‘We’ve proven that we’re an NCAA Tournament team’

Despite the Arkansas Razorbacks (19-12, 8-10) losing three straight to close out their regular season, including an 88-79 loss to No. 23 Kentucky on Saturday, head coach Eric Musselman remained confident in his team’s ability to make a run entering postseason play.

Arkansas will enter the SEC Tournament as the 10-seed and it will take on 7-seed Auburn on Thursday at 6 p.m. CT inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Arena.

A trio of defeats against Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky (all Quadrant 1 teams) were not exactly how the team drew it up, and freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. said it definitely hurt the Hogs’ confidence.

“Losing three in a row, you know, that takes a toll on confidence for our team,” Smith said after Saturday’s loss. “But as a leader, I’ve got to come out ready to practice and tell the guys the season’s not over. We’ve just got to come ready to play Wednesday.”

Although the Hogs finished the regular season losing five of their last seven, the metrics are still strong and they remain a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas ranks No. 18 in the NET, No. 19 on KenPom, No. 14 on ESPN BPI and its strength of record is No. 43.

The Razorbacks played a tough non-conference schedule and dropped just two of those games to Creighton at the Maui Invitational and to Baylor in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge — both losses were by three points.

“The regular season is now over and I thought we did an incredible job, when you think about our win-loss record and you think about the metrics and you think about the non-conference and you think about the success of the teams that we did beat in non-conference play, yes, we feel confident that we’re an NCAA Tournament team,” Musselman said Saturday.

Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracketology has Arkansas as a 9-seed facing off against 8-seed Illinois in Denver during the first round of the NCAA Tournament. A loss to Auburn, which Lundardi has as a bubble team, Thursday could shake things up a bit depending on how the game plays out, but the Hogs would likely still have a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Even though his team is practically limping into postseason play, Musselman seemed to still be confident that they can get things figured out. If anyone can make a statement like that, it’s the coach that has led back-to-back teams to the Elite Eight.

“We did a great job, I mentioned the other day, in our non-conference play and we’re still a team that, if we play better basketball, which I think we can … we’ve got to start doing it,” Musselman said. “I thought we played well at Alabama. Did not think we played well at Tennessee and I did not think we played well again tonight. We’ve got to improve for sure.”

Obviously metrics don’t always tell the whole story, but this Arkansas team is one that has shown flashes that it can beat just about anyone in the country if they figure out how to not get “out-physicalled” like they did the past two games. Recency bias makes most hesitant to believe that the Hogs even deserve to even be in the NCAA Tournament, but the overall resume says they should be.

Arkansas and Auburn will tipoff at 6 p.m. CT Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in the SEC Tournament. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.

Below is the full bracket for the 2023 SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament…