LITTLE ROCK — Saving the sparse Southern Mississippi morsels for Saturday morning provided a window for review of the schedule of an Arkansas basketball team on the spot to make the postseason in Mike Anderson’s third season.
To get to the NCAA Tournament, the Razorbacks must do no worse than 11-2 in the non-conference or go at least 12-6 in the Southeastern Conference. Even then, Arkansas couldn’t afford a one and done in the SEC Tournament. The non-conference record comes down to sweeping Fayetteville games against Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference and SMU under legendary coach Larry Brown, plus winning a game or two in Maui.
In the SEC, Arkansas is one of five teams with a home-and-home against Kentucky, touted as a contender for the national championship ever since John Calipari signed five players ranked in the ESPN.com’s top 10. The Wildcats are so loaded that Alex Poythress, who averaged more than 25 minutes per game as a freshman, might be a sub.
Always a contender under Billy Donovan, Florida also has two games with the Wildcats. Other than that, Kentucky will double dip against LSU, Mississippi, and Mississippi State.
If Kentucky eased into the 2013-14 season, getting the Wildcats in Fayetteville in the third conference game of the season might be a good thing. Instead, Kentucky’s non-conference schedule is rated a 10 by ESPN with the notation, "Is there a rating higher than 10?" The Wildcats have Michigan State in Chicago in early November, play at North Carolina in mid-December, and take on defending national champion Louisville on _Dec. 28. Baylor and Boise State, both likely to be in the preseason top 25, are also on the schedule.
By the time the Wildcats arrive in Fayetteville, they will be learned in the ways of college basketball.
For Arkansas, the Kentucky game is in the middle of five games that includes trips to Texas A&M, Georgia, and Tennessee. A&M lost two of its best, Elston Turner and Ray Turner, and Georgia will sorely miss Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but there is something about the home court in basketball. Jarnell Stokes, Trae Golden, and Jordan McRae each averaged more than 12 points per game last year and the Vols could improve on their 11-7 SEC record.
Three days prior to Kentucky, Arkansas is home against Florida, the only other SEC team with a non-conference schedule rated a 10 by ESPN. Florida has road games against UConn and Wisconsin, plus Kansas in Gainesville, and Memphis in New York. The SEC champion in 2013, Florida will contend again. The immediate negative is that 6-foot-10 Chris Walker, the biggest name in the Gators’ 2013 recruiting class, did not enroll for the fall semester.
Somehow, Arkansas needs to start at least 2-3 in the SEC. After that, the Razorbacks play three of their next four at home against teams lesser than Kentucky and Florida and a 5-4 record halfway through the conference schedule, on top of an 11-2 start, would put Arkansas in position to make a run at postseason play.
The Razorbacks have been to the NCAA Tournament only three times in the last 12 years, failures that contributed to the push-back athletics director Jeff Long has received while trying to raise funds for a $20-$25 million basketball practice facility on campus. "I’ve never had a facility that I’ve gotten more resistance about in a fan base than I have this basketball practice facility," Long said last week.
Arkansas is at a recruiting disadvantage, he said, because the other 13 schools in the SEC have such facilities, leading to a clear-cut basketball version of the chicken or the egg debate. Anderson needs new recruits Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley to help Arkansas win immediately to convince donors to contribute to a facility to attract other recruits.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.