By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Razorbacks will be facing their third must-win … ahem, MUST NOT LOSE … scenario of the season when the visiting Georgia Bulldogs invade Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville for a mid-week league game. That’s because the ‘Dogs (just like Ole Miss and South Carolina who came before them in recent weeks) represent a certain NCAA-Tournament-resume bad loss for the Hoop Hogs if they falter with only four games remaining in their regular season.

Arkansas has a respectable Quad-1 and Quad-2 combined resume — a 3-6 record in Q1 games plus a 4-2 mark in Q2 games that help determine a team’s NCAAT viability — and though overall the Hogs currently have a better-than-NCAAT-Bubble resume, they do own one bad loss already (60-57 at LSU back in December that counts as a Q3 defeat) so a second Q3 loss against Georgia would be a significant resume setback while adding pressure to a team facing a dangerous gauntlet in its last three regular-seasons games (at NET No. 2 Alabama, at NET No. 3 Tennessee, and home against NET No. 35 Kentucky).

Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 is tied for 7th place in SEC, NCAA NET No. 19) is 12-2 this season in games played on its home court of BWA. The Hogs’ 84-65 blowout home win over Florida on Saturday snapped a two-game losing streak, but it also gave the team its 6th win in its last 8 league games. Arkansas is 3-2 in February games played so far in 2022-23 as part of a 16-3 record in February games going back to the ’20-21 season.

Georgia (16-11, 6-8 is tied for 10th place in SEC, NCAA NET No. 131) has won 2 of its last 3 games but is coming off an embarrassing 108-59 defeat on the road against then-No. 1 Alabama on Saturday in its last outing. The Bulldogs are 1-6 on the road in league play — includes blowout losses at Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, Texas A&M, and against the Tide, but they do own impressive home wins over Auburn, Kentucky, and Mississippi State.

The Hogs and Bulldogs will square off at 8 p.m. CT on Tuesday (SEC Network) at BWA.

A win over the Bulldogs not only keeps the Hogs’ NCAAT prospects from slipping (it doesn’t improve them based on its merit alone), but it keeps them mathematically in the hunt — albeit as a longshot — for a 3- or 4-seed in the fast-approaching SEC Tournament (the top 4 seeds receive double-byes to the SECT quarterfinals, a fate the Arkansas program has enjoyed the past two seasons.)

At 7-7 in league play, the Hogs sit two games behind Tennessee and Kentucky (each is 9-5 in league play) and one game behind Auburn and Vanderbilt (8-6). Due to the win-loss disparities and head-to-head tiebreakers, Arkansas likely needs to win out combined with each of those teams losing multiple games for the Hogs to land as a 3 or 4 seed at this point.

As for NCAAT security, splitting their last four games should be enough for the Hogs to feel good about an NCAAT berth going into the SECT, but going 3-1 would all but cement a preferred top-half-of-bracket NCAAT seeding (7-seed) with the SECT serving as a potential to improve slightly on that NCAAT seeding. A 4-0 finish plus a deep run in the SECT could result in a 4- or 5-seed in the NCAAT.

While the home tilt against Florida on Saturday didn’t quite reach the level of must-win, it did stop the bleeding of back-to-back losses against Mississippi State and Texas A&M while adding another Q2 victory to the resume.

Senior reserve forward Jalen Graham had a career-high 26 points (12-of-15 field goals and 2-of-3 free throws) to go with 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in 27 minutes while leading five Hogs in double-figure scoring in a matchup Arkansas dominated at both ends of the floor, especially to open the second half when the Hogs used a 17-2 run to expand a 6-point halftime lead to a 54-33 advantage that would swell to a 25-point lead down the stretch.

The Razorbacks shot 34-of-59 from the field (57.6%) for the game, including 2-of-10 from 3 (20%), and 14-of-17 at the free throw line (82.4%). Defensively, the Hogs held the Gators to 22-of-59 field goal shooting (37.3%), including 4-of-21 from 3 (19.0%). Florida made 17-of-21 at the line (81.0%).

Arkansas owned bench scoring (45-25), points-in-the-paint (52-36), rebounding (40-25), second-chance-points (15-6), points-off-turnovers (17-10), and fastbreak points (14-8).

In addition to Graham’s big game, senior forward / center Makhi Mitchell had a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a game-high boxscore plus-27 in 20 minutes); junior guard Ricky Council IV had 15 points (6-of-10 field goals and 3-of-4 free throws) and 7 rebounds in 33 minutes off the bench; and freshman guard Anthony Black had 14 points (3-of-6 field goals, including 1-of-1 from 3, & 7-of-8 free throws), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals in 35 minutes.

