I believe Arkansas is a better team than Tennessee and Ole Miss. The Razorbacks were favored to win both games. I'll never tell fans not to be upset with losing games the Hogs should win.
I think that's why winning 7 games in football this year has everybody so excited. They surpassed expectations, and closed the season winning three of four games. That was not what most people thought would happen.
The expectations for the basketball team were very different. While no one expected Arkansas to be a Final Four type of team, most people expected the Hogs not to have too much trouble in SEC play because the SEC would once again be a pretty bad league. Several people openly expected Arkansas to go undefeated at home and because the SEC would be so bad, the Hogs wouldn't be able to afford any mistakes throughout the season. Other than the one game at Kentucky, there wouldn't be a chance for a true resume-building win.
#SECBasketballFever and all.
I'm here to face up: everybody who said those things - and I said some of them if not all of them at some point - was wrong.
Kentucky is clearly the class of the league and the nation this year and is the only real threat to compete for a national championship from the league, but the rest of the league (save for the league's worst teams) is much better. The league did much better in non-conference play and as a result, the Razorbacks are on much steadier ground.
Only four teams in the league have RPIs over 100. Georgia's RPI last year was 76 even though they finished 3rd in the league. Right now they're 26th. Ole Miss was 93rd last year and right now (thanks in part to their win at Arkansas) they're 43rd. LSU was 80th and now they're 50th. Texas A&M is 40th. South Carolina is 98th.
For the last several years, Arkansas fans have lived life on the bubble. Every game had potential to eliminate the Hogs from the tournament or at the very least, keep them within a chance of making the tournament.
It's not that way this year. RPIs are fluid as the season goes on but the Razorbacks built some substantial capital by defeating SMU and Georgia on the road. Both are top 30 teams at the moment and a big part of why the two losses last week didn't hurt the Hogs too much.
Look at the differences in resumes. Last year, Arkansas strength of schedule was 98. At this point this season it's 48. The non-conference schedule ranked a dreadful 199th last year. It was 74th this season. Arkansas already has as many top 50 wins this year (3) as they did all season last year, and potentially have five more opportunities left on this year's schedule before the SEC Tournament. Last year Arkansas lost 11 games to teams with top 150 RPI rankings. They've only done so 4 times this year, and might have to go 3-7 against the rest of the SEC (save Mississippi State and Missouri) to match that number (hopefully they won't).
Obviously, yes, Arkansas does have to get back to winning. There's still plenty of work to do to ensure the Hogs get in the NCAA Tournament and earn a decent (7 or better) seed. And there are still some chances for bad losses that could make things get really ugly. But we're not there yet.
That being said, there is one really big red flag we have to address. It's been mentioned before but we have to go into more detail. We've got to talk about this defense thing.
In the immediate recap/fallout post from the Ole Miss game, I wrote that Arkansas' basketball teams under Mike Anderson haven't been very good defensive teams. That's not totally fair.
Arkansas has had some decent defenses in his four seasons in Fayetteville but they've all had some flaw. The 2013 group finished 3rd in the SEC in defensive efficiency counting only conference games (but they were dead last in the conference in three point percentage allowed). Last year's team was 6th in the league in efficiency (but last in defensive rebounding percentage).
Efficiency is measured by points per 100 possessions, so whereas points per game can be skewed by teams playing varying tempos, measuring by possession theoretically provides a more accurate look at a team's performance.
What we weren't wrong about is that Arkansas' defense has been downright putrid this season. It's not just the Ole Miss game. Through four conference games, Arkansas is at the rock bottom of the SEC in the following categories:
- Defensive efficiency at 113.8 points allowed per 100 possessions,
- Effective field goal percentage against at 58%,
- Defensive rebounding percentage by allowing offensive rebounds on 39.3% of opportunities
- Three-point percentage, allowing 46.8%
- and next-to-last in two-point percentage allowed at 53%
The Razorbacks are 2nd in the league in forcing turnovers, so basically, if the Hogs can't come up with a turnover - which they've done 23% of the time this season, the opponent has a better than 50% chance of scoring. That's not good.
Granted, we're just talking about a 4-game stretch here, and the cumulative numbers for the entire season are much better when all put together, which should be expected given the group of RPI 200+ teams the Hogs played in non-conference.
Especially troublesome is that we all know this is supposed to be Anderson's best team, made up of his players, and the one he touted throughout the offseason. There's still plenty of time left this season to make it a really special year, but some of those defensive issues must be fixed quickly because while Ole Miss and Tennessee are both probably better than most people perceive, they're also not world-beaters.
The Razorbacks are still rated higher than just about everybody in the conference. They'll continue to be favored in most of the games they play, like both games this week. Last week wasn't cause to panic, but it sure didn't make anybody feel comfortable either.
This isn't football. Teams aren't judged so harshly on a game-by-game basis. The selection committee seems to do a better job of looking at overall resumes at the end of the year instead of what happened in the two or three most recent games. That being said, they can't mess around and lose too many of these games. Most of these teams aren't as bad as we thought. Alabama nearly knocked off Wichita State in Wichita. They'll come in ready. There's no reason to panic yet. Concern, yes, but not panic.