It’s finally college basketball fans’ favorite month. Students are itching for the break, and college basketball tournament season looms. March Madness is in the air.
The Razorback men’s basketball team (21-10, 10-8) ended its regular season March 3 in a loss to the Missouri Tigers (20-11, 10-8), 77-67, and were officially given the sixth seed in the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament.
The Hogs failed to capitalize on the absence of NBA draft prospect Michael Porter Jr., who has been out with a back injury after only seeing two minutes of playing time this season. A win in Columbia meant that Arkansas would have grabbed the No. 4 seed and advanced all the way to Friday’s quarterfinals for the second-straight year. Instead, the Hogs had to settle for the No. 6 seed, the exact projection made for them by the media in preseason rankings.
“We kind of stubbed our toe at Missouri,” Razorback coach Mike Anderson said. “Defensively, we had some defensive lapses, and we put them on the free throw line too often.”
It wasn’t a case of not exceeding expectations but a case of lost tiebreakers. Unfortunately for the Hogs, they finished below Missouri and Kentucky because of their 1-2 record against the Tigers and Wildcats. They lost at home to Kentucky on Feb. 20 and split the season series with Missouri, 1-1.
The Razorbacks will now look ahead to return to Missouri, this time in St. Louis, to start their SEC tournament run in the second round. They will face the winner of the No. 11 South Carolina (16-15, 7-11) and No. 14 Ole Miss (12-19, 5-13) matchup. Anderson and his players are ready to start from scratch, a mindset heavily relied on by Anderson for years.
“This is a new season now. Everybody starts 0-0,” Anderson said.
One of Anderson’s star senior guards, Jaylen Barford, agreed with his coach’s statement.
“We've just got to put (the Missouri game) behind us and get ready for next week,” Barford said.
"We're still confident. The SEC tournament is a new slate, and we're ready to start winning again."
Razorback fans can breathe a little easier knowing the Hogs are undefeated against both the Gamecocks and Rebels, but the unpredictability of the SEC this season might raise concerns. Anderson’s team celebrated a home-and-away sweep against Ole Miss this season, and Oxford, Mississippi, was one of only three SEC sites away from Bud Walton where the Hogs managed to pull out a victory. The Hogs also handily defeated South Carolina at home by 16 points Feb. 6.
“Arkansas is as hard a matchup as there is,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “(Barford and Macon) have had a great year. (Gafford) outran us off the court every single time. They’re not fun to coach against, but they are fun to watch.”
If the Hogs get past the second round, they will have to face the No. 3-seeded Florida Gators (20-11, 11-7), a team that dominated Arkansas in their one game this season en route to a 88-73 win Jan. 17. The Hogs were decimated by a season-high 29 points from Arkansas-native Kevaughn Allen in the matchup. Florida has won all of its last eight matchups against the Hogs with Arkansas’ last win against the Gators coming Feb. 5, 2013.
“We don’t prepare for one particular team, we prepare for everyone,” Anderson said. “(We do that by worrying) about ourselves right now, how can we get better? How can our bench continue to play well? It’s about us.”
Thanks to some impressive home and neutral site wins, paired with a great 15-2 home record in a competitive conference, the Hogs have all but secured their berth in the 2018 NCAA Tournament already. Even an early exit in the SEC tournament, as surprising as it would be, will most likely not hurt the Razorbacks’ chances of dancing.
ESPN’s resident “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi has the Hogs as a No. 7 seed with a possible matchup against Providence in the first round. Arkansas has been touted as a No. 7-10 seed for the past few projections and will need a good run in the SEC tournament if the Hogs wish to convince the selection committee they are worthy of a higher seed.
“In a tournament setting we always talk about how we're going to come out and play in the first game. We had a chance to play early in the year in a tournament setting, so hopefully that helps our guys,” Anderson said, referring to the PK80 tournament that the Hogs were a part of earlier in the season.
Sophomore guard C.J. Jones, who suffered a knee injury against Missouri, is getting treatment, and the injury doesn’t appear to be serious, Anderson said on Monday. The head Hog also announced that the roster will end its season without senior forward Dustin Thomas, who was dismissed from the team due to an unspecified rules violation. Thomas averaged five points and four rebounds in 26 appearances this season.
In contrast, Barford, senior guard Daryl Macon and freshman forward Daniel Gafford were honored after receiving postseason awards on March 6. Barford and Macon were named to the All-SEC First and Second Teams, respectively, while Gafford was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team.
The Hogs’ second-round game is scheduled for tip off at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Scottrade Center.