Matt Jones is the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Newspapers.
Hogs leave Vegas empty-handed
Arkansas' Coty Clarke (4) and Wisconsin's Zak Showalter (33)fight for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational tournament on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, in Las Vegas. Wisconsin won 77-70. (AP Photo/David Becker)
FAYETTEVILLE Coming out with a winning record could have been about the best Arkansas could hope for during this five-game stretch against quality competition.
The Razorbacks can still accomplish that goal, but it won't be easy after a pair of losses in winnable games at the Las Vegas Invitational. Arkansas was outscored by a combined 31 points in the second half of games against Arizona State and Wisconsin, blowing an 11-point halftime lead against the Badgers.
Games against No. 6 Syracuse and Oklahoma at home are next up, followed by a road trip to No. 4 Michigan.
This is an important stretch for the young Razorbacks, expected to be an NCAA Tournament contender in the second year under Mike Anderson. While the SEC is a much stronger league this season, winning a few games out of conference against quality competition can build the all-important RPI. Multiple wins over any of the teams in this current stretch will look good come tournament time.
Winning away from home will also be important. Arkansas began 17-0 at Bud Walton Arena last season, but won only once away from Fayetteville. The program has also struggled with nonconference teams away from home, having now lost nine of its last 10 games against teams from other BCS conferences away from campus.
The losses over the weekend gave an accurate gauge of where the Razorbacks stand against quality competition. Arkansas is young, boasting no seniors on its roster, and has to learn to better finish a game. After playing well on both ends of the floor in the first half against Wisconsin on Saturday, the Razorbacks gave up a few 3-pointers out of the gate in the second half, which appeared to affect confidence on both ends.
Undersized, Arkansas was overmatched once again on the boards in Las Vegas, losing the total rebound margin by 10 to the Sun Devils and by 5 to the Badgers. Known for their pressure defense, the Razorbacks forced only 17 turnovers in the two games combined.
Those will be the two stats to watch most closely with this team this season. Arkansas' players won't grow, but they can limit second-chance opportunities, which seem to hurt them most defensively. Anderson's frenetic defensive style is the Razorbacks' best option for points, leading to several easy baskets on the other end. Arkansas won't win many games playing in the half court, which Wisconsin forced the Razorbacks to do after halftime.
The struggles in Las Vegas only heighten the anticipation and the importance of the game this week against the Orange, which will be played Friday night. Not often this early in the season has a team the caliber of Syracuse walked through the doors of Bud Walton Arena, which could see its highest attendance in a while.
Arkansas players and fans are hungry to see the basketball program compete with the nation's elite once again. A raucous environment against one of the nation's elite on national TV is the perfect setting.
With a win, the disappointment of the Thanksgiving holiday in Las Vegas will fade fast for the Razorbacks. With a loss, Arkansas will have to lean on its conference credentials for its postseason hopes.