Hogs Must Find Gear or Get Parked for March Madness

 

 

If a road split was the goal week before last, the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team came home expecting to win a pair against Mississippi State and Missouri at Bud Walton Arena. But an uninspired effort defensively and on the glass cost the Hogs in an 84-78 loss to the Bulldogs on Tuesday, dropping them to 1-3 in the SEC and 0-2 at home in league play after going unbeaten at BWA in the non-conference.

The Hogs bounced back against hapless Missouri, 92-73, on Saturday — their first win at BWA in 25 days — but now the road back to the NCAA tournament is much tougher. For one, Arkansas (13-4, 2-3 SEC, RPI No. 40) has to steal more wins on the road and likely win out at home to have a shot at the Dance.

The next challenge is a road game on Tuesday against Texas A&M, a team that is struggling at 9-7, 1-4 SEC, and with an RPI of No. 99. The Hogs have not had success in College Station since the Aggies joined the SEC, and if they hope to pick up a win there, they can’t have a repeat performance of what they brought to the court at home against Mississippi State.

“Want to” were the two words that Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson used to describe how MSU dominated the Hogs on the boards to the tune of 41-29. Coupled with the ‘Dogs’ sizzling effort from the 3-point line — 12-of-26 for 46.2% – it was the right combination to keep the Hogs at an arms length for most of the game.

Sophomore guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, who had his way with the Hogs last year as a freshman in a 32-point Bulldogs’ win in Starkville, rang them up again with 25 points (he shot 6-of-7 from 3) and 6 rebounds. Senior I.J. Ready, a 5-11 point guard from Little Rock, contributed 8 points, 5 steals, 4 assists, and 3 rebounds to pick up his first win against the Hogs in his home state.

For Arkansas, Moses Kingsley had his best offensive game of the season — 19 points on 7-of-12 filed goals and 4-of-6 free throws — but he looked flat-footed on defense all night, corralling only 4 rebounds and not registering a single blocked shot. Daryl Macon had an off night with only 8 points, and the Hogs shot well below their season efficiency levels from the free-throw line, making only 15-of-23 for 65.2%.

It was an ugly performance short on energy and decision-making, and Arkansas is not good enough to have those and come out with a win against most SEC teams. I was surprised when I saw that ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, in his weekly NCAAT Bracketology, still had the Hogs projected among the 68 teams that will Dance in March Madness. He dropped them from a projected 8-seed to an 11-seed. At this point, the next loss probably means being on the wrong side of the bubble in the tourney projections.

Arkansas needs at least a split, and possibly needs to win 3 out of the next 4 games — at Texas A&M, home vs. LSU, at Vandy, and at Oklahoma State – to make the second-half of SEC play a meaningful stretch with a real chance to earn an NCAAT at-large bid.

Winning on the road is doable for this team — they’re 2-1 outside the state of Arkansas this year — but they’ve got to get tougher around the basket. Talking about the bigs, here — the frontline.

Taking a step back and looking at this team and season globally, the biggest problems seem to start in the frontline: The collective offensive production is lacking, and the defensive effort and production are spotty and inconsistent. So, whenever the guards have an off night and do not outplay the opposition, the frontline has got to step up and carry its weight. The guards aren’t perfect, but they are the strength of the team.

Speaking of the backcourt, I still believe the Hogs can take a step forward if they can get more minutes and production from freshman C.J. Jones. He scored 6 points — 2-of-2 from 3 — in only 4 minutes off the bench in Saturday’s win against Mizzou. He now has made 12-of-21 3-pointers on the season – that’s a stellar 57.1% from 3-land. Small sample size, but he was also effective and efficient shooting the ball during the 4-game tour of Spain, as well as in preseason.

He’s 6-5 with good length and athleticism, and though he may not be where Anderson wants him to be defensively, he creates a different kind of matchup for teams to worry about. As good as Manny Watkins can be as a glue-guy at both ends of the floor, he can’t put pressure on a defense like Jones can. Would like to see more of him at the 3 with Macon, Jaylen Barford, Dusty Hannahs, and Anton Beard rotating in and out at the 1 and 2.

Anderson tried yet another new starting lineup against Missouri, inserting Beard with Barford, Macon and Kingsley while getting Dustin Thomas back in at the combo-4 spot with Arlando Cook playing of the bench. Not sure if that is a better grouping or not, because the Tigers are simply awful.

One thing is certain: After winning 8 straight games to get to 11-1, the Hogs have been slapped with the reality of a 2-3 start in league play. It should be sobering for the team and fans alike. The talent is there, but there are noticeable shortcomings that this team will struggle to overcome, especially on nights when the effort, energy, or attention to detail are in question like they were against MSU.

The upcoming 4-game stretch — 3 on the road – will tell us if the Hogs are racing toward the NCAAT or shifting down for the NIT in the second-half of league play. The Hogs need to find another gear now, or the Fastest 40 will be parked once again during March Madness.

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Kevin McPherson is a former sportswriter and editor at both the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, as well as a former contributor to newspapers in Northwest Arkansas — covering Arkansas Razorbacks basketball, high school football and basketball, and basketball recruiting. He’s entering his 13th year as a mortgage banker with Bank of England, but he still covers Razorback basketball and recruiting as well as high school sports. You can join him live every Monday and Thursday at 1:30 CST on The Hog Call, KREB 1190 The Fan in Northwest Arkansas by clicking here: http://1190thefan.com/listen-live/ You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.

hogs march madness 2017

 

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