NCAA chances remain intact, but Hogs need wins

Arkansas guard Ricky Council IV (1) celebrates after scoring against Troy during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Arkansas’ 70-64 loss to Mississippi State last Saturday in and of itself isn’t as damaging analytically to their NCAA Tournament chances as it probably felt to Razorbacks fans.

The Hogs (17-8, 6-6 SEC) still have a Net Rating of No. 23, which is the third best in the SEC behind No. 2 Alabama, and No. 3 Tennessee and ahead of No. 33 Texas A&M, No. 35 Auburn, No. 41 Mississippi State, No. 44 Missouri, and No. 45 Kentucky.

Bracketmatrix’s “The Bracket Project” has the Razorbacks slotted as a ninth seed, while ESPN Bracketology by Joe Lunardi has the Hogs as an eighth seed in his Feb. 10 update. So they may fall to a No. 9 or No. 10 when he updates it.

So, the Hogs didn’t lose much respect in the minds of “experts” or analytically against the Bulldogs, which are a very strong defensive squad; however, to the naked eye, the Hogs’ performance against Mississippi State didn’t look promising. It looked rough.

The Hogs’ best performance of the season without a doubt came last Tuesday’s in the Razorbacks’ 88-73 victory over Kentucky at Rupp Arena. But they followed up last Saturday’s win with dull showing against the Bulldogs. Much of the credit has to go to Chris Jans’ tough squad, but the Hogs looked out of sync on both ends of the floor.

Devo Davis and Ricky Council IV have had excellent seasons, but as dead-eye as they were against the Wildcats, they were off against the Bulldogs.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Mississippi State
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15
Where: Bryan-College Station, Texas

Next 3 games

Feb. 18 — Florida, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)
Feb. 21 — Georgia, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 25 — at Alabama 1 p.m. (ESPN/2)

Davis shot 2 of 11 from the field. Most players shooting that poorly get the hook before they are able to miss that many shots, but Davis is so trusted by Musselman and so good defensively, he was allowed to play through that cold spell.

Council was 1-6, but instead of continuing to fire from outside, he went to the rack and was rewarded with free throws, making 11 of 13, which was the Hogs’ best offensive option in the game.

The Hogs shot 34.6% from the field in the first half, but responded by shooting 54.5% in the second half to merit a respectable 43.8% for the game.

The Bulldogs shot 47.4% from the field which is very good. Kentucky also shot 47% against the Razorbacks, but Arkansas blistered the nets at 62%. Teams that routinely allow opponents to average shooting above 45% don’t win at a high level.

The Razorbacks have to redouble their efforts on defense if they are going to be an NCAA Tournament team. If they do that, the offense will likely follow.

Players — even great ones — are going to have poor shooting nights from time to time. It happens.

But there seemed to be a bit of dysfunction on the floor at times that has been uncharacteristic with this team. Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh were fussing with each other on the court between possessions one time, both looking highly frustrated. It was probably nothing, long forgotten now, but we haven’t seen much of that at all this year.

Obviously, getting Nick Smith Jr. back on the floor is an adjustment, a good one in the long run, but with a minute and 15 seconds to play and the Hogs attempting to pull off a comeback victory, Smith zigged when Black expected him to stay put, and Black’s pass ended up flying into the sideline.

Again turnovers are going to happen from time to time, and Smith and Black need time playing together to be in sync, but losing that possession at that point in the game proved critical. It wasn’t what beat the Hogs on Saturday, but it probably did seal the game for the Bulldogs.

So with six games left in the regular season, the Hogs are “in the tournament,” according to the bracket experts, but with a tough seed. If the season ended today, the Razorbacks would play a team perceived as virtually even with them in the first game, and if they won, the Hogs would face one of the No. 1 seeds in their next game.

There have been upsets of No. 1 seeds in the second round, but it doesn’t happen often.

How can the Hogs improve their seeding?

“Just win baby,” as coined by late Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders owner Al Davis.

This deep in the season, I’m not sure how far up the pecking order Arkansas can climb, but winning never hurts.

The Razorbacks’ remaining schedule is a double-edged sword. There is opportunity, which in one sense is good, but Arkansas has a tough SEC roe to hoe ahead of them.

It begins at 8 p.m. Wednesday against the Aggies (18-7, 10-2) at Bryan-College Station. A&M, like the Hogs, are fighting for NCAA tourney seeding as well as hoping to remain in second place in the league with a possible but improbable chance of catching frontrunner Alabama (22-3, 12-0). Arkansas tagged the Aggies with one of their two conference losses at Walton Arena.

No doubt head coach Buzz Williams and his Aggies plan on returning the favor Wednesday night.

The Hogs then get back-to-back home games against Florida on Saturday and Georgia on Feb. 21 that are absolutely must-win contests for the Razorbacks.

The Hogs then batten down the hatches as theytake a parade through Alabama and Tennessee on Feb. 25 and Feb. 28, which could be likened to a “Death March” with the way those programs have played this season. The Vols have slipped a bit of late, but they will be ready for their version of Senior Night when they host the Hogs.

The Razorbacks finish up the regular season by playing host to Kentucky in both squad’s regular-season closer on March 4. In the preseason this was expected to be a top-10 matchup of the two most storied basketball programs in the SEC.

At the moment, it looks like it could be a battle for which squad gets an NCAA bid or not.

Tuesday’s Games

5:30 p.m. — Vanderbilt at South Carolina (SEC Network)
6 p.m. — Missouri at Auburn (ESPN2)
7:30 p.m. — LSU at Georgia (SEC Network)

Wednesday’s Games

5:30 p.m. — Ole Miss at Florida (SEC Network)
6 p.m. —No. 3 Alabama at No. 6 Tennessee (ESPN2)
7:30 p.m. — Kentucky at Miss. St. (SEC Network)
8 p.m. — Arkansas at Texas A&M (ESPN2)

SEC Standings

Texas A&M10-218-7
Miss. St.5-717-8
Ole Miss2-1010-15
S. Carolina2-109-16