FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Two of the last three years Mike Anderson has led the Arkansas basketball team to the NCAA Tournament. A third appearance, this time in a fourth season, would provide the Razorbacks with their best stretch in more than 20 years.
Easier said than done in 2017-18.
Arkansas must replace its leading scorer in Dusty Hannahs, its leading rebounder and two-time All-SEC Defensive Team player Moses Kingsley and Anderson’s favorite “glue guy” Manny Watkins. The SEC also is more highly thought of than any time in the last 10 years. Usual powerhouses Kentucky and Florida are joined by top 25 teams Texas A&M and Alabama. Missouri has the No. 1 recruit in the nation and a preseason All-American in Michael Porter Jr. Vanderbilt and South Carolina made the Big Dance last year.
The Razorbacks are hardly slouches. The return of guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford plus 6-foot-10 freshman Daniel Gafford give Arkansas plenty of firepower. It’s a matter of how long it takes to come together.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Razorbacks stack up. This is a game-by-game look at the Arkansas schedule and one writer’s predictions on how it all plays out. Some games have explanations.
Let’s put it this way: Things are going to be tenuous. Should make for a fun season.
Samford, Friday, Nov. 10
Bucknell, Sunday, Nov. 12
Fresno State, Friday, Nov. 17
Oklahoma, Thursday, Nov. 23
Arkansas is a bit better than Oklahoma on paper. Every year there is a game on the Razorbacks’ schedule like this one: The Razorbacks are a slightly better team but, for some reason, they play absolutely positively flat and fans panic. It’s going to happen this nonconference season at some point. I say it’s here.
North Carolina/Portland, Friday, Nov. 24
Almost no chance this is North Carolina. Accordingly, working off the assumption Portland loses to the Tar Heels and Arkansas has lost to Oklahoma. If the Razorbacks beat Oklahoma and get a rematch with North Carolina, flip the result of the game on Thursday and this one.
TBA, Sunday, Nov. 26
It’s hard to chalk up a loss in a game in which Arkansas doesn’t know its opponent. Look at the possibilities, though, and two of the four teams the Razorbacks could play are better. One is about the same. If somehow DePaul makes it down this far, this is a “W.”
Houston, Saturday, Dec. 2
Colorado State, Tuesday, Dec. 5
Minnesota, Saturday, Dec. 9
The Gophers are solid, man. Minnesota played seven guys in its rotation last year and return six of them, including its top four scorers. Arkansas lost last year when these two teams played up in Twin Cities, 85-71, a game the Razorbacks were completely flat. Expect Arkansas to play better this year, what with the game at home and everything. Still, Minnesota is a team that has Elite Eight dreams.
Troy, Saturday, Dec. 16
Oral Roberts, Tuesday, Dec. 19
Bakersfield, Wednesday, Dec. 27
Tennessee (Home), Saturday, Dec. 30
Win (10-3, 1-0)
Arkansas’ first SEC game of the season should get the Razorbacks off to a good start. Tennessee was picked 13th in the conference and is coming off a sub-.500 SEC season. Not a lot of individual talent on the roster, but with coach Rick Barnes, the Vols can be scary on the right night. They did beat Kentucky last year in a shocker. Don’t anticipate that against Arkansas.
Miss State (Road), Tuesday, Jan. 2
Loss (10-4, 1-1)
Auburn (Road), Saturday, Jan. 6
Win (11-4, 2-1)
LSU (Home), Wednesday, Jan. 10
Win (12-4, 3-1)
Missouri (Home), Saturday, Jan. 13
Loss (12-5, 3-2)
The Razorbacks should be feeling pretty good entering the basketball version of the Battle Line Rivalry. Likely 3-1, and perhaps even 4-0 depending on how good Mississippi State is, Arkansas and Missouri should grow their underrated good hoops rivalry this season. The Mike Anderson connection has been around for several seasons now, but the Tigers have been down and out pretty much since joining the SEC. Now, with the No. 1 high school recruit in the country, Mizzou looks for a sudden turnaround.
Florida (Road), Wednesday, Jan. 17
Loss (12-6, 3-3)
Ole Miss (Home), Saturday, Jan. 20
Win (13-6, 4-3)
Georgia (Road), Tuesday, Jan. 23
Loss (13-7, 4-4)
The second of a handful of SEC toss-up games for me. Georgia was picked eighth, just two slots behind Arkansas. The Bulldogs aren’t a walkover. Forward Yante Maten might be SEC Player of the Year by the end. Georgia lost the dazzling JJ Frazier but return practically everyone else and have top 50 freshman Rayshaun Hammonds, too. Georgia is powered by its front line, so if it isn’t shooting, Hogs win. If gets even a few, Hogs lose.
Oklahoma State, Saturday, Jan. 27
Texas A&M (Home), Tuesday, Jan. 30
Loss (14-8, 4-5)
LSU (Road), Saturday, Feb. 3
Win (15-8, 5-5)
South Carolina (Home), Tuesday, Feb. 6
Win (16-8, 6-5)
Vanderbilt (Home), Saturday, Feb. 10
Win (17-8, 7-5)
Ole Miss (Road), Tuesday, Feb. 13
Win (18-8, 8-5)
The Razorbacks will have to be feeling pretty fantastic right about now. Good bet they will have won at least four of its last six by the time the Ole Miss game is over. If Arkansas does beat the Rebels — and the rest of the season falls close to projected above — count on the Razorbacks sitting OK at about a No. 9 or No. 10 seed with an 18-8 overall mark and an 8-5 record in the SEC. Thing is …
Texas A&M (Home), Saturday, Feb. 17
Loss (18-9, 8-6)
Kentucky (Home), Tuesday, Feb. 20
Loss (18-10, 8-7)
Alabama (Road), Saturday, Feb. 24
Loss (18-11, 8-8)
Auburn (Home), Tuesday, Feb. 27
Win (19-11, 9-8)
Missouri (Road), Saturday, March 3
Loss (19-12, 9-9)
The final five games on the schedule are horrifically hard. Texas A&M is a dark horse to win the conference. Kentucky is picked to actually win the league. If you’re Arkansas, you’d just as soon play those games on the road and instead get Alabama and Missouri — much more beatable opponents — at home. The schedule doesn’t fall that way, though.
Final tally: 19-12, 9-9
As much as the NCAA Tournament selection committee has tended to take into consideration how teams finish, the final five games of the season scare me for Arkansas’ Big Dance chances. It’s almost not fair because I believe the 2017-18 team to be almost as good as last year’s on paper.
But who knows. There are five games, including four in conference, that I had difficulty selecting before ultimately picking the Razorbacks to lose (vs. Oklahoma, at Mississippi State, vs. Missouri, at Georgia, at Alabama). If Arkansas somehow manages to go 3-2 in those games, the projected 19-12, 9-9 record turns into 22-9, 12-6. Doing that wouldn’t shock me in the least. It would also get the team into the NCAA Tournament.
As good as the SEC is anticipated to be this season, 22-9 and 12-6 gets the Razorbacks into the Dance.
At 19-12 and 9-9, however, get ready to host an NIT game at Bud Walton Arena.
Here’s to hoping I’m wrong for once.