Playing in just his third game since mid-December, freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., started and had 10 points (4-of-12 field goals, including 0-of-4 from 3, and 2-of-2 free throws), 2 steals, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and a boxscore plus-23 in 32 minutes (my deep-dive on Smith’s impact since his return and moving forward is linked here:

“I think it (the runaway win over the Gators) was really important,” Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman said during his post-game press conference on Saturday. “And now the level of maturity coming back and understanding how well Georgia has played and how improved they are … We’ve got a lot of things to go through in a short amount of time to get ready for Georgia. This (Florida) game is behind us, and now you’ve got to focus on the next game on your schedule.”

Arkansas is 25-16 all-time against Georgia and has won 5 of the last 6 meetings between the two schools. The Razorbacks are 12-3 against the ‘Dogs in games played in Fayetteville.

After hosting Georgia on Tuesday, Arkansas goes back on the road to play league leader and second-ranked Alabama on Saturday (1 p.m. CT, specific TV coverage is currently TBD).

Muss musings

On the recent increase of mid-range shooting by the Hogs, including Anthony Black and the Mitchell twins (Makhi and Makhel): “I think maybe at times we’ve been a little bit reluctant to take open shots and that actually hurts your offensive flow. You know, all the analytics guys will tell you that a midrange shot is the worst shot in basketball. You know, the good thing is they’re not on our staff. And most of those guys, by the way, have never dribbled a basketball, called a timeout. You know when you grow up, if you’re over the age of 55 the midrange shot was the best shot in basketball. Watch old NBA games and that’s all people shot. A 15 foot wide open shot should be a good shot, regardless of what those guys who went to high academic institutions that are statisticians or whatever you call them.”

On Arkansas winning by a comfortable 19-point margin against Florida (FWIW, the Hogs have captured 5 of their 7 league wins by double-digit margins): “I thought we were flying around. We were diving on the floor, getting loose balls, the guys were having fun and they were competing.”

On senior forward Jalen Graham’s career outing against Florida: “I think it’s all-encompassing, you know, I mean he went two-for-two from the foul line. That’s huge ’cause he was batting .333, um, he had a heck of a batting average at the foul line, so, you know, I mean it’s everything. It’s close games, making free throws, it’s rebounding your position, it’s, uh, you know offensively Jalen is, you know, and he’s got a great attitude, too. He just, we just need him to rebound, ’cause in this league every night the rebounding is so, so vital. But he’s done a great job working. I’ve been on him about the free throws pretty hard and I thought he did a good job tonight converting the ones he had.”

Scouting the Georgia Bulldogs

First-year head coach Mike White made the short trek from coaching the Florida Gators in Gainesville, Fla., to leading the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens, Ga., where he already has the ‘Dogs in better standing relative to where they were in recent seasons under the departed Tom Crean.

The aforementioned home wins over Auburn, Kentucky, and Mississippi State speak plainly enough to the Bulldogs ability to knock off NCAAT-quality teams, and though they’ve mostly been wiped out on the road they do have a road win over Ole Miss.

The Bulldogs go 9-10 deep in its game-to-game player rotation.

Senior 6-3 guard and Bradley transfer Terry Roberts leads the ‘Dogs with 14.2 points, 4.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.7 steals in 30.0 minutes per game while shooting 38.6% from the field, including 29.9% from 3, and 75.3% from the free throw line. Georgia’s only other double-figure scorer by average is junior 6-4 guard Kario Oquendo who is averaging 12.6 points and 3.0 rebounds in 25.4 minutes while shooting 39.9% from the field, including 27.9% from 3, and 74.4% from the free throw line.

Senior 6-11 center Braelen Bridges (8.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 58.8% field goals, 77.8% free throws, 19.3 minutes); junior 6-0 guard and Longwood transfer Justin Hill (8.1 points, 3.0 assists, 2.7 rebounds, 39.0% field goals, 76.8% free throws, 21.6 minutes); junior 6-8 guard Jabri Abdur-Rahim (7.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 40.6% field goals, 38.3% three-point field goals, 83.0% free throws); junior 6-8 forward and Oklahoma State transfer Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe (6.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 54.5% field goals, 50.8% free throws, 22.0 minutes); sophomore 6-7 guard and Alabama transfer Jusaun Holt (3.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 28.6% field goals, 25.0% three-point field goals, 80.0% free throws, 20.5 minutes); senior 6-2 guard and North Texas transfer Mardrez McBride (4.6 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.0 assist, 34.2% field goals, 37.3% three-point field goals, 54.5% free throws, 19.4 minutes); and junior 6-10 center and Syracuse transfer Frank Anselem (3.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 49.2% field goals, 60.0% free throws, 15.1 minutes) combine to give Georgia seven more consistent rotation players who offer plenty of size, length, athleticism, production, and veteran know-how. 

