Arkansas Has Golden Opportunity to Advance NCAA Tournament Cause, Starting TodayPosted by David Changas on January 11th, 2014
Despite multiple bracketologists having Arkansas either in the NCAA Tournament or just on the outside looking in, the Razorbacks’ resume lacks the quality wins that bubble teams always need in March. They have two top-50 RPI wins – at home against SMU, and against Minnesota in the Maui Invitational – and sport an 11-3 overall record. Other than their trip to Maui, which included respectable losses to California (RPI No. 54) and Gonzaga (RPI No. 14), their pre-conference slate was relatively weak. Their first damaging loss of the season came on Wednesday against Texas A&M (RPI No. 142) in College Station, and it pushed Arkansas’ RPI ranking to No. 91. As one of the few teams projected to be able to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid out of the SEC, it’s the kind of loss the Razorbacks could ill afford. Luckily for them, the opportunity to make up for the loss is immediate, and while the phrase “must-win” is entirely overused — especially one game into the conference season — it may be applicable to Arkansas’ next two games, which come at home against what are clearly the best two teams in the SEC.
Later today, Florida comes calling to Bud Walton Arena after opening its conference schedule with a 74-58 thumping of South Carolina in Gainesville. And despite the fact that the Gators have the league’s most impressive non-conference resume and have won six contests in a row, Arkansas may be drawing them at an opportune time. According to various reports, Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin could both miss the game due to injury, which would leave Florida with only seven scholarship players. Still, the Gators will present a serious challenge for the Razorbacks. After Florida comes to town, Arkansas hosts the league’s preseason favorite and other juggernaut, Kentucky, in an ESPN Super Tuesday match-up. If the Razorbacks can pull off wins against the league’s two best teams, they’ll place themselves squarely in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas proved last season that it could win at home, going 9-0 in the league and beating both Kentucky and Florida in Fayetteville. So far this season, these Hogs are also undefeated at home, although the quality of the competition they have faced has been weak (according to KenPom, they’ve played the 319th toughest slate in the country). For the Razorbacks to have success against arguably the two best teams they will have faced, or will face, this year, they will have to play significantly better than they did in the loss to Texas A&M. After trailing the Aggies by only two at the break, Arkansas was blown out in the second half, and got only two points on the night from their leading scorer going into the game, Mike Qualls. It was the type of performance the Hogs gave repeatedly on the road last year, when their inability to win away from Fayetteville cost them any chance of a trip to the NCAA Tournament. And while success against Florida and Kentucky at home won’t fix that problem, wins would enhance their resume enough to put them in the ultimate conversation for a bid. Just as importantly, they may give Mike Anderson’s squad confidence that will carry into their performances away from Bud Walton. If they don’t take care of business at home, getting to the Big Dance for the first time under Anderson will be an uphill climb the rest of the way, even with so much basketball left to be played.