Kevin McPherson: Ass Whippin’ Didn’t Lower RPI



In sports, we tend to focus on the last thing we witnessed as the defining episode for how things stand with our teams. If that were reality, the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team could forfeit the rest of its games and go fishing after getting blown out by Oklahoma State, 99-71, in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday.

Check your collective lense, though, Hog fans. Because you have to zoom out for a bigger, wider view to see things as they are: The loss didn’t lower the Hogs’ RPI (still No. 29 at the time of this writing), and it didn’t damage their NCAA tournament at-large-bid projection by ESPN Bracketologist extraordinaire Joe Lunardi (still a projected 9-seed if the season ended today).

A few weeks ago when the Hogs saw a close game balloon out to a 20-plus-points defeat at Kentucky, you had to pay as much attention to the mid-week road win against Tennessee for proper perspective on the impact that the 2-game road-swing had on the NCAAT resume. Similarly, you can’t single out Saturday’s OSU loss and ignore/fail to factor in the incredible comeback win at Vanderbilt just four days earlier.

The Hogs erased a late 15-point deficit against the Commodores and won in improbable fashion, 71-70, on the free-throw-shooting-shoulders (and ice-water veins) of junior guard Daryl Macon, who made 3-of-3 from the line after being fouled on a scrambling 3-point attempt with 1.6 seconds left and the Hogs down by two. Of course, Dusty Hannahs was huge going down the stretch, scoring 14 big points late, and the Hogs got some big defensive plays by Moses Kingsley and Manny Watkins.

Anytime you go on the road for two consecutive games against teams with respectable RPIs, a split is the goal and a sweep is a bonus. Another positive is that the Hogs battled and attacked against Oklahoma State, which tells me they didn’t lay down.

If you go back to road wins against Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Vandy, the Hogs trailed by double-figures in each of those games before clawing back to win. Against the Cowboys on Saturday, they simply couldn’t survive Macon’s off game (ZERO points on 0-of-8 field-goal shooting) or the big free-throw shooting disparity in the first half that helped OSU carry a 26-point lead into the locker room. Not to say Arkansas wasn’t exposed some in that game, but the effort was there and it wasn’t a conference game, so the 1-1 road swing did minimal damage, if any.

With 10 games left (all SEC matchups, 5 at home and 5 on the road), Arkansas (16-5, 5-3 SEC) still controls its own Dance destiny. Again, the RPI is a solid 29th, and the Hogs are 2-4 against the RPI Top 50 (includes 0-3 vs. RPI Top 25), they’re 4-0 against the RPI Nos. 51-100, they’re 4-1 against RPI Nos. 101-150, and they’re 6-0 against the RPI Nos. 151-plus.

As we’ve done in this space the last several weeks, we’ll look at upcoming games and what the Hogs likely need to do in terms of Ws and Ls to at least hold serve, and we’ll look at the dynamics of the team and individual players as well.

The second half of SEC play looks like the tougher half of the slate for the Hogs, but that follows Wednesday’s game when Arkansas hosts Alabama to close out the first-half of league play at Bud Walton Arena. That game kicks off a winnable 4-game stretch — Tide, at Missouri, Vandy, and at LSU — that will set the table for the final six games which will be the Razorbacks’ toughest 6-game stretch of the season.

So, the Hogs can and need to put together another 4-game winning streak here, but they could survive at 3-1 as long as the loss is not at Mizzou. Sweep these next four games, and Arkansas could finish 3-3 in their last six games and feel good about their at-large chances at 23-8 (12-6 SEC) heading into the SEC tournament. Lose one of the next four games, and the Hogs might be okay if they can get to 22-9 (11-7 SEC) plus a win in the SECT, and certainly if one of their upcoming regular-season wins is at either No. 19 RPI South Carolina or at No. 9 RPI Florida it can only help their cause in a 22-9/11-7 finish.

You have to take notice and some level of comfort in the Hogs’ 4-4 record away from home this season. Even though you can see problem areas in the product on the floor, this team has found a way to grind out close road wins — 3 of the 4 are against RPI Top 75 teams, to which the NCAAT selection committee will give favorable consideration.

But, the fact Arkansas has lost, and lost big, to the top four RPI teams on its schedule — by 14 at Minnesota, by 9 at home against Florida, by 26 at Kentucky, and by 28 at Oklahoma State — that would likely be the death knell if the Hogs were to somehow break even the rest of the way at 5-5.

As for the team dynamic, the same issues seem to be holding them back from taking a big step: Preseason SEC player of the year pick Moses Kingsley still lacking consistent production and impact at both ends of the floor, inconsistent or ineffective contributions at the combo-4 spot (seems Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook take turns being the guy to have a decent game); guards struggling with turnovers and decision-making which sometimes offsets their strong suit, which is getting to the basket for high-percentage shots and/or drawing fouls to get to the free-throw line where they are reliably good. Rebounding and communicating/locking in on defense are up and down with this team.

It’s encouraging to see Jaylen Barford continue to grow, gain confidence, and produce like he has been for most of January — he had 21 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists on Saturday. Seems like he’s on the right side of that juco wall that’s so difficult to climb in year one at the high-major level.

And though Daryl Macon suffered through his worst game as a Hog at OSU, he’s still the Hogs’ best all-around player, and certainly their most-consistent player. Hog fans might be a little concerned about his combined 3-of-18 shooting against the ‘Dores and ‘Pokes last week, and a home game against the Tide will present a good defensive test, but Macon has shown he’ll find a way to play big when it matters. Hannahs seems to play better off the bench for the Hogs, while Anton Beard appears to be a good fit with the starters as Watkins does his thing as the glue-guy (whether he starts or not).

At this point in the season, the Hogs go 9-deep with their rotation of juniors and seniors, so it’s not likely any of the three freshmen break into a more meaningful part of the rotation down the back-stretch. It’s also not likely we see any of the 9-deep make significant strides in their production or impact. The way they play together is not quite the cohesion you’d like to see, but that also makes them unpredictable which has helped them at times.

So here we are with a third of the season to go — it’s the back stretch for sure — and it seems that with this current Hogs team, what you see now is what you’ll get the rest of the way. They certainly might surprise you, though, like they did in 3 dramatic SEC road wins that have them as a likely NCAAT team if the season ended today.

Their first win over a Top 25 RPI team late in February would be the next step and the best sign of progress heading into the post-season. Don’t rule it out, and be sure to keep your eyes open and razor sharp. And always remember, win or lose you gotta zoom out to see the big picture after every game.

* * *

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: You can also follow him live on Twitter @ARHoopScoop.

rip not affected by loss barford shines


Tags: ,