A&M on Tuesday was impressive despite the weather-related travel difficulties the Aggies faced just to get to Fayetteville.
It might not have been the most aesthetically pleasing victory of the season, but considering half the Hogs were dealing with some kind of injury, it showed toughness and resolve on the Razorbacks’ parts.
Anthony Black played despite a knee injury, Ricky Council IV has been playing through back issues, Jalen Graham was dealing with an issue that required an MRI on Monday, and Makhel Mitchell has been using a walking boot lately when not playing. Musselman saluted their efforts for a team that is undermanned with Trevon Brazile and Nick Smith Jr. also out with knee injuries.
“Understanding we are undermanned and understanding for us to win that we are going to have to play through some injuries,” Musselman said he was proud of them. “That’s almost half our team that are playing through injuries.”
Black was considered a top 10 freshman coming out of high school. He has played very well all year, but he seems to be coming into his own at this juncture of the season.
“He’s making right reads on everything now,” Musselman said. “Some teams have tried to trap him on the pick and roll, which I think is great for us because that makes it a four-on-five situation because A.B. can see over the defense with his size.
“He’s an overly willing passer. Any teams that do try to blitz him, it’s worked to our advantage of late. He creates numbers for us offensively where we can attack and get down hill. He’s making a lot of winning plays. His play on the ball on that one Texas A&M rebound — his steal around the one minute mark — was vital to put away the game.
“I’m proud of A.B. and his toughness to give himself up for the team,” Musselman said of Black playing after suffering swelling in his knee following a tumble in the Baylor loss. “We knew that he was not going to be healthy or even close against A&M. He’s not worried about his stats, he’s trying to help the Razorbacks win games.”
Musselman said the rest of his walking-wounded Razorbacks are also playing with that kind of heart.
That heart gives these Razorbacks a solid chance of winning their way into the NCAA Tournament despite facing a very challenging SEC slate the rest of the regular season.
That makes February truly a Valentine’s season in more ways than one for these Hogs.