Jim Harris: SEC Tourney Seeding The Most Important Number For Razorbacks

If you believe teams are “due” in certain matchups, then surely Arkansas is due to shoot a scorching percentage on the road at Columbia, Mo., Tuesday night against the Missouri Tigers. We’re using the term “scorching” liberally with a team that, compared with some of the Razorbacks’ better teams of the past, shoots rather abysmally.

Still, the Hogs have had their moments, and the best in the shooting category in the past six games came on the road at Auburn, where the Razorbacks shot 46.6 on all field goal attempts and 42.9 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. The Hogs also enjoyed one of their better nights at the foul line, hitting 69 percent, in winning 78-71.

Again, it was Auburn. But, also, it was on the road, where the Razorbacks have been woeful at times. Auburn marks Arkansas’ lone win all season outside the state lines.

In the past four games, Arkansas hasn’t shot better than 38.6 on field goals, yet the Hogs have won two of those games and let the LSU road game slip through their hands.

In fact, Arkansas became just the third team in the past decade to shoot below 35 percent and still beat the Kentucky Wildcats. Imagine how bad the Hogs could have run the ‘Cats out of Bud Walton Arena had they been even close to warm with their shooting.

Arkansas made up for a 34.8 percent shooting day by forcing 19 turnovers (while committing just 8) and outrebounding Kentucky 44-37 to win handily, 73-60.

Read that last bit again: Arkansas OUTREBOUNDED Kentucky, and by seven, no less. Who saw that coming?

Who has seen any of this coming, the way the Hogs’ season has played out? Yet with an upset win at Missouri that no one is expecting and a regular-season finishing victory over Texas A&M at home, where the Hogs haven’t lost in SEC play, Arkansas would end the SEC campaign 11-7, which is better than most experts saw it unfolding. Two wins this week would give the Hogs 20 for the regular season, something unseen around these parts in five seasons.

Should Arkansas play to the usual trend, shoot a percentage in the 30s and commit more turnovers than the norm on the road, and lose at Missouri as most expect, a 10-8 finish is still within reach and it’s an improvement from where Mike Anderson found the program when he took over from John Pelphrey in 2011.

While Arkansas is due to shoot a better percentage — and Mizzou’s occasional lapses on defense can aid that — the Tigers also figure to better their 14 percent debacle (2-for-14) on 3-pointers at Fayetteville just a few weeks back.

Surprising to most observers, Arkansas won the rebounds at Florida, at LSU and then at home against Kentucky and has improved dramatically in that area since Mizzou hammered the Hogs on the boards 47-31 in the Razorbacks’ miracle 73-71 win.

Part of that reflects the continued surge of junior college forward Coty Clarke, but also shows how much better all of the Razorbacks have become, including the smallish guards, in gaining rebounding position.

With continued improvement in these areas and with growing confidence that was evident against Kentucky, Arkansas could make some noise in Nashville at the SEC Tournament.

If the SEC tournament began tonight, Arkansas would have a No. 6 seed and would play the winner of the Vanderbilt-Auburn game next Thursday. A win would advance the Hogs to a matchup against the third seed, which today would be Kentucky.

The way Ole Miss — which would be the fourth seed if the tourney was today — is wrapping up the season, the Rebels could fall below Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee by this weekend. A fourth-seed and a bye to Friday for the Hogs isn’t out of the question, but it requires a win at Missouri and the victory over A&M, plus a little extra help.

Nothing is settled in the middle of the SEC pack. Arkansas could stub its toe and lose twice, and a hot Tennessee could jump past the Hogs into the sixth seed, if not higher. Right now, the Hogs have the head-to-head advantage with their home-court win earlier this year over the Vols (yes, it’s a bit unfair to some teams with the way the 18-game schedule was devised). In fact, the 11th seed in the tournament could have nine losses, which Arkansas would have should it lose twice, if both A&M and Vanderbilt win out  — an unlikely scenario.

If Arkansas can avoid Florida before Saturday or Sunday in Nashville, three more wins are a strong possibility in Nashville next week. Florida, with Billy Donovan no doubt taking a lesson from John Calipari last year the way he didn’t let his Wildcats get too high for a meaningless weekend tourney, won’t be as motivated in Nashville as the Gators will be when their most important tournament begins the following week.

We’re not saying Arkansas can run the table. We’re not certain Arkansas can shoot better than 39 percent in more than two games in succession, much less play to a peak defensive form it displayed Saturday against Kentucky in successive games.

What we are saying is the Razorbacks are due, both to have a better-than-average shooting night at Missouri and to play at an above-average level when they leave the state’s confines next week.

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