Kevin McPherson: Does Beating Texas Improve NCAA Tournament Resume?


If you’re an Arkansas Razorbacks fan, it doesn’t matter what sport it is, a win over Texas is like hitting the lottery. There’s a sixth sense in Hog fans that’s aroused when the last seconds of the clock expire with Arkansas on top of Texas! That’s an evolved euphoria, a result of the great football rivalry of the 60s between the Hogs and Longhorns that spilled over into other sports until Arkansas bolted for the SEC in the early 90s.

So the old feelings toward that hated (but respected) Longhorns still seem to bubble up for Hog fans when the two teams meet up in non-conference play.

That’s a great narrative, and for older generations of Hog fans it’s true and will be something they take to their graves, but in 2016-17 reality – in real time – Arkansas vs. Texas hoops at Saturday’s Lone Star Shootout in Houston presented little more than a relevant neutral-site, NCAA Tournament-resume-building opportunity for both teams – which was motivation enough.

Think about it: This was not about revenge or getting one up on your neighbor – those juices just don’t boil like they used to. No, this was about checking an important box late in non-conference play for the Dance resume.

For the Hogs, their 77-74 win Saturday over the ‘Horns means mission accomplished. Did you beat a high-major, non-conference opponent away from home? Check! Again, this was more about business, less about pleasure (although, I must confess the post-game team photo of the Hogs flashing the Hook ‘em Hell hand gestures stirred some emotion and old memories).

Following a 16-16 season that ended after the SEC tournament last March, the Hogs (9-1 and RPI No. 26 at the time of this writing) needed to get their first win away from BWA now, against anybody, to send the message that 2016-17 is on a trajectory back to the NCAA Tournament.

While Texas may be struggling (currently 5-5 and outside the RPI Top 100), one of the body-of-work criteria for at-large consideration by the NCAA Tournament selection committee is winning games away from home, including against opponents outside your own conference. The win won’t be as significant if Texas doesn’t right the ship and climb into the RPI Top 100 come March, but you can bet a neutral-site win against a traditionally respected Big XII team (even in a down year) will look better than a road win against a lower-tier SEC team.

Arkansas now adds that away-from-BWA win vs. the Big XII into its postseason portfolio that already includes respectable non-con home wins against Fort Wayne (RPI No. 100, a team that knocked off then-No. 3 Indiana), Texas-Arlington (RPI Top 30, road wins vs. Texas and then-No. 12 St. Mary’s), and Houston (RPI  Top 50); and a respectable road loss to Minnesota (11-1 and RPI Top 15).

A non-conference road game in the middle of SEC play vs. Oklahoma State (currently RPI Top 50) as part of the Big XII-SEC Challenge gives the Hogs their third and final shot at a non-conference win away from home, so there’s that.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. The here-and-now is a 3-game/10-day span before the new year offering 3 more RPI- and resume-building opportunities for an Arkansas team that has now won 6 games in a row. That’s North Dakota State (RPI Top 150) at Bud Walton Arena on Tuesday, Dec. 20; Sam Houston State (RPI No. 69) in Little Rock on Thursday, Dec. 22; and the Hogs’ first-ever SEC game played in December against Florida (RPI No. 5) at BWA on the 29th.

Talk about Land of Opportunity! That’s 3 games in the home state that set the Hogs up for a 12-1 start (1-0 SEC) and a real shot at the RPI Top 15 as they turn the page to 2017 and get into the thick of SEC play. We now know this team can win away from home, but can they take the next step(s) and build on their best start to a season since 2008-09?

It begins and ends with the guards on this Razorbacks basketball team. It’s been that way since the Spain trip in early August. Last year’s backcourt group lived and died by the 3-point shooting, they were defined by it. But this group is more talented, more versatile, more physical, more experienced … and maybe more importantly, it’s the deepest backcourt yet for Mike Anderson in 6 seasons as head coach at Arkansas.

The Hogs’ guard corps is not an embarrassment of riches in terms of star power, but for CMA and his system that relies on quality depth and ever-changing personnel combinations, it’s like drawing a different but helpful ace in every hand at the card table.

