Hogs’ safety NET needs to be backed up by victories as opportunities dwindle

Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman shouts to players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt on Jan. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Doff your Hog Hat and let out a hearty Woo Pig Sooie to Arkansas head basketball coach Eric Musselman, assistant Anthony Ruta, and whomever else on the Razorback basketball staff who played a part in crafting this year’s basketball schedule.

The work those folks did compiling the Hogs’ pre-conference schedule was a job well done, perhaps masterfully done.

On the court, the Razorbacks (18-9, 7-7 SEC) are a .500 team in SEC play, currently tied for fifth if we’re being kind — ninth in reality — in a clogged conference with Missouri and Florida. Just four regular-season league games remain going into Tuesday’s 8 p.m. contest with Georgia (16-11, 6-8 SEC), which will be televised on the SEC Network.

Despite being absolutely mediocre in SEC play with a 7-7 record up to this point in the season, the Razorbacks have a NCAA NET ranking of No. 19, which is third best in the SEC.

Only Alabama at No. 2 and Tennessee at No. 3 have a better NET ranking than Arkansas, despite the fact four other SEC teams — Texas A&M, Kentucky, Auburn, and Vanderbilt — have superior league records to the Razorbacks.

Now, the NET rankings aren’t the be-all and end-all in the NCAA Tournament selection process, but at least in the last two seasons, it weighed heavily in that process and the seeding.

Part of being successful in any endeavor is knowing, understanding, and using the criteria on which you will be judged to your favor. Arkansas’ coaching staff did that expertly with their scheduling this year.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Georgia
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21
Where: Fayetteville, Ark.
TV: SEC Network

Next 3 games

Feb. 25 — at Alabama, 1 p.m. (ESPN/2)
Feb. 28 — at Tennessee, 8 p.m. (ESPN/2)
March 4 — Kentucky, 1 p.m. (CBS)

However, basketball isn’t played by computers, mathematicians, or statisticians. It’s come to the point in the season where the Razorbacks must set themselves apart by their play on the floor.

If the Razorbacks are any less than .500 in SEC competition — including SEC Tournament games — all Hog nation is going to be sweating on Selection Sunday.

That makes the next four regular season games huge for the Hogs. Tuesday’s game with the Bulldogs is an absolute must-win game, just like the Florida game was last Saturday.

The Razorbacks steamrolled the Gators, 85-64, at Walton Arena with Florida star center Colin Castleton watching from the bench with a broken hand.

Tuesday’s game won’t be as easy against a Georgia squad coached by Mike White, who was a gritty guard for Ole Miss and has coached gritty teams in the SEC previously at Florida before taking over the Bulldog job this year. He is rebuilding at Athens, but his team will play tough. Tuesday’s game is no gimme for the Hogs.

Coaches and players can’t afford to look ahead of the Georgia game, but fans can. The Razorbacks’ next three games can be looked at as monumental opportunities or with dread as the Hogs face arguably the three most talented teams in the league.

The Razorbacks head to Tuscaloosa on Saturday to face league-leading Alabama. The Crimson Tide aren’t invincible, but they are electric as they proved at Bud Walton Arena last month, whipping the Hogs 84-69. Arkansas was hanging around until Alabama got down to business and buried the Razorbacks with a barrage of three-pointers.

Next, the Razorbacks head over to Knoxville on Feb. 28 to face Tennessee, which has fallen off the mark a bit after dealing with some injuries. The Vols may be the best defensive team in the SEC at full strength, and all good SEC teams can explode offensively in their home gym on any given night. Tennessee is much better than good.

The Hogs then close the regular season on March 4 at home with the up and down Kentucky Wildcats for a game that could determine each team’s postseason fate, depending on how things work out before then. Both squads have work to do to earn an NCAA bid.

Next is the SEC Tournament March 8-12 at Nashville. No matter how the regular season works out for the Hogs, they need to win at least one game there to feel good about themselves on Selection Sunday.

Again it’s fun to look ahead as fans with hope and maybe even a bit of dread, but the Hogs have to play like they have their backs against the wall tonight against Georgia.

Arkansas can’t let this game with the Bulldogs slip away and expect to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

SEC Standings

Texas A&M12-220-7
Miss. St.6-818-9
S. Carolina3-1110-17
Ole Miss2-1210-17