The Razorbacks needed to win their last regular season game along with a couple of SEC tournament games to have a chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Their 77-69 loss to Texas A&M all but eliminated whatever tournament hopes they had left. Their only remaining chance is to be competing for the SEC Championship game next Sunday, and even then, a loss in the finals might not be enough.
After an unfortunate stretch of five straight losses without star shooting guard Isaiah Joe, the Razorbacks found themselves in a win or go home situation for the rest of the season. They rolled into College Station in yet another must-win situation. They took care of business in their last home game against LSU, keeping their tournament hopes alive. However, their inability to close out the Aggies on the road all but sealed their fate. The Hogs finish conference play with a 7-11 record, leaving them exactly where they were predicted to finish: 11th.
Razorbacks Last Chance
In order to solidify their place in the big dance, the Razorbacks will likely have to win five games in five days as they now sit as the 11th seed in the SEC. Anything less leaves them with a good chance of landing in the NIT. However, despite being the 11th seed, the Hogs may have one of the more favorable routes to the at least the semifinals of the SEC Tourney. They’ll open up postseason play on Wednesday night against the last place Vanderbilt Commodores. Then, assuming a victory, they would face South Carolina on Thursday night. No game is a given in conference play, but both of these games seem very winnable for the Hogs.
If the Hogs manage to win two games in two days, they’re reward is a rematch with LSU. Of the top four seeds in the conference, LSU should be the Hogs preferred matchup, considering the Tigers are the only one of the top four teams that the Razorbacks have beaten. Once again, this game is not already won by any means, but it does bode well for Arkansas to not face Kentucky or Florida until either the semifinals or finals. Could three straight games in the conference tournament be enough to drag the Hogs over the bubble? I personally don’t think so, but it would make selection Sunday much more interesting if Arkansas came in with 22 wins on the season.
Regardless of where the team ends up in the next few weeks, the fans had something to cheer for this season. In a transition year between coaches and minimal depth available to the roster, even a chance at the big tournament is something to be proud of. In fact, there are several things that Hogs can hang their hats on this season.
Pre Isaiah Joe Injury
Predicted to finish 11th in the SEC, the Hogs came out of the gates ready to shock the world. The rattled off 12 of their first 13 games, including the first eight in a row. Mason Jones’s playmaking, Isaiah Joe’s sharp shooting, and Jimmy Whitt’s midrange game provided a formidable backcourt for opponents to try to defend. The Hogs rolled passed everyone in non-conference play aside from a Western Kentucky squad that included potential future lottery big man, Charles Bassey. They stumbled against LSU, losing by only two points in a game that saw more offensive rebounds for LSU than total rebounds for Arkansas. Then again against power house Kentucky on their home court in front of one of the best crowds in Bud Walton’s history. That makes three losses through 17 games, something no one saw coming aside from the Razorbacks themselves.
Then came the Mississippi State game in which Isaiah Joe re-aggravated a knee injury he had suffered against Ole Miss three games prior. Reggie Perry dominated the Razorbacks big men on his home court, and Arkansas’s star guard trio was unable to answer. Joe would miss one non-conference matchup against TCU, only to return and hit five three pointers in a loss to South Carolina. Then, in the road win against Alabama, it became apparent that his injury could be ignored no longer. He played next to no minutes in the second half of this game, largely in part to his inability to keep up defensively. He would have surgery after his 0/3 outing against Bama, leading to a five game stretch of being sidelined in his recovery. The Hogs went 0-5 in this stretch, and ultimately lost any momentum they had built, including their tournament berth.
Mason Jones: Scoring Machine
For the first time in school history, a Razorback led the SEC in points per game. He also became the third player to ever win the SEC player of the week award four times, and he scored 30 or more point nine different times this season. His name is recognized state-wide: Mason Jones. Jones has the potential to be one of the most controversial runner-ups in SEC Player of the Year history if he does not win it. His individual stats speak for themselves, but his team’s record could likely be his downfall in not winning the “best player” award.
Regardless of hardware, Jones turned in a season for the ages. He led the nation in free throws taken and made, the conference in scoring, and his team in four of the five major stat categories: points, assists, rebounds, and steals. He has cemented his name in Razorback history as one of the greatest scoring Hogs of all time. The best part about it all, he still has a decision to make about whether or not he’ll be wearing the cardinal and white again next season.
Coach Eric Musselman
After eight years of hovering just above average with Mike Anderson, the University of Arkansas decided to make a coaching change. A coaching search led to the hire of former Nevada head coach, Eric Musselman. One of Coach Muss’s biggest pluses is his experience at all levels of the game. He has been a head coach in college, a head coach in the NBA G-League, an assistant coach in the NBA, and a head coach in the NBA. He has seen what it takes to make it at every level and knows how to help his players get there. Further than that, he knows how to adapt to the talent he has and win with the cards he’s been dealt.
Does this benefit his current players? Absolutely. But that’s not where his experience has the largest impact. Recruits have shown a high interest in playing for a coach that knows how to further advance their career. This is glaringly obvious in his first ever recruiting class at Arkansas. On deck for the Hogs is a Top 5 recruiting class that includes four ESPN Top 100 players. This includes Top 40 prospect and project NBA first round draft pick, Moses Moody.
Musselman’s coaching ability was not questioned until his star shooting guard went down with an injury for two and a half weeks. The Hogs five game losing streak rightfully raised some eyebrows. However, the blame cannot be placed entirely on Coach Muss’s shoulders. He was given a limited roster to begin with and still managed to start the season 16-5 before losing one of his stars. There truthfully should not be any “blame” placed on anyone. Injuries happen, and this one affected the team drastically.
Without Joe’s floor spacing, opponents’ sagging help defense was able to all but shut down Jimmy Whitt through much of the losing streak. Desi Sills became a bright spot, but his inconsistency was not enough to make up for Joe’s absence. More detrimental than anything, opposing coaches were able to focus 90% of their gameplan on stopping Mason Jones. This took its toll on the super star despite still scoring 40 and 38 in two of the five straight losses.
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