Doubt creeps into Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament hopes after ominous loss at Vanderbilt

Doubt creeps into Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament hopes after ominous loss at Vanderbilt

Doubt creeps into Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament hopes after ominous loss at Vanderbilt

On Friday’s episode of Eye on College Basketball, I pointed out that despite Arkansas’ reputation, if you really dig into the reality of the 15th-ranked Razorbacks, it’s conceivable that they might end up missing the NCAA Tournament.

I put Arkansas’ ill-desired plot twist prospect at 15% — but that was before the Hogs were stamped 97-84 at Vanderbilt on Saturday.

Now? I would double the odds of the Razorbacks being kicked out of the big dance.

Congratulations to Jerry Stackhouse’s Commodores for having one of the most impressive second halves of the season: 69.2% shooting, including 66.7% from 3 points and 63 points in the second half against 42 at Arkansas, an eight-point deficit at the halfway point. the game into a 13-point win. Vandy averaged 1.4 points per possession, easily the best performance against the (previously solid) Arkansas defense this season. Vanderbilt’s dismissal of the Hogs was so statistically impressive that it moved Eric Musselman’s team from 14th to 22nd in overall defensive efficiency on KenPom.com.

I still think it’s comfortably more likely than not that Arkansas will see its name pop up on CBS during the Sunday draft when the big bracket is revealed, but that 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 ahead of only Mississippi in the league ledger.

No one thought that was possible three weeks ago, let alone in pre-season.

There is cause for concern. First, because the offense is crippled by injuries, Arkansas must win with defensive intensity and skill. If that happens, this team is 100% toast. I don’t foresee many more teams losing better than 1.2 points per possession on the Hogs in the future, so there’s at least that.

And what about this offence? As Musselman told me recently, the staff built their O around two guys who don’t play: Nick Smith Jr. and Trevon Brazile. The latter is made for the season with a torn ACL. The former is working on a knee injury, hoping to be able to return by February. Skepticism abounds about whether the projected top 10 in the NBA draft will play for the Hogs again. I think he will. I also think he has to do it in order to secure an NCAA Tournament bid for Arkansas. Since Dec. 27, according to BartTorvik.com, Arkansas has played as the 120th-best team in the sport.

The problem is that Arkansas can’t shoot from deep. He ranks 336th nationally in 3-point accuracy (29.1%) and doesn’t even take that many hat-tricks – just 27.6% of his shot attempts come 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 shoots better than Anthony Black’s 32% pedestrian.

Historically, bad 3-point shooting teams almost never course correct and turn into good 3-point shooting teams more than half the season. There’s a ceiling here, whatever.

Next up for the Hogs is a 13-4 loss in Missouri on Wednesday against a Tigers team that could be just as flawed and angsty as Arkansas after losing three of its last four, including to Florida on Saturday. No. 20 (soon to be unranked) Mizzou will have the advantage of waking up in his hometown before facing the Razorbacks on Wednesday. Arkansas will have to prove it can do something it hasn’t done yet: win on the road.

At 12-5, the Razorbacks have only two quality wins: San Diego State and Oklahoma on neutral grounds. Road games against Baylor, Kentucky, No. 4 Alabama and No. 5 Tennessee are still pending. Can this team win even two of those games without Smith on the floor? I doubt.

The silver lining for Arkansas fans, and they know it, is how Musselman overcame the midseason hiccups of the past two seasons and rallied those campaigns to the Elite Eight races, the school’s first since the mid-90s. In 2020-21, Arkansas was a 13-5 team at the end of January and projecting near the bubble. He lost a game between that date and the NCAA Tournament. Last season, Arkansas played a weak non-conference schedule, turned around early in league play, and found itself 10-5 and with an 0-3 SEC record in early January.

The Razorbacks won 13 of their next 14 games and earned a No. 4 seed en route to a regional final.

Musselman is one of the best coaches in college basketball – which is why his name is being offered for the vacancy in Texas, yet another subplot to the current unease with the Arkansas situation – so I won’t be surprised if this team finds a way right itself. But at this point, there’s not much evidence to suggest that will be the case.

The Razorbacks were considered SEC contenders just two weeks ago. This speculation is over; Arkansas will not win this conference. Instead, circumstances now dictate that we wait and see in this team. Can Arkansas fix itself and do at least what has been expected for nine months in Fayetteville? Concretely, simply: to make a third consecutive NCAA tournament under the same coaching for the first time in over 20 years, since Nolan Richardson.

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