NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It’s a Big Blue elephant in the room, and Arkansas isn’t supposed to talk about it. The Razorbacks are familiar with the unwritten rule surrounding conference tournaments: Focus on one game at a time. When teams look too far ahead, that’s when they slip up.
But is it possible to ignore a potential matchup with the best team in the country? With one more win in this week’s SEC tournament in Nashville, Arkansas would likely lock in a meeting with No. 1 Kentucky in the conference championship game. Many see the talented Razorbacks as the best remaining threat to the Wildcats’s dominance ahead of Selection Sunday, and it’s a notion that’ll linger over the Hogs’s visit to Bridgestone Arena.
On Friday, second-seeded Arkansas took the first step in that journey to face Kentucky. It withstood a rally from 10th-seeded Tennessee to beat the Vols, 80-72, in the SEC quarterfinals. The Razorbacks still must beat Georgia in Saturday’s semifinals to have a shot at the Wildcats. Kentucky, meanwhile, must get by a hot Auburn squad. But Arkansas’s players aren’t avoiding the Big Blue subject; in fact, they might be secretly embracing it.
“We’re just trying to take it one game at a time,” guard Keaton Miles said. “But it is in the back of your mind.”
It’s easy to see why folks hope the Razorbacks eventually face the country’s best team. They’ve been the most dangerous-looking program in the SEC outside of Lexington this year. Against Tennessee, Arkansas reminded SEC fans just how dangerous it can be. It shot out of the gate and built an 18-3 lead over the first five minutes of the game. The Vols had no early answer for Bobby Portis, the 6'11" SEC Player of the Year. The sophomore dominated the inside during the first 20 minutes and helped his team build a 45-25 halftime lead.
At the break, Tennessee had more turnovers (seven) than made field goals (four). Portis had 18 points and six boards as the Razorbacks outscored UT 20-2 in the paint. Arkansas, which shot 52 percent in the first half, didn’t have much to fix at halftime. Coach Mike Anderson simply told his players to keep a foot on the gas.
“One of our things is to stay motivated when you’re up 20 points, which is really hard,” Miles said. “If you’re up 20, 30 points, you kind of get relaxed.”
Yet Arkansas didn’t stay motivated, and Tennessee took advantage. Big plays by Josh Richardson and Kevin Punter cut Arkansas’s lead to four with less than four minutes left in the game. But the Razorbacks showed up on defense and hit 23-of-28 free throws in the second half to ice the victory. The win meant Arkansas would advance to the SEC semifinals for the first time since 2008.
The Hogs regrouped in the second half by sticking to their principles: Crisp offense and solid defense.
“When they made their run, we were able to withstand it because we kept doing the things that got us our lead,” said guard Manuale Watkins. “Some games, we get away from that. But this game, we kept doing those same things.”
[daily_cut.college basketball]Arkansas’s offense has been the motor behind its run. During the regular season, it was the highest-scoring team in the SEC at 79 points per game. The Razorbacks boast the 17th most efficient offense in the country, per kenpom.com, headlined by Portis and guard Michael Qualls. Scoring isn’t a problem for the Hogs, but as they showed on Friday, closing out games can be an issue.
Regardless, Anderson liked what he saw from his offense against a good Volunteers’ defense.
“We scored 80 points against a team that only gives up 60-some-odds points,” the coach said. “That’s a pretty good statement for the first game in the tournament.”
It’s a statement, but it’s also not why Arkansas ventured to the Music City. Anderson and the Razorbacks want to claim an SEC tournament championship. Reaching that goal likely means beating Kentucky, something no one in college basketball has been able to do. That run of futility includes the Hogs, who had a shot against the ‘Cats in a highly touted matchup in Lexington on Feb. 28.
But Kentucky got the best of the Razorbacks that night. It built to a 42-26 lead and cruised to an 84-67 victory. Arkansas’s offense wasn’t its usual self, hitting just 38 percent of its shots and turning the ball over 12 times.
So why would things be different if the two teams meet again on Sunday? Because Watkins said the Hogs know what they did wrong in battling Kentucky. They relied too heavily on their offense against one of the nation’s best defenses. No one is guaranteeing an Arkansas win if it meets Kentucky again, but at least one Razorback thinks his team would take a new approach to the matchup.
“They harp on defense, and we kind of said, ‘We’re going to out-shoot them and out-score them,’” Watkins said. “You can’t do that in the SEC and consistently win. You can do it some games if you’re hot, but you can’t do it and consistently win. I think if we played them again, we’d have a different defensive mindset.”
Thanks to their win on Friday, the Razorbacks’ shot at toppling the SEC’s giant remains intact. SEC fans with no skin in the game are likely rooting for Arkansas to ride its afterburners into Sunday’s championship game. After all, the Hogs looked unbeatable in the first half against Tennessee, and they displayed their offensive talent on several other occasions this season. If they somehow turn that effort into a 40-minute performance, it’s hard to see any team keeping up. Yes, even Kentucky.
For now, the next step is surviving the SEC semifinals. After that? Perhaps Arkansas can engineer a surprise in the Music City. Its players certainly aren’t ignoring what lies ahead.
“In due time, everything will play out,” Portis said. “But we have to just come in tomorrow just ready to play.”