Time to admit it: Arkansas is NCAA tournament good

Eric Bolin

With your bacon, have some Hogs for Breakfast. It’s SEC Country’s weekday column and roundup on all things Arkansas. Opinion, numbers, inane babble and more! And now with ironic exclamation points. There is no place like it on the Web.

The phrase goes: Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends.

That axiom defines Arkansas’ basketball season. I’m not using it to talk about myself. No, this is all about Mike Anderson’s team. The naysayers and haters and would-be Anderson terminators are a touch quieter this morning. His team looked more like the team it had been through January on Wednesday night.

An 83-76 win against South Carolina provided Arkansas with several things. Those who proclaimed the Razorbacks didn’t deserve an NCAA tournament bid because they didn’t have an “elite” win can no longer go there. Arkansas is now, by the way, 8-5 against teams in the top 100 in RPI. Each of its final five games of the season come against such teams as well.

And that means Arkansas, while now relatively “safe” (but still on the bubble), can either play itself easily into or out of the Big Dance. Win the games it’s supposed to and this team is back where it’s been — again — through January: a 9 seed or so.

In statistics they call that progression toward the mean; the adjustment of tendencies to revert to where they had most commonly been. Losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt were the outliers of the Arkansas season. Too many people had incorrectly claimed they were the standard.

Now, Arkansas should find itself inside the NCAA tournament projections that come out later this week. ESPN, USA Today and Fox Sports already had the Razorbacks in. CBS Sports was the holdout. Expect that no more.

“For some reason, I thought some things smiled on us today. When you think about the plays going down the stretch, it doesn’t surprise me because we put ourselves in the position,” Anderson said. “We were fortunate.”

Arkansas isn’t a lock for the NCAA tournament. But that’s because too many games are left on the schedule, not because Arkansas is, as someone told me earlier this week, “bad enough to lose every game left.” It’s more like every team remaining on the schedule is good enough to beat Arkansas. Anderson himself knew there was a little luck on Wednesday.

After Wednesday, though, we know Arkansas is good enough to beat any team it has left, too.

This is getting fun, huh?

Mixing politics and sports in Arkansas

Here at SEC Country we don’t always #sticktosports.

As a boy, I was handed some good advice. It was the sort of advice you don’t understand at the time. When you’re older, though, we all encounter this moment when the lessons of that advice hit us. Talking to friends, it appears common advice in Arkansas.

Politics. Religion. Sports. You’ll never change anyone’s mind about those three things. But you know what else? You can have your say in all three, no matter what anyone else thinks.

So, this is your chance. Sort of.

Arkansas-Bret Bielema

We’ve unveiled our first-ever Approval Rating for Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. The idea is that you’ll be able to vote at various periods throughout the year. Right now, mid-February, are you more pro Bielema or anti? That’s the question. You have to vote inside the linked story.

SEC Country: Fair. Balanced. We propose. You decide.

Or something.

How about a Thursday night inside War Memorial?

Arkansas will open its football season this fall against Florida A&M. That much hasn’t changed.

What has is the game date. Instead of a Saturday in Little Rock, the game will be a prime-time affair on a Thursday. The game had been scheduled for 2 p.m. Sept. 2. Now, it’s 7 p.m. Aug. 31. The game is the first Thursday night season opener since 2001 against UNLV (a game I personally remember vividly from my high school days). It’s the first Thursday game, period, since Arkansas beat South Carolina in 2003.

“I was excited about the possibility when the SEC offered the opportunity and I think it’s a great way for our fans to kick off the season and the holiday weekend,” athletic director Jeff Long said in a release.

The response was largely positive, though some saw it as just the latest sign in what they believe is an ultimate removal of games from Little Rock in the near future.

Call me crazy, but I’ve said this before: Long knows what he’s doing. He always has the best interest in the athletic department top of mind. He may not always dig what he does, but the man is awfully good at his job. This move to Thursday just feels like a boon.

Paying $1.5M for a win

The most common phrase for these things is a “buy game.” They’re the sort of college football matchups that are so uneven the bigger school pays the smaller one loads of cash just to come out and play.

Well, Arkansas is doling out $1.5 million to San Jose State for the two schools’ football game in 2019, according to Andrew Hutchinson of 247Sports. The game is scheduled for Sept. 21, though it’s not yet determined whether it will be in Fayetteville or Little Rock (smart money is on Fayetteville because Arkansas also plays FCS school Portland State earlier in the season).

The Razorbacks also have Colorado State at home that season. The only opponent currently on the nonconference schedule for next season is North Texas on Sept. 15, 2018, in Fayetteville.

Prepping for opener

One more sleep, folks, until Diamond Hogs baseball.

Arkansas opens its season Friday at 3 p.m. against Miami (Ohio), one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference. Last season, Arkansas opened against Central Michigan from the same conference.

Sophomore right-hander Blaine Knight will start Friday and junior college transfer Trevor Stephan will get the ball for Game 2 on Saturday. Most of the lineup is set, too, if not the batting order.

Jared Gates is out for several weeks after having surgery on his right hand, a hand he broke during scrimmages last weekend. He was going to start at either first or third base. Chad Spanberger, who would start at the other corner, will maintain and be at first while Hunter Wilson, another JUCO transfer, will go at third, coach Dave Van Horn said.

The outfield will be as predicted — some combination of Luke Bonfield, Dominic Fletcher, Jake Arledge and Eric Cole, with one DHing.

The trick, though, is the pitching. Arkansas was near the bottom of the SEC in several categories pitching-wise last season. The Razorbacks ultimately finished last in the conference standings. Accordingly, they’re all ready to go ahead and get this season going, shedding those old memories.

“Just the opportunity to get out and play and play somebody else,” Van Horn said. “Always as a coach, you wonder if you’re going to be ready. The main thing is we play well, see what we need to work on.”