Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and Biletnikoff Award.
As losses start to stack, quality wins lack for Arkansas
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson points during a game against Mississippi State on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas hit the midway point of its 31-game regular season at halftime of its loss to Mississippi State on Tuesday.
Sixteen games in, the Razorbacks have yet to reach the expectations set for the team in the preseason. And with only 14 conference games remaining in a league that has not been highly-regarded lately by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, Arkansas is quickly running out of opportunities to make its case for March Madness.
Losing to Minnesota, Florida and Kentucky doesn't hurt the Razorbacks' postseason chances, but the lack of quality wins to this point does. Every game carries great weight over the back-half of the schedule. Arkansas needs résumé wins as much as it can ill-afford another bad loss.
With the SEC apparently down again, it appears Arkansas' best remaining chances to improve its stock all come on the road - at Oklahoma State on Jan. 28, at South Carolina on Feb. 15 and at Florida on March 1. Those are the remaining teams that appear to have the best shot at making the NCAA Tournament.
And the Razorbacks can't have any more slip-ups.
A win over Mississippi State on Tuesday would not have significantly strengthened the Razorbacks' postseason portfolio, but a loss did weaken it. Not only was the loss at home, but it was to a team that has losses to Central Florida, Lehigh and East Tennessee State.
Perhaps more troubling, it was another loss to an upper-level team for Arkansas, which fell to 2-4 in its most high-profile games against Power 5 teams. The Razorbacks' lone power wins have come over Texas (7-8) at a neutral site, and at Tennessee (8-7).
Arkansas' best win to this point is over Houston (12-4).
Past that, the Razorbacks' signature wins are against two mid-major teams - Fort Wayne (14-4) and Texas-Arlington (12-4) - that are favorites to win the Summit League and Sun Belt Conference, respectively. Wins over those teams will help the RPI and strength of schedule, but at-large tournament selection remains very much in the eyes of the beholder, and the tournament selection committee will only put increased stock in those wins should Fort Wayne and Texas-Arlington win their conference tournaments. Their leagues shouldn't receive more than one bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas' losses have been sound - at Minnesota by 14 and at Kentucky by 26, and at home to Florida by 9 and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, a 10-point underdog, led by as many as 10 points in the second half and never trailed in the final 25 minutes.
MSU's Aric Holman on rebound crush: "Beginning of the game (Howland) was telling us they don't box out very good, so we focused on that."— Thomas Murphy (@TomMurphyADG) January 11, 2017
Like the Razorbacks' previous losses, Mississippi State exposed long-standing weaknesses in Arkansas such as rebounding and perimeter defense. The Bulldogs made 12 3-pointers and out-rebounded the Razorbacks by 12, and created several second-chance opportunities with 15 offensive rebounds. Statistically, Mississippi State was the worst rebounding team in the SEC entering the game.
Those are trouble areas that are not easily corrected in-season, and likely to prove costly again in future games.
The Razorbacks need to find answers quick. Arkansas must finish the SEC season much stronger than it has started, or runs the risk of sitting out the Big Dance for the eighth time in nine years.
No amount of pointing toward the future could compensate for that lack of on-court result.
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