Toney slam dunk

Senior guard Au’Diese Toney completes a slam dunk Feb. 26 during the Razorbacks’ 75-73 win over Kentucky in Bud Walton Arena. Toney and the Hogs are poised for a deep NCAA Tournament run after finishing 13-5 in SEC play.

With the regular season over, the No. 15 Arkansas men’s basketball team has cemented itself as a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments.

The Razorbacks started conference play going a miserable 0-3. Since then, they have won 13 of the subsequent 15 conference games and taken down some of the top teams in the nation, including former No. 1 Auburn, now ranked No. 4.

Although the Hogs started off slow, they have built momentum over the course of the season and seem to be peaking at the right time.

“I think we just took it back to the basics,” senior guard Chris Lykes said in the press conference after the Razorbacks’ Feb. 5 victory over Mississippi State. “We just focused and locked in and understand that teams make runs during the season, and fortunately we’re making the right run right now.”

Arkansas’ performance in league play has landed it in the top tier of the league alongside No. 4 Auburn, No. 5 Kentucky and No. 9 Tennessee. The Hogs hold wins over all three, all of which took place at home.

“It’s a team that is really buying in, it’s a team that is really understanding our defensive gameplans,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said Feb. 19 after defeating Tennessee. “I’ll tell you this, nobody plays harder than this team in the country. We’ve evolved as a team.”

It can be difficult to beat elite teams twice, and the Razorbacks will not have one of their greatest advantages during the SEC Tournament in Tampa, Florida, which starts Feb. 9, and the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 15. Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena has been packed and raucous for every big game at home this season.

The home court advantage was evident when Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee came to town, and almost certainly played a factor in those Razorback wins.

“How much (the fans) support us is crazy, and it makes us want to be better for them,” sophomore forward Jaylin Williams said after the LSU win March 2. “It makes us want to work harder for them. We want to give back to them as much as they give to us. It gives us a home advantage every time, playing with a crowd that big and just getting hype.”

Arkansas is a defense-oriented team. It has held multiple offensive juggernauts to atrocious shooting numbers and has proven it can defend against almost any team in the nation. Defense travels in college basketball, and the Hogs have one of the best, ranked No. 16 for adjusted team defensive efficiency in the 2022 Pomeroy College Basketball Rankings.

The Razorbacks’ lockdown defense and numerous scoring threats make them a team no top seed wants to face in the NCAA Tournament. They have the ability to make a deep run in the tournament, similar to last season’s squad that made it to the Elite Eight.

Williams and senior guard JD Notae have been invaluable to Arkansas all season. When the two are not on the court, their missing presence is felt.

Williams slows guards down with his quick feet and ability to draw charges, frustrates other big men with his athleticism and speed on the offensive end and is clearly an active, vocal leader of the team. Notae has the ability to score at will, and his quick hands on defense make him a pest for opposing players. He ranks second in the SEC in points per game and his 2.2 steals per game are tied for first in the league.

“(Notae) changes everything,” Musselman said Feb. 5. “I mean, he puts so much pressure on the defensive game plan of the opponents.”

The Hogs will be the four seed in the SEC Tournament, giving them an automatic bid to the quarterfinal, where they will face fifth-seeded LSU or the winner of the Ole Miss-Missouri game. Arkansas is a combined 5-0 against those three teams in 2022.

As for the NCAA Tournament, current ESPN projections have Arkansas going in as a four seed. That could change if the Hogs make a run in the SEC Tournament, but a semifinals or even finals appearance will be unlikely to move them any higher than a three seed.

The Razorbacks are slated to play in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals at 2:30 p.m. Friday in Tampa, Florida. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.

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