Hoop Hogs sputtering as SEC play nears

Arkansas forward Makhi Mitchell (15) tries to get around Oklahoma forward John Hugley IV (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Joey Johnson)

The Arkansas Razorbacks returned to practice Christmas night after an NCAA mandatory three-day break for the holiday.

After five days of practices this week, the Hogs will be back in action at 6 p.m. Saturday for their final game of their pre-conference schedule against a salty North Carolina-Wilmington squad that upset Kentucky, 80-73, on Dec. 2. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.

No doubt, the Seahawks (9-2) are salivating for the opportunity to to pick up another victory against a Southeastern Conference squad, and the way the Razorbacks (8-4) have been playing lately, the Hogs are ripe for the picking.

I’m not making any predictions either way with this Razorback squad that has the talent to post victories over the likes of Duke and Purdue — albeit in an exhibition game — but also has shown the capacity to wilt against squads like Memphis, North Carolina, and Oklahoma on neutral courts and lose to North Carolina-Greensboro at Bud Walton Arena.

We all know the Bud Walton Arena crowd can be a factor in games if the Razorbacks come to play, but when their effort is half-hearted or just inconsistent like in the Greensboro contest and honestly in the Hogs’ last two victories over Lipscomb and Old Dominion, the home crowd is rendered impotent.

Hog fans will do their part in supporting the squad, but make no mistake, players and their coaches earn wins and losses, not the crowd. The home Hog crowd is the salt and pepper on the baked potato, not the butter, sour cream or the spud itself.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: UNC Wilmington
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 30
Where: Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville
TV: SEC Network

Next 5 games

Jan. 6 – Auburn, 1 p.m. (ESPN2)
Jan. 10 – at Georgia, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/U)
Jan. 13 – at Florida, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 16 – Texas A&M, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
Kan. 20 – South Carolina, 12 p.m. (SEC Network)

When the Razorbacks do their job on the court, the Walton Arena crowd will be there to accentuate that performance. We saw that in the aforementioned Duke and Purdue games.

It’s been that way since the arena opened in 1993, and it was that way at Barnhill Arena dating back to the 1970s when football players donned overalls and cowboy hats while they sat behind the bench to harass the opposing team as the Mad Hatter and Overall Gang.

Those types of shenanigans no longer occur on the UA campus, but it is a part of the legend and lore of the Razorback basketball program that is fun for old heads to recall.

And, every home game can’t be against teams like Duke and Purdue. However, this Razorback team needs to begin treating every opponent like they are the Blue Devils and Boilermakers if it wants to find a way to be a consistent team that has a shot of making the NCAA Tournament.

This Razorback squad that was ranked in the top 15 of the Associated Press Top 25 at the beginning of the season is no longer included in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology report from Dec. 19, but teams like Lipscomb and North Carolina-Greensboro are.

Good teams know they prepare for a nameless, faceless opponent in each practice. They play up to their own standard with each opportunity not up to or down to the opponent.

It’s fair to say this squad is still coming together under Coach Eric Musselman and his staff’s tutelage— or at least we hope it is — but time is growing short with the Hogs’ SEC opener against Auburn on Jan. 6 just 12 days away.

I do trust in Muss, his staff, and Razorback fans, but I just haven’t seen the consistent type of play — particularly defensively — from the players that I’ve come to expect from his program the last five seasons. Because of their play so far, I don’t trust these Hogs, yet.

The last three seasons, it’s been mid to late January when the Hogs began to really click as a team in SEC play. One hopes that cohesiveness will start to bind earlier this year, but honestly the Razorbacks’ last two performances did not point in that direction.

Maybe Saturday’s game will?