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A truncated 2020-2021 basketball season ended with Arkansas in its best spot in 25 years and it has lead to optimism that hasn’t been witnessed in Fayetteville in that length of time, too.
The Razorbacks were tabbed to finish third in the SEC by the league’s assorted media this year. A year ago, they finished second. No significant drop-off is expected.
But coach Eric Musselman’s team is also breaking in at least six players who weren’t part of the playing roster last year into the rotation. Chemistry takes time and Arkansas’ two exhibition games showed things haven’t completely coalesced yet.
No one suggests the formula is wrong and Arkansas will have an opportunity in November and December to find the balance. The Razorbacks don’t have the same difficulty of a nonconference schedule as they had last year. The front half of the SEC slate isn’t difficult, by league standards, either.
Things will come to a head in February and March, when seven of the team’s final 10 games will be played against teams figured to finish in the top-half of the SEC, which also means those teams will be vying for an NCAA Tournament and/or seeding.
So how is the season going to play out? Here’s Razorbacks Wire editor E. Wayne’s game-by-game predictions.
Arkansas basketball nonconference
Feb 9, 2021; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks forward Connor Vanover (23) blocks a basket by Kentucky Wildcats forward Isaiah Jackson (23) during the first half of the game at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center. Mandatory Credit: Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
You’re going to notice a trend below and it won’t take long to figure it out. This isn’t Arkansas’ nonconference schedule from last year. There are not many games against teams figured to be near the top of their respective lower-tier conference.
Games against Kansas State, Illinois/Cincinnati, and Oklahoma highlight the early-season schedule, but Arkansas is better than all of them.
The tricky one is Illinois. The Fighting Illini were this author’s pick to win the national championship when the NCAA Tournament was announced last year. They lost Ayo Donsunmu, but Kofi Cockburn will be the best player on the court in the tournament.
November 9 – vs Mercer: WIN
November 13 – vs Gardner-Webb: WIN
November 17 – vs Northern Iowa: WIN
November 22 – neutral vs Kansas State: WIN
November 23 – neutral vs Cincinnati or Illinois: WIN if Cincy, LOSS if Illinois
November 28 – vs UPenn: WIN
December 1 – vs Central Arkansas: WIN
December 4 – vs Little Rock: WIN
December 7 – vs Charlotte: WIN
December 11 – vs Oklahoma: WIN
December 18 – vs Hofstra: WIN
December 21 – vs Elon: WIN
Arkansas basketball: First half of SEC and SEC/Big 12 Challenge
South Dakota’s Stanley Umude swats down a shot by South Dakota State’s Matt Dentlinger on Friday, Feb. 5, at Frost Arena in Brookings.
By this point of the season, Musselman should have a solid handle on his rotations, barring injury. Arkansas should continue its winning ways, too, as the early slate is filled with teams predicted to be in the bottom half of the SEC standings.
Truthfully, if the Hogs win the games they should, considering how early they are, they could find themselves well inside the Top 10 by late January or early February.
December 29 – at Mississippi State (8th): WIN
January 4 – vs Vanderbilt (13th): WIN
January 8 – at Texas A&M (12th): WIN
January 12 – vs Missouri (10th): WIN
January 15 – at LSU (6th): LOSS
January 18 – vs South Carolina (11th): WIN
January 22 – vs Texas A&M (12th): WIN
January 26 – at Ole Miss (9th): LOSS
January 29 – vs West Virginia: WIN
The Razorbacks were picked third in the SEC by the league’s assembled media in the preseason. The next closest team in the predictions that Arkansas plays in January is LSU, which is sixth. Winning on the road in the SEC is difficult, though, and putting together an eight-game winning streak in league play is even tougher.
Arkansas basketball: Final stretch of SEC games
Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams (10) heads to the basket while pursued by Tennessee’s Keon Johnson (45) during an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Knoxville, Tenn. (Saul Young/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, Pool)
For Arkansas’ sake, hopefully the Razorbacks enter this stretch at 6-2 or better because the difficult amps. The good news is that with that tougher schedule in the back half of the season, if the Hogs do win several of the games against solid, NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, it will only strengthen their resume and provide for excellent seeding come March.
February 2 – at Georgia (14th): WIN
February 5 – vs Mississippi State (8th): WIN
February 8 – vs Auburn (5th): WIN
February 12 – at Alabama (2nd): LOSS
February 15 – at Missouri (10th): WIN
February 19 – vs Tennessee (4th): WIN
February 22 – at Florida (7th): LOSS
February 26 – vs Kentucky (1st): LOSS
March 2 – vs LSU (6th): WIN
March 5 – at Tennessee (4th): LOSS
If the results hold, Arkansas would finish the regular season at 24-7 and 12-6 in the SEC. Last year, when the Razorbacks reached the Elite Eight, Arkansas was 25-7 and 13-4 and it landed a No. 3 seed.
A repeat performance could be in the cards.