Exhibit A: Changing course four games ago and bringing a fringe All SEC player and leading-scorer Dusty Hannahs off the bench. He’s still getting his “buckets” – something Hannahs said would happen whether he was starting or not – and that’s helped translate to a 155-36 bench-scoring advantage for the Hogs in their last four games. That margin seems unthinkable, maybe unbelievable, but just ask the witnesses — Austin Peay, Houston, North Florida, and Texas – what they saw happen.

Exhibits B and C: Anton Beard off the bench and Manny Watkins starting have been equally consistent, stabilizing forces for this Hogs team. Going back to Spain, Beard has been Arkansas’s best and most-efficient facilitator who has also chipped in with some big buckets, rebounds, and steals along the way. And Manny’s efficiency and contributions as the “glue guy” are well above what we saw last year when he was too often asked to play the 4 and tried doing too much offensively with a 2nd unit that was offensive-challenged.

Those 3 program veterans are finding roles right now that get the most out of themselves to help complement others, but what makes this backcourt group work are Exhibits D and E: The injections of the two junior-college transfers, Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford. These two “veteran newcomer” guards bring more overall talent to the table, at both ends of the floor, then the others. Plus there is a gritty toughness to both, a determination to find a way. In my book, those are necessary ingredients for consistently winning basketball games.

You saw it against Texas, a team that looked like it’s size, length and athletic advantages were going to stymie Arkansas all game. Those advantages helped Texas to a 35-30 halftime lead, but Macon and Barford continued to drive the ball into the teeth of the Longhorn’s lengthy and athletic defenders, and that persistence paid off. Macon scored a game-high 23 points, including a perfect 14-of-14 from the FT line – a reward for not backing down and taking the fight to the Longhorns in the paint. He also hit a big 3 in the second half, but Macon’s other three FGs were determined drives to the hole. One of Hannahs’ three made-3s came off a Macon drive and kickout for an open look. Barford also put his head down and barreled smartly into the lane, scoring 11 points all in attack-mode. Last year, a guy like freshmen C.J. Jones would have been a backcourt regular, forced into the rotation out of necessity. But on this team he’s able to adjust to the college game, come in and help when needed, but he’s not expected to be a lifeline.

This is the kind of guard culture that fueled and energized Nolan Richardson’s 40 Minutes of Hell dynasty back in the 90s. It’s the makeup that will take the Hogs are far as they can go in 2016-17.

Not trying to down-play the significance of preseason SEC Player of the Year, Moses Kingsley, or the additions of combo-4-upgrades in Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook (he was big in that Texas win), or the contributions of veteran Trey Thompson – they are all important and significant.

Thomas, who has been a consistent producer and pleasant welcome as the combo-4 starter from day one, struggled and had his worst game as a Hog, but Cook off the bench made some big plays and points to aid the cause. There’s that quality of depth popping up again.

For Moses Kingsley, he’s quietly improved his scoring, rebounding and FG efficiency in the last 5-6 games – a trend that needs to continue as the Hogs move into SEC play. He only scored 7 points against Texas, but on defense he kept the ‘Horns from ripping the Hogs apart with 10 rebounds (9 on the defensive end) and 5 blocked shots, a few of which were vicious return-to-sender messages that seemed to be more than just determined pronouncements that the Hogs were clawing their back to the NCAA Tournament. No, I kept telling myself, these mean-spirited “Beast Mo” swats seem specially packaged for the hated Longhorns.

Ahhh, that’s right … the hated ‘Horns. A program that owned the Hogs in football, but now trails the hoops series 87-67. Remember all the talk about this game not being about the old SWC rivalry? Well, scratch that. In a toss-up game against a bigger and more talented Texas team (isn’t it always that way?), the Hogs got tough and came out the other side victorious. And that’s probably the central theme — a tough, determined tone set by the guards – if the Hogs are to win enough games in SEC play to Dance in March.

But for now, it’s all about the lingering pleasure of burning down the burnt orange, because you just don’t go into the state of Texas and take down the ‘Horns without savoring that sweet taste a little longer.

Not if you’re a Razorback. Them’s the rules. Hook ‘em Hell!

* * *

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.

razorbacks improve ncaa tournament resume


Tags: ,