Georgia ranks No. 124 in Division 1 according to ratings (No. 160 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and No. 113 in adjusted defensive efficiency).

The Bulldogs rip down 11.1 offensive rebounds per game to rank 97th in Division 1 in that category, and their blue-collar efforts on offense have led to 16.0 made free throws (ranks 29th in D1) and 22.4 free throws attempts (ranks 24th in D1) per game as they convert 71.4% at the foul line. Georgia struggles shooting from the field, making only 41.7% of their overall attempts (ranks 319th in D1), including 32.3% from 3 on 6.8 made triples per outing. The ‘Dogs commit 13.0 turnovers per game with only 11.6 assists per contest. They average 69.5 points per game.

Defensively, Georgia forces only 11.7 turnovers per game (includes 6.5 steals) while being anemic in rim-protection (only 3.6 blocks per outing). The team commits 15.7 fouls per game. The Bulldogs are yielding 50.0% efficiency on opponents’ two-point field goals. However, they do limit teams to 43.0% overall field goal shooting thanks in large part to holding opponents to 30.9% shooting from 3 (ranks 44th in D1). Opposing teams average 70.3 points per game against the ‘Dogs.

“Mike’s done a great job,” Musselman said. “Phenomenal job. Their players look like they’re having fun. Hill’s given them a lift at the guard position. They went out and got six transfers. Those guys have all contributed. Moncrieffe’s an athletic player that gets off the floor extremely quick. I mentioned Bridges with his back to the basket with using his left hand once in a while using the right hand on that right block. He’s really good going middle. And then Roberts is a guy that can can really, really score the basketball. And then Oquendo, probably the biggest recruit that Coach White had was getting Oquendo back after he was in the portal. So Bridges and Oquendo, two of the guys that obviously played for Coach Crean, and then you add in the fact that they did a good job in the portal of getting guys that play extremely hard.

“They’ve done a great job. I mean, you look at the total wins. They’ve won some big, big SEC games. I think he’s done as good a coaching job as anybody in the league, quite frankly.”

Hoop Hogs national and SEC honors

Arkansas junior wing Ricky Council IV was one of 50 players named to the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Oscar Robertson Trophy mid-season watch list that was released on Jan. 19. The honor is awarded in the postseason to recognize the national player of the year in college basketball.

Arkansas freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., was named the USBWA National Freshman of the Week, the SEC Freshman of the Week, and Dick Vitale’s National Diaper Dandy in early December after leading the then-No. 9 Hoop Hogs in combined scoring (21.5 points per game) to go with 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 steal in the team’s wins over UNC-Greensboro (Dec. 6) and Oklahoma (Dec. 10).

The previous week, Council was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 22.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.0 steals while shooting 71% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 100% at the free throw line to pace the Hoop Hogs in wins over Troy (Nov. 28) and San Jose State (Dec. 3).

The week before that, Arkansas freshman guard Anthony Black was named SEC Co-Freshman of the Week after averaging 22.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.7 steals while shooting 55% from the field, including 40% from 3, and 86% at the free throw line in the Hoop Hogs’ 2-1 run / 3rd-place finish in the Maui Invitational in Hawaii (Nov. 21-23). Black led all scorers in the event and was named to the all tournament team.

How Razorbacks stack up in polls, NCAA NET, analytics, and bracketology

Arkansas has been out of both the Associated Press Top 25 poll and the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll since Jan. 23, which at the time marked the first time this season that the Hogs were unranked.

As of Monday, Feb. 20, the Razorbacks ranked No. 19 in the NCAA NET rankings. The resume includes: a) 3-6 record in Quad-1 games — a road win over Kentucky, a home win over Texas A&M, a neutral-site win over San Diego State, a neutral-site loss against Creighton, a road loss against Auburn, a home loss against Alabama, a road loss against Baylor, a road loss against Missouri, and a road loss against Texas A&M; b) a 4-2 record in Q2 games — a neutral-site win over Oklahoma, a home win over Bradley, a home win over Missouri, a home win over Florida, a home loss against Mississippi State, and a road loss against Vanderbilt; and c) 11-1 record in Q3 and Q4 games (road loss against LSU currently counts as a Q3 defeat). The Hoop Hogs are 3rd among SEC teams in NET behind No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Tennessee. The upcoming home game against NET No. 131 Georgia on Tuesday will count as a Q3 result.

Looking at three other advanced metrics ratings, the Razorbacks are: No. 14 according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI); No. 19 according to Sagarin / USA Today; and No. 16 according to ratings (includes No. 12 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 60 in adjusted offensive efficiency).

Arkansas was projected as a No. 9 seed on Tuesday, Feb. 21, in ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent forecast for the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.