If Arkansas earns an NCAA Tournament berth this year, they might well point back to a Sunday night in Bloomington, Indiana.
The 71-64 win over the Hoosiers wrapped up the non-conference part before the league schedule was big for multiple reasons. They’ll play TCU later in January.
The Hogs trailed by as many as 11 points in the second half to the Hoosiers (11-2) in front of a packed house at venerable Assembly Hall. Just as Indiana was about to slam the door on Arkansas, the Razorbacks used a 19-3 run the final 7:49 to pick up first-year UA Coach Eric Musselman’s biggest win this season.
“It’s a real big win,” Hogs sophomore guard Isaiah Joe, who paced the Razorbacks with 24 points, told the media following the game. “To be able to bring this win back to Fayetteville, you have to cherish moments like these.”
The win has all kinds of significance.
First, the historical. The win marks the first time Arkansas has won a road game against a Big 10 opponent since the 1949-50 season when it won 65-53 win at Illinois and 75-50 win at Indiana.
The Hogs have been 0-7 since that time. The win also avenged a 63-60 loss to the Hoosiers at Bloomington in the NIT last season, former coach Mike Anderson’s final game at the helm.
A neat stat, sure, but really just a fun fact footnote.
Here’s the meat of this win. This win proves Arkansas CAN win SEC road games and WILL earn an NCA Tournament berth.
The impressive part was not only with winning, but how they won, coming back from a significant second-half deficit.
Arkansas hit 12 of 31 three-pointers and Mason Jones was clutch, hitting 3-balls on back-to-back possessions late in the game to fuel the win.
Arkansas was picked 11th in the preseason SEC poll. What Musselman has shown over the past 12 games is he has improved every player on the roster individually, and he can outcoach and out-prepare the opponent.
That’s what I figured when I predicted Arkansas would need a win or two in the SEC Tournament to get off the NCAA Tournament bubble.
That was bold at that point. Now, there is reason to think Musselman’s crew could be in the upper echelon of the conference.
Playing in front of nearly 15,000 fans at Assembly Hall will be tougher than most SEC venues. The crowd was really getting loud midway through the second half. It looked like IU was going to blow the game open.
“In the huddles, there wasn’t any panic,” Musselman told the media. “I probably got on the guys less tonight than I have all year. At halftime I got on them less. We were calmer in all of our huddles.
“I thought they were giving great effort. I thought if we just hung around and tried to get [other] guys on their roster to take shots instead of some of the guys that were hurting us that maybe the tide could change if we knocked down a few threes.”
And that will be the recipe to winning on the road in the SEC, too. Musselman gained this team’s trust early. The chemistry and bond is strong.
That’s remarkable with a first-year coach, but it probably goes back to his lengthy past of coaching in the NBA and other stops as to how to build that rapport. Whatever the case, the coach knows this team, and it has paid off so far.
The other reason the win is important is because of what it could mean on Selection Sunday. Indiana is primed for a good run in the rugged Big 10 and will have a good chance of a tournament berth.
That will help Arkansas in the committee’s eyes.
The Hogs’ nonconference schedule hasn’t been extremely tough, but they won two of the tougher games on the schedule — at Georgia Tech and Indiana.
The win couldn’t have come at a better time as Arkansas welcomes Texas A&M to a sold-out Bud Walton Arena for the SEC opener Saturday.
The Aggies are struggling under first-year coach Buzz Williams. Among the losses are a 62-51 loss to Harvard and a 65-42 blowout to Temple, and a 67-62 setback to Fairfield — all at the Orlando Invitational last month.
A&M has won back-to-back games with Texas Southern coming into College Station on Monday night, but Arkansas will be favored.
In the past, Arkansas has had trouble getting out of the gates of the SEC slate.
The A&M game should continue the momentum of the Indiana win, and then two good road tests against LSU and Ole Miss before returning home for Vanderbilt and Kentucky, respectively.
January sets up for a good start if the Hogs can play well at LSU and Ole Miss.