Razorbacks must train thoughts on Gators

Arkansas guard Jalen Graham (11) reacts after the final play of his team’s loss to Baylor after an NCAA college basketball game in Waco, Texas, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Gareth Patterson)

Arkansas fans and media can play could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve all they want when it comes to the Razorbacks’ recent two-game slide in SEC play to Texas A&M on Wednesday and Mississippi State last Saturday, but if the Hogs are going to make the NCAA Tournament this season, they have to put that behind them and start winning.

Arkansas faces must-win situations in their next two games against Florida at 1 p.m. Saturday and against Georgia at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Both games are at Walton Arena, which is good but not a guarantee for Eric Musselman’s up-and-down Razorbacks. That’s not just up and down over the course of this season but also in the course of games.

The Hogs had a 12-point lead just before half over the Aggies on Tuesday, but allowed a designated Aggie three-point shooter get off a clean look at the buzzer that trimmed the lead to 9. That momentum carried over into the second half and ultimately led to a Razorback meltdown in the final minutes of play that allowed the Aggies to win semi-comfortably.

How can the Hogs right their ship? Excellent question.

Here’s my novice answer: Shoot better and not foul as much. It sounds simple, but it’s not.

Unfortunately Arkansas is not gifted with a team full of outside shooters. As highly as Arkansas’ freshman and transfer classes were rated this year, neither came equipped with enough dead-eye outside shooters.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Florida
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18
Where: Fayetteville, Ark.

Next 3 games

Feb. 21 — Georgia, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Feb. 25 — at Alabama 1 p.m. (ESPN/2)
Feb. 28 — at Tennessee 8 p.m. (ESPN/2)

That makes shot selection key for the Hogs, particularly late in the game.

One could say the Hogs shot themselves out of the A&M game in the last five minutes as they nervously fought to find a game-sealing three, but couldn’t.

Unfortunately the Hogs were just burying themselves deeper in a hole with every three-pointer they jacked up.

With guards Anthony Black, Devo Davis, and Ricky Council IV playing such heavy minutes in SEC play and all year honestly, it’s natural to wonder if they were tired late and just taking the easy shot instead of working for better shots?

That absolutely might not be the case, but as the A&M game played out, it’s not a bad question.

Better shots often means shots inside the paint. That leads to the other issues of fouls.

Late in games, Arkansas usually can’t count on its best big players because they are either strapped with four fouls by that point or fouled out.

Freshman forward Jordan Walsh is one of the most impactful Razorbacks per minutes played on the court, but his propensity to foul limits his time on the floor.

As skilled as the Mitchell twins are, and they are skilled with great hands, good motors, and tenacious attitudes, they foul too much. At the end of the game, one or the other or both can’t play at their best because they are in foul trouble or fouled out on the bench.

That fact only puts more pressure on Black, Council and Davis, and is one of the reasons they are playing heavy minutes. Arkansas often has to go with a smaller lineup — building up minutes with their guards — because their forwards aren’t available because of fouls.

Musselman knows this better than anyone, and he and his staff have yet to find a remedy for it. You don’t want Walsh and the Mitchells to play much less aggressively, but they do have to pick their spots better, play smarter. Usually that comes with experience, and no matter how good or effective a coach is, he can’t impart experience to a player any more quickly than it naturally comes.

Arkansas was at their best against the Aggies when they were pushing the tempo and not letting A&M set up their half-court defense in the first half, but that might also have been why the Hogs looked so fatigued late, turning the ball over and taking bad shots at crunch time.

The elephant in the room is Nick Smith Jr. He only played four minutes in the first half against the Aggies. Some criticize that. I don’t. First, Musselman knows his team and players better than us. Second, Smith had two turnovers in that span and almost another when he nearly had a back-court violation retreating from a trap by the Aggies.

Smith, no doubt, is a marvelous talent, but he’s played so little college ball and so little ball period since first injuring his knee late last summer that he is not anywhere near his best at this moment.

I’m guessing that Musselman felt that his Hogs couldn’t afford to play through Smith’s mistakes on the road in SEC play against a fine Texas A&M squad.

Heck, the Hogs couldn’t afford to play through the mistakes of veterans like Davis and Council in the last five minutes.

The question for Smith is can he raise his level of play to help the Hogs in such a short span?

I think the answer is absolutely, yes, and in these next two home games, I think we will see that begin to develop.

Currently the Hogs are 6-7 in SEC play with five games to play. Despite their NET rating which is still solid at No. 21 after Thursday’s games, the Razorbacks need to go into the SEC Tournament at .500 in SEC play to have a good chance for a NCAA bid.

That means Arkansas needs to win at least three of their last five SEC games to be 9-9 going into the SEC Tournament. I’m guessing the Hogs would need to win at least a game in the SEC Tournament and maybe two to get a bid to the Big Dance.

The Razorbacks just happen to have three home games left — Saturday against Florida, who will reportedly be without big man Colin Castleton who suffered a broken hand against Ole Miss, Tuesday against Georgia, Feb. 25 at Alabama and Feb. 28 at Tennessee, and against Kentucky at Walton Arena on March 4.

Now, a win at Alabama or at Tennessee would do wonders for their NCAA resumé, but the Hogs can ill afford to lose to Florida or Georgia if they hope to play in the NCAA Tournament.

After making runs to the Elite Eight the last two seasons, no Hog fans want to think about an NIT bid at this moment. The players even less so.

If the Hogs did fall to the NIT, one has to wonder if the Razorback freshmen who are regarded as one-and-done prospects would see any value in playing in the NIT?

If potential pro football players would skip out on middle and lower-tier bowls, why wouldn’t potential NBA draft picks do the same with the NIT?

I’m not saying that’s what they should do, just considering the possibility in today’s climate of college athletics.

But all such considerations are three weeks away. Topping the Florida Gators should be all that’s on the Hogs’ minds at the moment.

Saturday’s Games

Noon — South Carolina at LSU (SEC Network)
Noon — No. 10 Tennessee at Kentucky (CBS)
1 p.m. — Florida at Arkansas (ESPN2)
2:30 p.m. — Miss. St. at Ole Miss (SEC Network)
5 p.m. — Texas A&M at Missouri (ESPN2)
5 p.m. — Georgia at No. 1 Alabama (SEC Network)
7:30 p.m. — Auburn at Vanderbilt (SEC Network)

SEC Standings

Texas A&M11-219-7
Miss. St.5-817-9
Ole Miss2-1110-16
S. Carolina2-119-17