Razorbacks hope to make their move as SEC play begins

Arkansas guard Jeremiah Davenport (24) reacts after a big play against Duke during an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

The Arkansas Razorbacks find themselves in an odd position on the day before Southeastern Conference basketball play begins.

The Hogs (9-6) would be on the outside looking in today if the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee were making its choices for which teams would be invited to the Big Dance and which teams would not, at least according to ESPN’s NCAA bracket guru Joe Lunardi.

Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks have made the last three NCAA Tournaments, reaching the Elite Eight in 2021 and 2022, and the Sweet 16 last season by knocking out No. 1 seed Kansas in overtime.

Had Covid-19 not shut down the conference tournaments in 2020, the Hogs would have had a shot at winning their way into the Big Dance that year, too, after beating Vanderbilt in a first-round SEC Tournament game.

But that’s history, and it has little to no bearing on whether the Razorbacks will win their way into a NCAA berth this year or not.

Right now, Lunardi has nine SEC squads predicted to make the tournament. Those teams are Tennessee (10-3) as a two seed, Kentucky (10-2) as a three seed, Auburn (11-2) as a fifth seed, Alabama (8-5) as a sixth seed, Texas A&M (9-4) as a sixth seed, Ole Miss (13-0) as an eighth seed, Florida (10-3) as a 10th seed, Mississippi State (11-2) as a 10th seed, and South Carolina (12-1) as an 11th seed.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Auburn
When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 6
Where: Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville

Next 5 games

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)
Jan. 20 – South Carolina, 12 p.m. (SEC Network)
Jan. 24 – at Ole Miss, 8 p.m. (ESPN2/U)

Lunardi doesn’t have the Razorbacks listed among his next eight teams getting into the tournament.

While its debatable, the SEC is recognized as the best overall conference in basketball going into league play this year. We’ll just have to see how all of that shakes out in March.

The SEC could conceivably get 10 NCAA Tournament berths this year, but honestly seven or eight seem more likely.

So, the assignment for Musselman and his Razorbacks, whose NET ranking as of Jan. 2 was No. 86, is to find a way to wiggle their way into the NCAA Tournament.

Now, my guess is that Lunardi is basically adhering to the NET rankings as a guide for his Bracketology column at this juncture of the season with some tweaking on his part. His column has no direct bearing on the NCAA Selection Committee’s selections, but it is a good layman’s guide.

The NCAA Selection Committee has said the NET rankings aren’t the end all and be all of the selection process, but ultimately their seedings in recent years have followed the NET rankings fairly closely, particularly in terms of seeding.

So how do the Razorbacks improve their NET ranking?

As the late, great Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis said, “Just win, baby.”

Or if you prefer the wisdom of Green Bay Packers legendary coach Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

The Razorbacks just need to win. With practically the entire SEC ranked ahead of them in the NET, most every victory will advance their cause.

The Razorbacks also need to make sure they don’t lose games to Georgia (Jan. 10 and Feb. 10), Missouri (Jan. 31 and Feb. 24), LSU (Feb. 3 or March 6), and Vanderbilt (Feb. 27).

Those are the four SEC teams rated below them in the NET. Losses in any of those seven games would prove more costly in terms of Arkansas’ NET ranking than the rest of their opponents.

Certainly the NET Rankings occupy a bit of Musselman’s mind as he preps the Razorbacks for Saturday’s big 1 p.m. SEC opener with No. 25 Auburn on ESPN2, but only a sliver.

He knows the Razorbacks’ NET will improve if the Hogs win. So again, winning is the only thing.

Coach Bruce Pearl’s Tigers (11-2) have been impressive, knocking off the likes of Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Indiana, and USC, while dropping a Nov. 7 game to Baylor, 88-82, and a Dec. 3 game to Appalachian State, 69-64, in pre-SEC play.

“I’m sure Auburn has aspirations of being a Final Four team,” Musselman said. “I’m sure they have aspirations to win the SEC. They are a top-25 team with experience.”

