Razorbacks' schedule gets tourney feel

By: Bob Holt
Published: Saturday, February 16, 2019
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) tries to drive against the defense of Kentucky guard Keldon Johnson (3) in the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019. Kentucky won 71-67. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi State guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (11) tries to drive against the defense of Kentucky guard Keldon Johnson (3) in the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019. Kentucky won 71-67. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Five of the University of Arkansas basketball team's final seven regular-season games are against teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament.

That stretch begins when the Razorbacks (14-10, 5-6 SEC) play Mississippi State (17-7, 5-6) at 7:30 tonight in Walton Arena. The Bulldogs are a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament according to bracket projections by ESPN, CBS Sports and USA Today.

Other SEC teams that Arkansas will play who are projected to be in the NCAA Tournament field by ESPN, CBS and USA Today are Auburn and Kentucky on the road, and Ole Miss and Alabama at home.

"We've had a tough schedule all year long with this young basketball team," Razorbacks Coach Mike Anderson said. "So every game has been of significant magnitude, and it continues.

"It presents challenges, but they're great opportunities."

Having a shot to beat Mississippi State, Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Alabama presents the Razorbacks with the opportunity to play their way into the NCAA Tournament -- provided they don't lose at home to Texas A&M and at Vanderbilt.

"We've got to have the mindset that we need to start coming out and playing like men," Arkansas sophomore forward Daniel Gafford said. "We can't just come out and have those bad starts we've had in those games we've lost.

"We just have to come out and play basketball every one of these games. We can't come out playing soft and playing slow."

Despite Arkansas losing four home games to Western Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Florida and LSU, and on the road earlier this week at struggling Missouri (12-11, 3-8), the Razorbacks are not totally out of the NCAA Tournament picture based on the experts' opinions.

CBS Sports lists Arkansas as one of the first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament along with Georgetown, Oregon and Utah State.

According to ESPN, Arkansas is among "the next four out" of the NCAA Tournament along with Davidson, Saint Mary's and the University of San Francisco after the "first four out" of Florida, Utah State, Butler and Belmont.

The Razorbacks already have three victories over teams that are projected to be in the NCAA Tournament field: Indiana and Texas State at home, and at LSU.

What if Arkansas can add some more victories over NCAA Tournament teams, starting with Mississippi State?

"We have to be ready for any and every matchup for each of these teams because they're going to be tough teams down this last stretch that we have," Gafford said. "We want to make noise with this program, so we have to come out and play basketball."

Arkansas won four consecutive SEC games -- including 90-89 at LSU to break the Tigers' 10-game winning streak -- after a 1-4 start in conference play.

"I feel good about it, because we went on a run before and we can go on another run," Razorbacks freshman guard Isaiah Joe said of Arkansas putting together a strong finish. "Beating big teams like [Mississippi State] will get our name up there.

"Hopefully, at the end of this season, we'll have the opportunity to be in the NCAA Tournament."

This week marks the first time this season that Mississippi State hasn't been nationally ranked in either The Associated Press media poll or USA Today coaches' poll. The Bulldogs dropped out of the polls after losing at home to LSU 92-88 in overtime and to Kentucky 71-67 last week, but Mississippi State bounced back to pound Alabama 81-62 on Tuesday night.

"For me, this is the best game we've played since I've been the coach at Mississippi State," said Ben Howland, who is in his fourth season leading the Bulldogs. "No question."

Anderson said he's looking for the Razorbacks to play with the energy and sense of urgency needed to win big games late in the season.

"We're trying to find that consistency to play at a high level for 40 minutes," Anderson said. "That's when you start taking it to the next level.

"With seven games left on our schedule, that's the mindset right now, and the most important game is Mississippi State."

Sports on 02/16/2019

Discussion

Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.