The hoop Hogs may have played 11 games, officially starting with a mid-November tune-up against Alabama State and capping non-conference play with a Saturday tune-up against Utah Valley.
But for the newly reminted top 25 Razorbacks, the season essentially begins tonight in Athens, Georgia. And Stegeman Coliseum, with its often empty seats, generally mediocre basketball and acutely apathetic fans, can seemingly suck the life out of high-energy teams like Arkansas.
Stegeman, like its counterparts in Oxford and Auburn, lingers in the collective Razorback consciousness like a city dump: A place necessary to visit on occasion but one from which it’s a chore to leave smelling good.
We never seem to play well at Georgia, and our 4-8 all-time record in Athens (actually not as bad as I’d believed it to be) is testament. But really, it doesn’t matter where we play Georgia, and early in our SEC lives we seemed to play them in the conference tourney every year, a battle ensues when we do. While we lead the overall basketball series 18-14, we’re just 7-10 against UGA since 2002.
Georgia fans’ abject apathy towards basketball makes it easy to forget that the Dawgs under Mark Fox are getting better, having finished third in the SEC last year and going 9-3 thus far this season including a noteworthy win in the Little Apple on New Year’s Eve over K-State. UGA is undefeated at Stegeman and its losses are not bad ones: Georgia Tech, Minnesota, top 10 Gonzaga. All were competitive.
The Dawgs, as Doc points out, are a projected tourney team.
The Hogs, meanwhile, back in the rankings at 23, spent the remainder of the holidays snacking on Northwestern State and Utah Valley, the Demons providing a surprising push in a Hog defensive sleepwalk. The D returned against hapless Utah Valley, last year’s WAC champion but this year rebuilding and on Saturday without one of its best players.
The Hogs will need to lean on that D tonight in Athens, where points and most certainly rebounds will be harder to come by than they’ve been in a while.
Overcoming our recent history of slow SEC starts including befuddlement at Georgia – our own version of GroundHog Day – most likely will require an ugly win, perhaps all that’s possible in Athens. The past decade has seen us start out 11-2 or therebouts in November and December, lay road eggs to open league play and limp to mostly sub-par SEC marks that kept us home in March.
Last year, it sure seemed like we’d written a new script: Three road wins, a sweep of the Texas of SEC basketball in Kentucky…
....Until Bama and Sub Carolina in successive games sent us back to Punxsutawney and on to the NIT in a hurry.
The road monkey wasn’t slain in 2014 wins at UK, Vandy and Mississippi State but maybe just injured, this season bested in an impressive November win at SMU but howling again at Ames and Clemson.
Coming off the K-State win, Georgia may now represent a good loss. Perhaps. One thing’s for sure – 10-8 will put us on the bubble at best. It’s gonna take 12 or 13 league wins to dance. And that'll mean several road wins.
Starting tonight, it’s a new season; a win would set us up for a fast SEC start. A loss, and well, let's just hope they’re not showing GroundHog Day in Athens.