Six-foot-10 center Johni Broome leads the well-rounded squad in scoring with 15.8 ppg., followed by 6-8 power forward Jaylin Williams at 11.5 ppg., 6-1 point guard Aden Holloway with 10.5 ppg., and 3.1 assists, 6-7 swingman Chad Baker-Mazara at 9.2 ppg., and 6-4 guard Denver Jones with 8.0.

Arkansas guard Khalif Battle (0) against Duke during an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

Broome also leads the Tigers in rebounding with 8.7 rpg.. Williams is next at 4.9 rpg., with Dylan Cardwell and Chaney Johnson adding 4.1 and 4.0 rpg.

The Tigers have two Arkansas natives on their squad in sophomore guard C.J. Williams of Fayetteville and senior Chris Moore of West Memphis, who usually starts.

“In the four and half years that I’ve been in the SEC, coach Pearl has done a wonderful job,” Musselman said. “They understand who they are… When they sub, they get better at times, and get better at certain positions. They bring Cardwell in for Broome, center for center. They bring K.D. Johnson is at the off guard spot for Denver Jones. They bring (Chad Baker-Mazara) at the small forward for Chris Moore. They bring Donaldson in for Holloway at the point, so they bring in a true center, off guard, small forward, a point, and a power forward for those positions. You get a steady diet of guys playing their natural positions. It’s true position for position when they sub, and their bench points are phenomenal.”

One Razorback, Musselman is counting on as the Razorbacks move into SEC play is 6-10 stretch forward Trevon Brazile, who is averaging 9.8 ppg., and leads Arkansas in rebounding with 6.8 boards per game. Brazile had an ACL injury last December and has had trouble after spraining his ankle earlier this season. Brazile, who was a preseason All-SEC pick, has had his ups and downs, but should be ready to live up to the preseason accolades as the intensity picks up during SEC play.

Another key Razorback who should be ready for action Saturday is Khalif Battle, who exited against UNC-Wilmington just before the four-minute mark and did not play in the second half. Musselman said Battle has been practicing this week since Monday.

“I think KB is an explosive offensive player,” Musselman said. “He can get streaky hot. We need for him to have consistency from a defensive standpoint. He’s a high energy guy with incredible confidence. We run plays for him when he is in the game. He can go get his own shot off the bounce. He has great elevation on his jump shot.”

Battle is the Hogs’ third-leading scorer at 14.3 points per game and has often provided instant offense off the bench, while playing 24 minutes a game.

“I think it’s just consistency,” Musselman said when asked about Battle’s play. “He’s had some games that were just lights out and the defense has no answer for him, and there have been some 2-for-10 nights that I think all offensive players that are explosive scorers go through.

Arkansas NCAA college basketball player Trevon Brazile speaks during Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

“But we’ve been happy with him as an offensive threat. He has deep three-point range and his free-throws attempted numbers are as good as anyone’s in the country. He’s able to do that in isolations, broken plays, and in late shot-clock situations.”

In the Hogs’ 106-90 victory over North Carolina-Wilmington, Davonte “Devo” Davis had an excellent all-around night, scoring 14 points, dishing 6 assists, grabbing 6 rebounds, and making 3 steals. Davis has as much SEC experience as any player in the league, and more than most as a four-year contributor and most-of-the-time starter for the Razorbacks.

Musselman liked what he saw from his senior guard last Saturday against North Carolina-Wilmington, playing his natural off guard spot with Keyon Menifield Jr. manning the point.

“Devo is coming off his best game,” Musselman said. “He’s an explosive defender because he can guard so many offensive positions. I think Keyon has helped Devo get good open looks. A lot of his big shots in his last game came off Keyon drawing a defender and then spitting it out to set up a three. That has helped Davonte.

“If you look at last year, he shot the three as well as any guard in our league, and he has certainly continued to work on that in the offseason. He’s getting more looks now than when he was playing more at the point. Devo can get to the basket even more than he’s shown. That’s a part of his game we want to see evolve. He’s so sneaky off the bounce, and he has good explosiveness around the rim.”

If the Razorbacks are to upset Auburn and make a serious run in SEC play, Davis, Brazile, Battle and Menifield must continue to improve over the next 18 games.