It’s amazing how a couple of losses can upset the apple cart.
Arkansas basketball was riding high, then came a home loss to Kentucky and a loss at Mississippi State. Now some fans are up in arms and even coach Eric Musselman seems frustrated.
Even when it appeared Arkansas was way better than its No. 11 predicted finish in the SEC, I knew a stretch like this was possible. It wouldn’t surprise me if Arkansas is routed on the road.
It is the nature of the beast of a shorthanded team playing in a tough conference.
It’s not an abomination to lose at Starkville. It’s certainly not shameful to lose to UK, who really outmatches Arkansas athletically across the board and is way deeper. Arkansas played admirably in both games.
However, the underlying fact is, the Hogs are small and shorthanded. That inevitably will catch up with them at points.
“I think they’ll be fine mentally,” Musselman told the media Thursday regarding his team. “But, when you lose two in a row, if it doesn’t hurt and you don’t agonize over it, then a third loss becomes a possibility.
“If you hate to lose and you’re a great competitor, then you’ll do every defensive assignment that’s necessary to win the next game.”
The adversity doesn’t mean they can’t finish in the upper echelon of the SEC or make a run in the NCAA Tournament. The odds are just greater, but they have beaten some odds already.
So, now Arkansas has to regroup Saturday against TCU (13-5, 4-2 Big 12) in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
On the surface this doesn’t look like an ideal opponent to play while dealing with a losing skid, but it could be exactly what the Hogs need.
First, the game is at Bud Walton Arena. The atmosphere was lit (as my kids would say) for the UK game. Expect another great crowd. That will give Arkansas a lift in what is a winnable game at home.
It is super important that this game is at home. The team needs a lift and the comforts at home.
“I think the atmosphere will be awesome,” Musselman said. “But, look, we’ve lost two in a row … The atmosphere at the home game with Kentucky – nobody in the country is going to be able to duplicate that. I think that was as good as any atmosphere you could possibly ask for.
“We lost a game on the road, we could have potentially won. Our team is playing really, really hard and our fans feel the passion our kids play with.
“Not only is it a sellout, but you not only sell the ticket, but they have to come. I think they will come to the game, and I think our student section will be great. I just came from a sorority, and they seemed fired up.
“They all said they are coming, so I think we will have a great student section. I know they aren’t going to line up early, but as long as they get there before tip-off, I am cool with that.”
The other interesting component of this game is it doesn’t matter in the SEC race. If Arkansas loses, it could continue to deteriorate its confidence, but it wouldn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things.
Other than a confidence boost, the game does offer another chance to boost the Hogs’ NCAA Tournament resume. TCU looks like a sure-fire tournament team, so that is probably the most important part of the game — another chance at a Power 5 win.
While TCU does not count in the SEC standings, they are an SEC-quality opponent. The Horned Frogs are led by Desmond Bane, who is a versatile scorer who has shifted positions in recent years.
The Hogs will have to contain him to win the game.
“He’s just improved so much as a player,” Musselman told the media Friday. “A few years ago, he played a lot of [power forward] for them, and then moved to small forward and now to off guard.
“He’s always been a really good three-point shooter, and he’s a good rebounder for his position. He improved his ball handling and has ability to be able to create his own shot. I think he’s a really good passer, too.”
Musselman hinted that he is going to tinker with the starting lineup after consulting his dog Swish on their “morning stroll” Saturday.
He said he will consider the moves then and is going to have “the marketing department ready with different graphics” with lineups that they distribute on social media before the game.
He may or may not experiment with the lineup if Arkansas was playing an SEC opponent, but the nature of this contest lends itself to that.
Arkansas hits the SEC slate again Wednesday night with a home game with South Carolina and is at Alabama a week from Saturday with a critical home game Tuesday, Feb. 4 with No. 16 Auburn.
A win against a quality TCU team would go a long way in sparking that stretch.
If not, the Hogs are still in good shape in the SEC with a home game against a beatable opponent.