The Arkansas Razorbacks’ hardwood regular-season finale is just hours away.
The Hogs meet the No. 23 Kentucky Wildcats at 1 p.m. Saturday in Bud Walton Arena on CBS in what was expected to be a game of high importance to the realm of college hoops.
Both teams were ranked in the preseason top 10, but unfortunately each has had tough seasons. The injury bug has bitten both teams hard this season, but if we are perfectly honest, that has not been the only issue.
Neither team has jelled the way Kentucky coach John Calipari and Arkansas coach Eric Musselman imagined when these teams were recruited. Both had stellar recruiting classes last year from the high school ranks as well as in the transfer portal, but the pieces have not fit together as well as planned for any number of reasons.
The Hogs (19-11, 8-9 SEC) and Wildcats (20-10, 11-6 SEC) have ridden the roller coaster all year with up-and-down seasons.
Kentucky particularly struggled in their pre-conference schedule. Arkansas had more difficulty in SEC play.
Musselman has noted that the Hogs faced a particularly tough league schedule this season and the overall uneven nature of the SEC’s schedule, prompted by the number of squads in the conference and its lack of divisions.
Next up for the Razorbacks
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, March 4
March 8-13— SEC Tournament at Nashville (SEC Network/ESPN)
I’ve not read similar gripes by Calipari. Maybe the two coaches, who are fond of each other, will commiserate Saturday, or maybe they won’t.
Either way this has basically been a mediocre season for both coach’s programs.
What would make the season better for them, the program, and their fans?
A win on Saturday in their regular-season finale.
Kentucky and Arkansas don’t have the best teams in the SEC this year. Kentucky’s tied for fourth in the league standings with Tennessee and Arkansas is tied for 10th with Mississippi State and Florida. Arkansas owns the tie-breaker over Florida, while the Bulldogs own it over the Hogs by virtue of the outcome of their regular-season games.
So, there is no championship on the line Saturday as CBS hoped when it selected this game for its prime afternoon slot, but Kentucky-Arkansas remains compelling because of the nature of the two programs.
Yes, it’s been since the 1990s that Arkansas was a championship factor in college basketball, and yes, the sheen of Kentucky’s program has faded a bit over the last five years.
But — and it is a rather large caboose — the two programs remain the two most historic in the SEC. Certainly Kentucky’s history towers over Arkansas’ and the rest of the league, but only Florida could have an argument against the Razorbacks being ranked second to the Wildcats in basketball prominence among SEC members.
One hopes that fact is impressed upon the players of both squads, who are perhaps unaware of the history of and between these two programs because of their youth and today’s turn-style nature of college athletics with one-and-dones and the freedom to transfer.
Saturday’s game means a lot to fans on both sides, even if some Bluegrass blue bloods might not want to admit it.
Five years ago, I would have called this a must-win game for Arkansas’ chances to make the NCAA Tournament with them sitting a game below .500 in SEC play.
However, the NCAA’s Net rankings — which has been the best predictor for Big Dance bids in recent years – has the Razorbacks ranked No. 16 as of Friday morning, despite having lost four of their last six games.
Kentucky is ranked No. 21 even though the Wildcats coughed up a game to Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena on Wednesday.
Win or lose, neither Arkansas’ nor Kentucky’s Net rankings are likely to move much after this game. The Net is based on a season’s worth of outcomes not human judgement. Numbers can’t be swayed very easily this late in the season.
That’s good for the Hogs and Wildcats because if the eye-test were a thing in judging NCAA Tournament participants, the loser of this game would have its back against the wall going into the SEC Tournament next week.
That said, Arkansas doesn’t want to open the postseason coming off a three-game losing streak or having lost five or their last seven games. Kentucky doesn’t want to carry a two-game albatross to Nashville, either.
A win for Kentucky ensures them a double buy in the SEC Tournament with the top four teams in the league opening play in Friday’s quarterfinals.
The Razorbacks are going to be an eighth, ninth or tenth seed, opening play on Thursday in the SEC Tourney.
If the Hogs are the eighth or ninth seed, they would face Alabama on Friday if they advance. If the Hogs are the 10th seed and win, they would face Texas A&M on Friday.
The nation won’t be watching this game with rapt attention on Saturday. It’s not even particularly important to the overall SEC race.
But for Hogs and Wildcats basketball fans, it’s still going to be a really big deal for about two and half hours Saturday afternoon.
The winners will take much-need momentum into the SEC Tournament. The losers will just have to hope to leave their struggles at home when they pack for Nashville.