FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Mike Anderson’s team was in big trouble after its 88-74 loss at LSU at the beginning of the month.
The Razorbacks fell to 2-6 in Southeastern Conference play. They were teetering dangerously close to the conference cellar. But Arkansas has clawed out and now finds itself in an interesting position with two weeks left in the regular season.
Arkansas, which won for the fifth time in six games with a 73-69 victory at Mississippi Ste last Saturday, has climbed to .500 in conference play. It also moved the Razorbacks (18-9, 7-7) into a seven-way tie for fourth place in the SEC standings, setting up an interesting scramble to the finish line.
“All games are big and they just got bigger,” Anderson said Monday.
The seven-way tie means Arkansas, LSU, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Missouri all remain in the hunt for a double bye in the SEC Tournament. Four teams (seeds 11-14) open SEC Tournament play on Wednesday, while six (seeds 5-10) begin Thursday. The top four finishers don’t start until Friday.
Florida and Kentucky will take two of the top spots. Georgia, which sits third in the conference standings at 9-5, is on its way to securing one as well. So the seven teams that are 7-7 in the standings could be left fighting for the final double bye.
Its importance is clear: the team that grabs the double bye would only need three victories to win the SEC Tournament and secure the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The rest would need four wins or more to make it.
“I think it’s important to try to be one of those top four teams to put yourself in that position,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “That’s going to be extremely difficult, but that’s what it should be about. We only have four games left to do it, and there will certainly be challenges out there. But it gives you can opportunity to keep your team motivated and keep pushing the right thing.”
Arkansas has worked its way into the conversation by going 5-1 since the Feb. 1 loss to LSU. The string of success has been possible because of Arkansas’ improvement on the road, winning at Vanderbilt and Mississippi State during the stretch.
“We’ve been playing real good,” Arkansas guard Anthlon Bell said after scoring a game-high 19 points in the win at Mississippi State. “The defense is helping stay in games, especially on the road. We know offense comes and go, but if we stick with our defense, we’ll always have a chance to win.”
The next test will be a stiff challenge, though. Arkansas will play Kentucky (21-6, 11-3 in SEC) in Rupp Arena, where the Wildcats are 15-1 this season.
It’s part of a remaining schedule that ranks as the third toughest among the teams tied for the fourth spot in the SEC standings. The four opponents - Kentucky, Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama - are a combined 32-24 in conference games.
LSU faces the toughest road with its remaining opponents 37-19. Vanderbilt is next at 35-21. Both play top-ranked Florida, which is 14-0 in SEC games.
Tennessee has the easiest path on paper. Its opponents are 21-35 in SEC play and the stretch includes games against Mississippi State (3-11) and Auburn (4-10).
“Somebody’s got to win some games here in the next two weeks to separate yourself,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “Somebody’s got a chance here in the last two weeks to probably get some separation. … Somebody is going to be in that fourth spot. Right now, that’s what people are fighting for.”
Arkansas couldn’t imagine being part of that conversation in early February.
But the Razorbacks are surging late in the season, giving them plenty to play for over the final two weeks of the regular season.
“It’s going to make it interesting going down the stretch with four games to go,” Anderson said. “Could anyone have foreseen this thing in play? Not really. But it just shows you with the game of basketball that anything is possible.”