Vols pose a difficult matchup for struggling Hogs

Tennessee visits Arkansas at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14 on ESPN2
Arkansas guard El Ellis (3) runs a play against Kentucky during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

In a different year, Arkansas Razorback fans would be revving up for the Tennessee Vols’ invasion of Bud Walton Arena.

The Vols visit the home of the Hogs at 8 p.m. Wednesday for an ESPN2-televised game.

The fact that ESPN2 is broadcasting the game and not one of “The Worldwide Leader in Sports’” lesser channels tells you that this game was anticipated as being a compelling matchup when ESPN put its college basketball broadcasting plan together last summer.

The Vols have held up their end of the deal, despite taking an 85-69 whipping at Texas A&M last Saturday. Tennessee is 17-6 overall on the season and 7-3 in SEC play.

Their Net ranking is one of the best in the SEC at No. 6, just behind No. 5 Alabama. The rest of the league follows with No. 7 Auburn, No. 25 Kentucky, No. 33 Florida, No. 36 Mississippi State, No. 37 Texas A&M, No. 45 South Carolina, No. 59 Ole Miss, No. 94 Georgia, No. 96 LSU, No. 128 Arkansas, No. 152 Missouri, and No. 235 Vanderbilt.

Rick Barnes’ squad is ranked No. 8 in the latest Associated Press Top 25, which is tops in the league. South Carolina is next at No. 11, trailed by No. 13 Auburn, No. 15 Alabama, and No. 22 Kentucky.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: Tennessee
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14
Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville

Next 5 games

Feb. 14 – Tennessee, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Feb. 17 – at Mississippi State, 1 p.m. (ESPNU)
Feb. 20 – at Texas A&M, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Feb. 24 – Missouri, 11 a.m. (ESPN/2)
Feb. 27 – Vanderbilt, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
March 2 – at Kentucky, 12:30 p.m. (CBS)

The Vols are a game and a half behind South Carolina (21-3, 9-2) and Alabama (17-7, 9-2) in the SEC regular-season race that looks like it will go down to the wire this season.

The Hogs are holding the other end of the stick at 12-11 overall and 3-7 in SEC play after topping Georgia, 78-75, last Saturday at Walton Arena.

Considering the up-and-down nature of this season for Arkansas, it’s understandable that Hog fans aren’t necessarily in a frenzy over this matchup.

Some Hog fans have already turned the page, and are looking more forward to the Diamond Hogs’ season-opening, four-game series with James Madison this weekend. Van Horn’s Razorbacks are ranked among the top four in the polls and are considered a favorite if not the favorite to win the SEC.

Other Arkansas fans have eternal hope for their Hogs despite the gut punches they’ve taken since the end of September when the football season began spiraling toward a 4-8 finish with the basketball team following suit.

It’s hard to believe that this Razorback basketball team that has struggled so mightily in SEC play was expected to be a Top 10 team going into the season.

That expectation was based on the success that coach Eric Musselman and his staff had over the previous three seasons when Arkansas advanced to the Elite Eight twice and the Sweet 16 last year.

It was just assumed that Musselman would be able to reload and mold his next set of transfer-portal and high-school recruits into a high-functioning team as he had done the three previous years.

That thought was not just upheld but bolstered when the Hogs defeated a highly regarded and now No. 2-ranked Purdue squad, 81-77, in overtime in an exhibition game on Oct. 29.

That victory proved to be fool’s gold, though, as cracks in Arkansas’ game began to show up early November, and was punctuated with an exclamation point when UNC-Greensboro surprisingly dressed down the Razorbacks, 78-72, in Walton Arena right before Arkansas traveled to the Bahamas for the Battle of Atlantis the week of Thanksgiving. It took an overtime win over Stanford for Arkansas to go 1-2 in the prestigious tournament with blow-out losses to Memphis and North Carolina.

Musselman hinted in press conferences that his team was struggling, but we and perhaps he didn’t know how much until SEC play began in January when the Hogs lost their first three games by double digits before nipping Texas A&M by a single point on Jan. 16.

The Hogs dropped three straight games to South Carolina, Ole Miss and Kentucky before winning two of their last three games over Missouri and Georgia with a 21-point loss at LSU in-between.

One could easily argue last Saturday’s victory over Georgia was the Razorbacks’ best win since defeating No. 9 Duke, 80-75, on Nov. 29.

The Hogs did allow a 12-point lead to get away from them in the second half, but the Razorbacks showed some resiliency by coming back to secure the victory.

Five Hogs scored in double figures with El Ellis and Keyon Menifield Jr. leading the way with 15 points apiece. Makhi Mitchell continued his strong play with 14 points, while the always steady Tramon Mark chipped in 13. Jalen Graham added 11 off the bench in 14 minutes of play.

The Razorbacks did a solid job smothering the 3-point line. The Bulldogs hit 50% of their treys, but only got six of them off. Ellis and Mark each made 3 steals and Devo Davis added 2 in his first game back after taking a three-game sabbatical.

The victory over Georgia should bolster the Razorbacks’ confidence going into the Tennessee game, but the Vols are among the very best teams in the nation, much less the SEC. The Vols will be itching to get back on track after their loss to the Aggies.

Dalton Knecht is the second-leading scorer in the SEC behind Alabama’s Mark Sears (20.5 ppg.) at 20.3 ppg. He shoots 47% from the field and 40.5% from 3-point range.

Jonas Aidoo adds 11.3 ppg. He leads the Vols in rebounding with 7.3 boards per game , while Zakai Zeiger adds 11 ppg. And 5.5 assists per game.

The Vols play smothering defense, holding opponents to 38.7% shooting from the field and 31% from 3-point range. Barnes’ squad is beating opponents by an average of 11.5 points per game.

Based on what we’ve seen this season, expecting a victory over the Vols is too much, but if we could see continued improvement against a team as stout as Tennessee that would be something more than we’ve seen from the Razorbacks during SEC play this season.