Doubt creeps into Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament hopes after concerning loss at Vanderbilt
On Friday’s episode of Eye on College Basketball, I pointed out that despite Arkansas’ reputation, if you really dug into the reality of the 15th-ranked Razorbacks, it was conceivable that they could end up missing the NCAA Tournament.
I put the chance of Arkansas’ unwanted plot twist at 15% — but that was before the Hogs scored 97-84 at Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Now? I’d double the odds on the Razorbacks being left out of the Big Dance.
Credit Jerry Stackhouse’s Commodores for posting one of the most impressive second halves of the season: 69.2% shooting, including 66.7% from 3-point range, and 63 second-half points to Arkansas’ 42 – turning an eight-point deficit into the midway point. game in a 13-point victory. Vandy averaged 1.4 points per possession, by far the best showing against Arkansas’ (previously stout) defense this season. Vanderbilt’s sack of the Hogs was so statistically impressive, it dropped Eric Musselman’s team from 14th to 22nd in overall defensive efficiency on KenPom.com.
I still think it’s more likely that Arkansas will see its name pop up on CBS on Selection Sunday when the at-large bracket is revealed, but this program is in trouble and needs to find a way to safety soon. After an 11-1 start, Arkansas has lost four of its last five, and at 1-4 in the SEC, is just ahead of Mississippi in the league ledger.
No one thought this was possible three weeks ago, much less in the preseason.
There’s a lot to worry about. First, because the offense has been hampered by injuries, Arkansas must win with its intensity and defensive prowess. If that happens, this team is 100% toast. I don’t foresee many other teams giving up better than 1.2 points per possession to the Hogs going forward, so at least there’s that.
What about that offense? As Musselman told me recently, the staff built its O around two guys who aren’t playing: Nick Smith Jr. and Trevon Brazile. The latter is done for the season with the torn ACL. The former is working on a knee injury, hoping to be able to return by February. Skepticism abounds as to whether the projected top-10 NBA Draft pick will play again for the Hogs. I think he will. I also think he needs to secure an NCAA Tournament bid for Arkansas. As of Dec. 27, according to BartTorvik.com, Arkansas has played as the 120th best team in the sport.
The problem is, Arkansas can’t shoot from deep. He ranks 336th nationally in 3-point accuracy (29.1%) and doesn’t take that many threes either – just 27.6% of his field goal attempts are from beyond the arc. Having long-range threats is almost mandatory to be a Final Four-caliber team these days. Arkansas? No one in the rotation is shooting better than Anthony Black’s pedestrian 32%.
Bad 3-point shooting teams historically almost never course-correct and turn into good 3-point shooting teams more than halfway through the season. There is a ceiling here, regardless.
Next up for the Hogs is a 13-4 tilt at Missouri on Wednesday against a Tigers team that could be as flawed and anxious as Arkansas after losing three of its last four, including at Florida on Saturday. No. 20 (soon to be unranked) Mizzou will benefit from a hometown wake-up call before taking on the Razorbacks on Wednesday. Arkansas will have to prove it can do something it hasn’t yet: win on the road.
At 12-5, the Razorbacks have just two quality wins: San Diego State and Oklahoma on neutral courts. Road games vs. Baylor, Kentucky, No. 4 Alabama and No. 5 Tennessee still waiting. Can this team win two more of those games without Smith on the floor? I doubt it.
The silver lining for Arkansas fans, and they know it, is how Musselman overcame midseason hiccups the past two seasons and put together those campaigns in Elite Eight runs, the school’s first since the mid-90s. In 2020-21, Arkansas was a 13-5 team in late January and projected near the bubble. She missed one game between then and the NCAA Tournament. Last season, Arkansas played a weak nonconference schedule, got sidelined early in league play and found itself at 10-5 and with an 0-3 SEC record in early January.
The Razorbacks won 13 of their next 14 and earned a No. 4 seed in the regional final.
Musselman is one of the best coaches in college basketball — which is why his name is being floated for the Texas job vacancy, another subplot for the current concern with the Arkansas situation — so I wouldn’t be surprised if this the team finds a way to correct itself. But to this point, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that it will.
The Razorbacks were considered SEC contenders just two weeks ago. This speculation is over; Arkansas is not going to win this conference. Instead, circumstances now dictate that we wait and see on this team. Can Arkansas straighten itself out and at least do what has been expected for the past nine months in Fayetteville? Specifically, simply: make a third straight NCAA tournament under the same coach for the first time in more than 20 years — since Nolan Richardson.