Razorbacks meet Vandy in SEC Tournament opener

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman watches his team play Kentucky during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

The Arkansas Razorbacks get the dubious distinction of playing in the first game of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament against the Vanderbilt Commodores at 6 p.m. in Bridgestone Arena at Nashville.

It’s absolutely not where Hog fans expected their team to be back on Oct. 28 when the Razorbacks upended No. 3 Purdue, 81-77, in overtime of a charity exhibition game in the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena.

So much muddy water has flowed under the bridge since then. It’s hard to believe this squad that finished with a 15-16 regular-season record is the same one that gave Razorback fans so much hope early in the season when they were ranked in the Associated Press Preseason Top 10.

The Hogs’ only hope of making the NCAA Tournament is winning five games in five days to win the SEC Tournament Championship and earn the conference’s automatic bid.

The Razorbacks won their only SEC Tournament by winning four games in four days way back in 2000 when Brandon Dean, Joe Johnson, Teddy Gipson et al played their best basketball of the season to save coach Nolan Richardson’s job, but since the tournament format was extended to five days when Missouri and Texas A&M joined the league in 2012, no team has been able to win five in a row.

Barring a miracle run like in 2000, the Razorbacks will have to win at least two games to finish with a .500 record this season. Three to have a winning record.

Razorbacks at the SEC Tournament

Opponent: Vanderbilt
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 13
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC NEtwork

So, the Razorbacks are playing to extend their season for one more day against Vanderbilt, which has won the last three games in the series, including their regular-season meeting, 85-82, at Walton Arena on Feb. 27.

Since that loss, Arkansas is 1-2. The victory was a 94-83 whipping of LSU on senior night at Bud Walton Arena on March 26.

The two losses were 111-102 to Kentucky in Rupp Arena on March 2, and 92-88 to Alabama last Saturday.

Losses are losses, but it would be disingenuous to not note that the Hogs’ played better in that three-game stretch than they have most of, if not all of, this season.

If the Razorbacks are able to defeat Vanderbilt, they would face fifth-seeded South Carolina (25-6. 13-5), which finished in a four-way tie with Auburn, Kentucky, and Alabama for second place in the SEC regular season.

Whatever happens this weekend in the SEC Tournament, there will be a major retooling of the Razorback roster for next year. Five players — El Ellis, Chandler Lawson, Jalen Graham, Makhi Mitchell, and Jeremiah Davenport — are out of eligibility.

While several of the team’s seniors have eligibility remaining because of the extra Covid year, who knows if they or their underclassmen teammates will elect to stay with the Razorbacks or if they will enter the transfer portal by their decision or head coach Eric Musselman’s.

For at least one more day, those decisions are on the back burner. The Hogs have at least one more game to play.

It’s anyone’s guess whether the Razorbacks can manage to extend it to two?