The Razorbacks have one more mid-major non-conference opponent - on the road at Dayton Wednesday night - but the Flyers are easily the best team the Razorbacks have faced this season, and just a few days later, the Hogs will tip off SEC play in College Station against the Aggies, arguably the SEC's second-best team. The big-time part of the season begins now. No more "they're only beating cupcakes" talk.
Now's really the best time to do something of a midseason report. I have a lot of thoughts about this team so I'll try to format this in a way that it doesn't turn into something of a ramble.
Is This Team As Bad As Most People Said It'd Be?
I don't think so. Despite a mediocre-appearing 6-5 record, it's not difficult to argue Arkansas has played better than most expected this season.
If The Team's Not That Bad, Why Are They 6-5?
Well, they're not that great, either. But it seemed like the fear heading into the season would be that the team would be among the worst in Arkansas' modern history, and that's not the case. I don't expect this to be a repeat of that John Pelphrey's infamous 2-win SEC season. We've seen awful. This team isn't awful.
But they're also probably not NCAA Tournament-bound either.
Four of the five losses have come away from Bud Walton Arena, and three of them have been by three points. That's a small enough margin that you could argue if Trey Thompson and Anton Beard had been available all year, the team could be 9-2 or 8-3. The conversation around the team is much different if that's the case.
And none of Arkansas' losses - even the ones to mid-majors - have been to programs so awful that they truly embarrass the league, like the ones we've seen from LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, and others. The only loss to a team ranked outside the KenPom top 100 was Mercer.
So What's The Argument Suggesting They're Not Really That Bad?
The biggest fear coming into the season was how they were going to score points with all that firepower leaving after last season, but that hasn't been an issue. These Hogs are actually scoring more points than last year.
Last season, Arkansas had three players average more than 8 points per game. This year? Five such players.
Other than the Akron game, the team has played absolutely brilliantly at Bud Walton Arena. Arkansas' strength inside their home arena has long been established, but it's more so than usual so far this season. The team has shot over 50% in each game except for Akron, including 40% from three (they've made over 50% three times and once reached 69%).
Like we said in our season preview, if everybody on the roster played at the level they played last year, things would get ugly really quickly. But Mike Anderson and his staff don't get enough credit for developing players, and we're seeing that again this year.
Moses Kingsley has been absolutely fantastic. He's had seven double-doubles in 11 games so far. You could argue he's playing, at least statistically, better than Bobby Portis was at this point last season (Portis had one double-double at this point). He's not shown he's as skilled as Portis. He certainly doesn't have Portis' jump shot, so whether or not he can keep that up in SEC play is a legitimate question he'll have to answer.
Anthlon Bell has embraced a role as a senior leader. So far this season, he's shooting over 45% from three, well beyond his previous season high of 35%. He's also doing a better job than he ever has of playing inside the arc. He's attempted as many two-point shots as threes, something he's never done before, and it's paying off for him.
Dusty Hannahs has been better than many expected, averaging 16.5 points per game and shooting better from three point range than he ever did at Texas Tech.
Jabril Durham has made a drastic improvement. He's on pace to challenge Arkansas' single-season assist record. He's been good enough that Anton Beard wasn't handed a starting spot when he returned to the roster.
Well, Then, What's The Problem?
Quality size, essentially. Last year, four of Arkansas' top five scorers were listed at 6'5" or taller. This year, only Moses Kingsley fits that bill. That means the Hogs rely a lot on jump shooting and easy baskets are harder to come by. That also means they're not getting to the free throw line quite as much.
The other bigs on the team: Keaton Miles, Trey Thompson, and Willy Kouassi, are not serious scoring threats. They've shown flashes of potential at various times, but nobody has consistently stepped up offensively.
The team also doesn't really have a small forward. Jimmy Whitt is the closest thing to that, but at 6'4", he's a bit undersized to be a true swingman. Also, like many true freshmen, Whitt seems to still be figuring out the college game somewhat. He had a great November, scoring in double digits in five of his first six games, but hasn't reached that mark in the team's last five games. He's really a second 2-guard, which is why Arkansas typically plays smaller they'd probably like.
Playing small is always a gamble. The team can be quick and score in bunches, but it usually means giving up some on defense. Arkansas doesn't have anybody as tall and long as Ky Madden or Michael Qualls defending on the perimeter. The team has been as good or better than last year at blocking shots and getting steals, but they've also given up a lot of jump shots - although that has gotten better as the season has gone along. The performance against North Florida was a highlight.
Lack of size is also why missing out on Ted Kapita and losing JaCorey Williams were big deals.
What Should We Expect The Rest Of The Season?
I don't know, honestly.
Of course the competition level is about to be increased, but the team has played so well at home it's hard to see them losing too many games in Bud Walton. If they can keep up their shooting pace, hitting 50% or more of their field goals at home, they should win quite a few games at home. Easier said than done, obviously, but what they've done so far suggests they'll win their share. This will be another season no one wants to come play in Fayetteville.
This three-game stretch is a real opportunity. Road games at Dayton and Texas A&M before hosting Vanderbilt give the Hogs three chances to really see if they can make a statement. They're deserved underdogs in all three games, but if the Hogs get hot, they won't be out of it.
I think Arkansas can win quite a few SEC games. Arkansas gets Missouri, Mississippi State, and Tennessee twice - all of whom could threaten to finish in the bottom four of the league - and also LSU twice and the Tigers have been among the nation's biggest disappointments so far.
It's probably too much to expect a postseason run, but this isn't a team that will go down quietly. They'll make some noise - and hopefully fans will come out to Bud Walton and make noise with them.