FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – It's time to take a realistic look at the rest of the Arkansas schedule to get a feel for where this team is possibly headed based on the evidence presented thus far.
First, let's take a glimpse at the remaining schedule.
@ #20 Missouri
vs. Ole Miss
vs. Texas A&M
@ South Carolina
vs. Mississippi St.
@ Texas A&M
@ No. 4 Alabama
@ No. 5 Tennessee
The good news is that leaves 14 regular season games to recover and shine up the resume.
The temptation in looking at this schedule is thinking that Arkansas can use those closing three games, plus a few SEC Tournament wins to impress the selection committee, and hop right on into the NCAA Tournament.
This is where a reminder must be given about precedent. For instance, Texas A&M finished 23-12, won eight of their last 10, including wins over No. 25 Alabama, No. 4 Auburn, and a blowout of No. 15 Arkansas in that stretch.
The Aggies finished 9-9 in conference play and made the SEC championship game where an exhausted team finally fell to No. 9 Tennessee. A&M went on to finish the season 27-13, but those last few games were in the NIT, not the NCAA Tournament.
That's because the committee thought a 17-14 Michigan team with a win over No. 3 Purdue and another over No. 23 Ohio St was more worthy. That's a Wolverines team that went 4-4 to close its season and was bounced in the first round of its conference tournament by a 20-13 Indiana team.
By the way, that Indiana team got in despite going 2-7 to close its regular season. The Hoosiers too had a win over Purdue and a win over Ohio State as their only wins of note.
As for the remaining SEC teams, Alabama was the only team shown grace. The Crimson Tide finished 19-13, yet received a No. 6 seed, only two spots behind 25-8 Arkansas in the same bracket.
The committee viewed Arkansas and Alabama as roughly the same team despite the gap in record. However, that's because the Crimson Tide beat No. 1 seed Gonzaga in Washington, No. 1 seed Baylor, and a Tennessee team that finished No. 9 in the country,
They also beat No. 7 Houston and No. 15 Arkansas. Four of their losses came to No. 2 seed Kentucky and an Auburn team that was No. 1 at the time.
Considering history, lack of signature non-conference wins, and Big Ten bias, it will take at least 21 regular season wins and a win or two in the SEC Tournament to get Arkansas into one of the last few at-large spots in this year's field.
To get there, the Razorbacks will need to go 9-5 to close out the season. Right now, there's little reason to think Arkansas can beat Alabama or Tennessee on the road, so that gives the Hogs only three more games they can lose.
Normally, a split with Kentucky would be a best-case scenario, but it's hard to tell what to make of the Wildcats, although they did look improved last game.
Let's start with the assumption that Arkansas beats all teams without a winning conference record in any games played in Bud Walton Arena. That's a pretty big assumption considering LSU and Vanderbilt already beat Eric Musselman's team, but Arkansas typically plays better at home.
That gives Arkansas a win over Ole Miss, LSU, Mississippi St. and Kentucky. That produces four of the nine wins needed.
Let's get optimistic and say length of travel lets Arkansas upset Georgia in Bud Walton and somehow pulls off an upset of Texas A&M there as well. That gives the Razorbacks six of the nine wins.
This is where things get tricky. To pull this off, Arkansas will need to win three games on the road.
Two have already been ruled out. Winning at Alabama or Tennessee isn't happening.
It's very difficult to picture a sweep of Kentucky no matter how much John Calipari's team has struggled at times.
Having watched the previous game against Missouri, there will be a revenge factor and a ton of tape on how to take down Arkansas factored in. Technically, there's a way one of the three wins could come in Columbia, but it's highly unlikely.
The two best chances at wins are at Baylor and at South Carolina.
That's right. A win over a Baylor team that beat No. 7 UCLA and No. 8 Gonzaga and a South Carolina team that ended Kentucky's 28-game home winning streak are the best bets at road wins.
The silver lining is that Baylor has struggled in conference play. The caveat is that the Bears, much like the Razorbacks of recent past, have difficulty with conference teams because of familiarity while proving match-up nightmares for non-conference opponents in one-off games.
South Carolina, on the other hand, is Vanderbilt in garnet clothing. The Gamecocks are a team Arkansas should beat, but the word should has to be taken with a grain of salt with the current iteration of Razorback basketball.
Right now there are no shoulds. There are a few coulds and that's about it.
In the end, there is a path to the NCAA Tournament for this team. However, when you chart all of that onto the schedule, it feels more improbable than it sounded when trying to reason everything out.
W @ #20 Missouri [13-5, 2-4]
W vs. Ole Miss [14-5, 3-4]
W vs. LSU [15-5, 4-4]
W @ Baylor [16-5, 4-4]
W vs. Texas A&M [17-5, 5-4]
W @ South Carolina [18-5, 6-4]
L @ Kentucky [18-6, 6-5]
W vs. Mississippi St. [19-6, 7-5]
L @ Texas A&M [19-7, 7-6]
L vs. Florida [19-8, 7-7]
W vs. Georgia [20-8, 8-7]
L @ No. 4 Alabama [20-9, 8-8]
L @ No. 5 Tennessee [20-10, 8-9]
W vs. Kentucky [21-10, 9-9]
For those keeping score, two SEC tournament wins puts Arkansas with the same record as Texas A&M last season, but without as many signature wins.
The difference is Arkansas will be seen as more of a viable candidate for the NCAA Tournament heading into the SEC Tournament than Texas A&M was. The Razorbacks will already be on the board and top of mind as the selection committee figures out how to arrange seeding as fallout from the conference tournaments take shape.
The Aggies weren't on the board or even in consideration before their magical run. It's almost impossible to get a seed if a team isn't on the board to begin with.
Also, whether anyone wants to acknowledge it, Arkansas is a brand name that had made huge runs the past two seasons while bringing a large audience. Throw in all the hype surrounding the recruiting class and it's going to take a lot for the committee to deny the Razorbacks a slot.