Hoop-de-do: From March Sadness to March Madness


By Kevin McPherson

March Sadness. That’s what it’s been like around here for years once the page turns from February to March. You must flip the pages back to 2008 to find the last time the first two weeks of March meant anything for Razorbacks fans. The loyal throng of Hog-callers, who had gotten spoiled for so many years while Eddie Sutton and then Nolan Richardson were charging into the postseason with Top 20 programs (sometimes Top 10 and Top 5), have been mired in an annual March Malaise.

Not to worry in 2015, though. No fretting, because invitations to March Madness are going out soon, and the Arkansas Razorbacks have positioned themselves nicely for a return to the Dance.

The jolt back to March relevance kicks off this week, when the 18th-ranked Hogs (23-6, 12-4 SEC) wrap up SEC and regular-season play by traveling to South Carolina before hosting LSU, and a win against either team assures the Hogs of sole possession of 2nd place in a much improved SEC. More importantly, whether the Hogs go 2-0, 1-1, or 0-2 this week, they have already locked up no worse than the 3rd-seed for next week’s SEC postseason tournament, and the significance of that is two-fold: 1) the top 4 seeds get a bye all the way to the tourney’s quarterfinals, and 2) the 2nd and 3rd seeds are on the opposite side of the tourney bracket from No. 1 seed and undefeated Kentucky, meaning they would not potentially have to face the Wildcats until the SECT championship game.

The first week of March also means a chance for this Hog team to become only the 3rd team since Arkansas joined the SEC in 1991-92 to win at least 13 regular-season league games (1991-92 finished 13-3 to win the SEC, and 1993-94 finished 14-2 to win the SEC). Sweep the week, and though there are no SEC titles on the line thanks to perfect Kentucky and its nine McDonald’s All-Americans, the Hogs will join the 1993-94 national champs as the only two teams with 14 wins in regular-season SEC play.

This week means more than just playing for SECT seeding, too, because the Hogs are still building a resume for the NCAA tournament — and this time, it’s not for inclusion but seeding. Currently sporting 18s across the boards — Hogs are 18th in both the AP and coaches’ polls this week, plus they are currently 18th in the NCAA’s RPI rankings — Arkansas is tracking as a 4 to 5 seed in most NCAA Tournament “Bracketology” projections this week. Outside of Kentucky, which is a virtual lock as the NCAAT overall No. 1 seed, the only other SEC team with a real chance to lock down a coveted Top 4 or 5 seed is Arkansas. Four other SEC teams projected as NCAA at-large invitees — LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and Georgia — are mostly mathematically still in the hunt to finish tied for 2nd place in the SEC (all except Georgia), but none are currently projected any higher than an 8-seed for the NCAAT.

Arkansas is 3-1 against Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Georgia, and can move the mark to 4-1 and add LSU to the list with a win over the Tigers at Bud Walton Arena in the season finale on Saturday. Arkansas’s current RPI (18th) is 18 spots higher than the next SEC team (Georgia is 38th), and at least 27 spot better than the rest (Ole Miss is 45th, LSU is 46th, and Texas A&M is 48th). The Hogs have been ranked in the human polls more weeks than they have been unranked, yet LSU, Georgia, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M have yet to be ranked even once.

The takeaway is, barring a collapse now that they’ve got both feet firmly planted in March, the Razorbacks will have done 30-plus-games worth of resume building that separates them from the rest of the SEC’s top half — not counting Kentucky, of course.

Win out this week, and the conference cry can be fairly summed up with, “There’s Kentucky, then Arkansas, then the rest of the SEC.” As for the rest of March, the pages for the final chapter of March Madness are still blank, so we’ll see if the Hogs can write themselves into late March, early April.

Who ya got for SEC Player of the Year?

Really, this is not even close, or shouldn’t be anyway. Bobby Portis is 2nd in the SEC in scoring at 17.5 points, fourth in rebounds at 8.5, sixth in blocks at 1.5, and 1st in field-goal percentage at 56.3 percent. And those rankings are even better when you break it down to only SEC games played, eliminating the nonconference numbers accumulated against the Delaware State’s and Alabama State’s of the world.

Assuming he and the Hogs don’t completely fall apart in the last week of the regular season, the engraver should be honing his uppercase B and P cursive engraving skills this week for next week’s coronation.

But based on what the various talking heads have had to say on the matter — SEC Network, ESPN, CBS, etc. — and then glancing at the names remaining on some national player of the year lists, it looks like a close two-man race still exists between Portis and Kentucky’s Willy Cauley-Stein for SEC Player of the year honors.

