LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas at Missouri tonight is one of those rare basketball games where one label is applicable to both teams.
Crossroads is the word. Whether it’s the NCAA for Missouri or the NIT for Arkansas, the winner in Columbia, Mo., will circle the Feb. 13 game as a significant road sign to the postseason.
In the SEC, where there are no divisions and each team plays eight teams once and five teams twice, getting a handle on a particular match-up is easier on the downhill side of the 18-game league schedule. For the Razorbacks and the Tigers, the back half began Saturday with Arkansas winning at Vanderbilt and Missouri losing at Ole Miss.
As a result, both are 4-6. Arkansas has won two in a row, each time with circumstances unlikely to be duplicated at Missouri. The Tigers have lost three straight, a streak that is deceiving because the winners were Florida, Kentucky, and Ole Miss — the two league leaders and a 7-4 team in the thick of the race for third.
Beforehand, at least publicly, neither Mike Anderson nor Frank Haith would define tonight’s game with the same line in the sand that Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy applied after the Rebels’ 91-88 victory over Missouri. Leading by 15 at the half, the Rebels survived in “a game we absolutely had to have,” Kennedy said.
Ditto Anderson and Haith. In other years, the coolness between the two men might be the lead, but not this time. Because of the schedule, Missouri is in position to make a push for the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas is one of five home games for the Tigers who are finished with Florida, Kentucky, and Ole Miss.
Arkansas is a longshot at best for the NCAA, but a victory over Missouri would put the Razorbacks in position for an attention-getting six-game winning streak before heading to Lexington in late February.
A look back at Arkansas-Alabama and Arkansas-Vanderbilt is of little help in anticipating tonight’s outcome. Supposedly comfortable in Walton Arena, Arkansas made 1-of-13 3s against Alabama, part of a woeful 1-of-25 shooting by Razorbacks other than Bobby Portis during Arkansas’ first 35 points. In the strange venue in Nashville, Arkansas was good on 10-of-16 3s although there is not one Razorback shooter who inspires confidence like a Pat Bradley or an Al Dillard or a Rotnei Clarke.
Also inexplicable are the performances of Arkansas’ Michael Qualls and Vanderbilt’s Rod Odom in the final seconds. Qualls’ game winner was part of his 3-of-5 from long range, following 0-of-9 on 3s in three previous road games. Meanwhile, Arkansas somehow lost track of Odom, a 44 percent 3-point shooter, at the other end and he missed an open shot.
Trying to pinpoint one thing, I keep coming back to Arkansas’ chances of slowing Missouri’s three 6-foot-5 guards. The first time around, Jabari Brown and Ross scored 24 each. They made 13-of-25 from the field and all 16 of their free throws. Almost overlooked, the 214-pound Brown and the 228-pound Ross also grabbed 11 rebounds.
From the Arkansas perspective, the scary thing is that Jordan Clarkson, who is averaging almost 19 points per game, scored 11 in the victory.
Preventing those guards from getting the ball in scoring range is the obvious answer to Arkansas’ dilemma and it is encouraging that the Tigers turned the ball over 19 times in Fayetteville. Troubling is that only two fast-break baskets resulted from those turnovers.
In basketball, there is a tendency to over-think things and Missouri guards vs. Arkansas defenders might be an example of such an approach. Winning begins with shooting well. Given that, somebody must make a play in the final minutes.
The lead changed hands 10 times in Fayetteville. Expect something similar.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.