Win in Maui
Since Arkansas chose not to schedule any true non-conference road games, it's vital for Arkansas to win at least one game in Maui. Neutral games aren't as great for RPI as road games, but they're still better than home games, and the Maui games are Arkansas' only shot to win one until SEC play starts in January.
If you're not familiar with the Maui format, there are eight teams and each team will play three games. One team will go 3-0 and win the tournament, three teams will go 2-1, three more will go 1-2, and one team will go 0-3. Arkansas absolutely cannot be that 0-3 team (and you really hope they're not a 1-2 team either). They need to beat somebody outside the state of Arkansas and do it as quickly as possible.
Last year, the Hogs went to Las Vegas and lost a four-team tournament by losing to Arizona State and Wisconsin. It set a really bad tone for the year, at least in games away from Fayetteville. They must get the road game stigma out of their own heads.
Other SEC Teams Win in Non-Conference
At the beginning of SEC play last year, the league was 3-11 against top 25 teams. Teams lost to the likes of Southern, Mercer, Tulane, Marist, Winthrop, DePaul, Rhode Island, Alabama A&M, Iona, Youngstown State, and my 11-year-old Celtics team from the Penick Boys Club.
It was awful. Just as the SEC gets all the world's benefit of the doubt in football, the league gets absolutely none of it in basketball. The league needs to win some games in November and December. Most of them are playing at least a couple of road games and a Maui-style tournament. There will be opportunities to win back a shred of dignity.
The most important SEC teams for Arkansas to cheer for are the ones the Hogs play twice, because they'll have a bigger impact on Arkansas' strength of schedule. Those teams are Kentucky, Alabama, LSU, Missouri, and Georgia.
Run the Table in Home Non-Conference Games
No elite teams are visiting Fayetteville this year for non-conference games, so it will be hard for Arkansas to overcome losing to any of the teams that are coming. The Hogs are playing a few decent teams in November and December, but losing to any of them at home will look bad.
Finish Better Than 8th in the SEC
Simply put, if the league's basketball writers are correct, and Arkansas finishes 8th in the league, they won't be making the tournament. In Joe Lunardi's preseason bracketology, he's got 5 SEC teams in the bracket, and two are on his "Last Four In" list.
As far as SEC schedules go, Arkansas has one of the more difficult ones, with 11 of their 18 SEC games coming against the seven teams picked to finish ahead of them. The positive way of looking at that is it will help their schedule strength a little, and they'll have plenty of opportunities to knock of the teams that are expected to be a little better than Arkansas.
It doesn't help in terms of winning a few extra games and getting a higher-seed in the SEC Tournament, but it should help their status for the NCAA Tournament.
Another good schedule break: Arkansas only plays two Thursday night games, and on both occasions, the ensuing Saturday game is at home. That's a treat.
Beat Crappy SEC Teams on the Road
As we all know, this has been Arkansas' albatross the last couple of years. They've only beaten Auburn on the road, and they only play the Tigers in Fayetteville this year, so they'll have to beat somebody else.
Just like last year, the team opens SEC play in College Station against A&M. These are the types of games Arkansas too-frequently didn't show up for over the last two years, and definitely didn't against the Aggies. But that opener is even more vital this season than last because the Hogs' next couple of games this year are against Kentucky and Florida at home, followed by another couple of road games against Georgia and Tennessee.
Bud Walton magic made Arkansas undefeated in SEC play last year, but if the Wildcats and Gators play to expectations this season, it will be very difficult for Arkansas to win either of those games. Starting out 0-3 isn't hard to see if they lose that first game to the Aggies, and 0-5 if they haven't shaken their road woes and lose those games to Georgia and Tennessee.
Arkansas has road games against A&M, Georgia, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State. All those teams are expected to finish beneath the Razorbacks, so those are games the Hogs have to win. They can lose in Lexington or Knoxville, but they need a few road wins, and those are the most likely wins on the schedule.
In short, no bad losses. That's the key to avoid. That's what kept them out of the postseason last year.
Win Games In The SEC Tournament
After making it to the championship game in 2007 and 2008, the Razorbacks are 0-6 in their last six SEC Tournament games. Too often, it's felt like the team has given up by the end of the season (remember Marshawn Powell and BJ Young held out of the starting lineup of the last home game last year) and haven't put in much of an effort at the tournament. That has to stop. The team must develop the mentality of starting fresh in March, not just going home.
If Arkansas finishes 5th or 6th in the regular season, they'll open tournament play on Thursday against a team that had to play on Wednesday. If they can find a way to finish in the top four, they'll open on Friday against a team that played at least the day before, possibly both of the two days before. That could be a big advantage for a team that plays as fast as Arkansas. The Razorbacks will likely have to finish in the top 6 in the regular season to have any chance of an at-large bid, and sixth is stretching it.
How do they do all this?
After watching both exhibition games and the Red-White Game, I think they have a legitimate shot.
None of the returning players averaged more than 7.6 points per game last year, but I think several players will see significant increases in that regard.
The most consistent scorers should be Coty Clarke (7.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg in 2012) and Anthlon Bell (4.4 ppg). I think both of these players will average double figures in scoring. Bell only averaged 9.2 minutes per game last year. He could triple that this year. He may average three 3s per game. There'll probably be a few nights this year when he gets hot and knocks down shot after shot.
Bobby Portis and Alandise Harris will be fan favorites this year. Combined, they should increase, or at least be comparable to, the scoring void left by Powell (14.5 ppg) and will blow away his rebounding production (5.4 rpg). Portis, Harris, and Clarke will make this the best rebounding Hog team in several years. Portis is also a very good passer out of the post, and led the team in assists in the second exhibition game with 6.
Obviously, you'd like to hope Rashad Madden can be that fifth piece of a pretty solid first wave of players. Since he was suspended from the exhibition games, it's hard to say what exactly his role will be. You'd like to hope he can increase his stat line across the board (4.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg, and 1.8 apg). The potential is definitely there for him to do that.
Don't know what to expect from Mardracus Wade. Wade looked really solid in the scrimmage and first exhibition game, but had a brutal night in the second game. Wade shot just 29% from three last year, if he can get back up to about 35% and increase his scoring average from 6.5 to 9 or 10 (it was 10.2 in his sophomore season), that will do a lot for the team.
There's also reason to expect better shooting from Michael Qualls and Jacorey Williams. They're both still long and athletic, and Qualls still loves to fly to the rim as much as possible, but both have improved an jump shot. You don't want them shooting too many long jumpers in games, but they do have the talent to knock down a few shots. Fred Gulley has developed a better shot as well.
In short, I do think this team can be better than the last couple of Razorback teams, and fans should be excited to see the improvement in players from last year. There is potential to get to the NCAA Tournament. It won't be easy, and some things that they can't control will likely have to go their way, but they do have a shot.
Tipoff is tonight. It's okay to be excited.