With Kentucky’s 30-0 (17-0) run toward the finish line, and the subsequent flood of media attention and praise, a lot of light has been shined on the ‘Cats’ 7-foot junior. In reality, WCS is not even Kentucky’s best player … on second thought, he’s not even Kentucky’s best big man. Freshman Karl-Anthony Towns is the top ‘Cat in and around the paint.

But, for some reason, everybody’s favorite Big Blue flavor is Willy Cauley-Stein (8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks). Maybe its because he is one of a precious few Calipari McDonald’s All Americans to agree to return to school (TWICE), because it sure isn’t what he does on the floor game-in, game-out. His numbers are pedestrian compared to most players in the SEC who will be honored with post-season first- or second-team recognition, and his numbers are downright paltry when stacked side-by-side with Bobby Portis’.

The argument for him has been that his numbers on a deep and talented team are misleading, and that his presence is the difference on this juggernaut Kentucky team. I simply disagree with that notion. WCS is overrated as a defender, often gets pushed around or cleared out by smaller but stronger bigs. His defensive rebounding and shot-blocking is nothing special (consider that he has 47 blocks to BP’s 44, and BP is an offense-first talent). And, if you watch enough Kentucky basketball, you’ll see him go LONG stretches of games not being a factor at either end.

There is no metric used by basketball junkies — production (offense or defense) per minutes played, or win shares, or any other relevant statistical overview — that favors WCS over BP. But leaving stats and measurables alone for a moment, the eye test tells you all you need to know. When Kentucky needs a basket, they turn to Towns, who also happens to lead the ‘Cats in rebounds and block shots. Towns is big and physical, and has a much bigger impact on the defensive end than WCS.

If this turns into the best player on the best team award, and WCS gets SEC POY, it will not only be an egregious slight toward Bobby Portis who has separated himself as the league’s best player, but it would be a falsehood that Cauley-Stein is more important than his own teammate Towns, who is clearly the ‘Cats best and most valuable player.

More Hog facts and thoughts …

* Arkansas has beaten three nonconference opponents that have either locked up first place in their conference or can do so this week: Iona (currently RPI No. 51) finished the regular season at 24-7 and 17-3 for first place in the MAAC; Dayton (RPI No. 27) owns the best overall record (23-6) and league record (13-4) in the Atlantic-10, and can wrap up the league crown by winning at LaSalle this week; SMU (RPI No. 20) is 24-6 and 14-3 in the AAC (a half-game behind Tulsa, 14-2), but the Mustangs host Tulsa in the regular-season and AAC final at Moody Coliseum on Saturday, so a win would assure a two-way tie for the league title, and SMU would be the top-seeded team in its league tourney by virtue of sweeping Tulsa this season.

* Arkansas not only owns a winning road record this season (6-5 overall and 5-3 in the SEC), but the Hogs own 3 road wins over RPI Top 50 teams in SMU, Georgia, and Ole Miss.

* Michael Qualls has scored 967 career points, and needs just 33 more to become the 37th Razorback to score 1,000 points in a career as a Hog. With 4 more games guaranteed this season, he needs to average just 8.3 points per game. He is currently averaging 15.2 points per game, good for 8th best in the SEC.

* Bobby Portis is pushing for 1,000 points, too, and needs 74 more points to become the 38th Razorback to score 1,000 points in a career as a Hog. That means BP needs to average 18.5 points per game over the next 4 guaranteed games — his current average is 17.5 points. But, if the Hogs can win just one game in the SECT or NCAAT, he would need to average 14.8 points per game over the 5 games. Portis also needs just 24 rebounds to reach 500 in a career, and 2 more blocks to reach 100 for a career. All of that is on the table and within reach for Portis to join the 1,000-500-100 club through his sophomore season. With 7 more blocks, he’d pass Derek Hood for 10th place all-time in career blocks, and with 41 more rebounds, he’d pass James Eldridge for 15th place all-time in career rebounds. Pretty salty stuff if he can reach those milestones by the end of his sophomore season.

* SEC post-season honors should recognize more than Bobby Portis, who is the front-runner for player of the year and a lock for first-team All SEC honors. Michael Qualls has had an All SEC First Team season, but worst-case scenario he’s a lock for the second team. Anton Beard seems to be a good bet for the SEC All Freshman team, but it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion. I also expect Mike Anderson to be among the top 3 vote-getters for SEC Coach of the Year, likely behind John Calipari and Billy Kennedy.

Where do you see the Razorbacks seeded for the 2015 version of March Madness

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Bobby Portis March Madness


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