Outmuscled in Knoxville: Tennessee loss leaves Hogs in need of wins to make the Big Dance

Arkansas guard Anthony Black (0) dunks past Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi (25) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

The Arkansas Razorbacks looked tired, sluggish, and out of sync Tuesday at Knoxville, and as a result the No. 12 Tennessee Vols sliced up the Hogs like a nice pork roast in a 75-57 blowout as the main course in their senior-night celebration.

It was the Razorbacks’ second loss in a row and their fourth in their last six games.

Analytically, the Hogs’ 60-57 loss at LSU in their opening game of SEC play is likely their worst loss in conference competition, but based on the eye test, the pounding Arkansas absorbed by the Vols was arguably their worst this season.

It was a curb-stomping display, and the Vols accomplished it with their point guard Zakai Zeigler out following a knee injury in the early moments of the game.

Arkansas never led in the game. The Hogs gave effort, but the Vols’ defense and tenacity made Arkansas ineffective and turnover prone.

Tennessee won the battle of wills early, and that led to the blowout.

The Razorbacks turned the ball over 16 times and while the overall rebounding numbers were close with Tennessee at 35 and Arkansas at 32, it seemed liked the Vols got all the important ones early when the game was still in question.

For the second game in a row, Razorback guard Anthony Black looked tired. Admittedly, the freshman, who has arguably been Arkansas’ most reliable player this year along with Devo Davis, had 13 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 assists. That is a fine night statistically for anyone, but he also had six turnovers.

Likewise, the Vols’ defensive effort took a lot out of Davis and Ricky Council IV, who settled too often for jump shots, particularly Davis who was 3 of 13 from the field. I can’t argue that Nick Smith Jr. was tired. He’s only played in 11 games, but he was certainly off, missing 10 of his 13 shots.

The Vols’ defensive tenacity made the Razorbacks settle for the shots Tennessee wanted them to to take, rather than continue to fight for shots the Hogs needed to take to have a chance in the game.

The Razorbacks’ four guards did not mesh well against the the Vols. Certainly Tennessee deserves credit for their defensive play.

However, Davis, Council, and Black have played heavy minutes for the Razorbacks this year. All three are averaging around 34 minutes a game. Now, that’s Musselman’s style of play. Six to seven players get the majority of the minutes in his system. Musselman’s system is proven at a high level. That’s unquestionable.

But that still doesn’t mean the wear and tear of this season hasn’t taken a toll and that seems to be what showed up on the court in Knoxville.

The Hogs’ inside game, which has been solid defensively this season and mostly steady offensively, got outmuscled and smothered by the Vols. Tennessee is tall, bulky, and athletic. The Vols had their way at the basket in key situations.

Again, credit must be given to Tennessee for another outstanding defensive effort. The Vols are ranked as one of the best defensive units across the board in college ball. They’ve made a lot of teams wilt this season, including Alabama, Texas, and Kansas, but those squads weren’t fighting for an opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament like the Hogs.

Through games played Tuesday night, the Razorbacks’ NCAA NET ranking is golden. The Hogs are No. 14, which is the third best in the SEC behind No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Tennessee.

But on the court, the Razorbacks are a game below .500 in SEC play at 8-9 with one game to play. NET ranking aside, that’s not a good look in any kind of beauty contest.

The Hogs, of course, close out the regular season against the Kentucky Wildcats, who play Vanderbilt tonight before heading to Fayetteville for Saturday’s 1 p.m. game. CBS will be in town to televise.

Kentucky is playing far better now than they were when the Razorbacks upended the Wildcats, 88-73, at Rupp Arena on Feb. 7, in what might have been Arkansas’ best-played game of the year.

Certainly, coach John Calipari will have his Wildcats primed to try to return the favor by winning at Walton Arena on Saturday.

The matchup may not be the one that CBS anticipated when it opted to televise the game, but for the Razorbacks, the game could not be bigger.

A win pushes the Hogs that much closer to earning a NCAA Tournament bid. A victory would also alleviate some of the pressure going into the SEC Tournament next week at Nashville.

Musselman and his staff didn’t recruit this team to play in the NIT, but unless the Razorbacks are able to pull things together for a couple of victories or more over the next 10 days, that might be this squad’s destination, regardless of its NET ranking.