LITTLE ROCK — One-third of the way through the SEC basketball schedule and the separation of the first five teams is much more dramatic than it might appear.
On the surface, the race for a top-four finish and a likely NCAA Tournament berth appears wide open with third and 13th separated by two games. A closer look says Arkansas at 3-3 and the seven teams at 2-4 are in a world of hurt.
Before breaking down the schedule, a couple of points:
• Florida is the cream of the 14, capable of going deep in the NCAA. SEC opposition might enhance the perception of Florida and losing a couple of conference games would not be a surprise; not winning the regular season would.
• So far, Kentucky struggling regularly just to get to 4-2 is the biggest surprise, ahead of Mississippi’s 6-0 start. At home Saturday, the Wildcats had a half-dozen more turnovers than LSU and made 2-of-11 threes vs. LSU’s 8-of-20 in a five-point victory over the woeful Tigers.
With a dozen conference games remaining, it is unlikely the Razorbacks can catch at least two of the teams ahead of them to be considered for the NCAA. At 3-3, Arkansas is one game back of Missouri, Kentucky, and Alabama, and has the most daunting schedule of any of the six teams at .500 or better.
The one game-at-a-time mantra is in play for coaches and players, but sportswriters are exempt so let’s consider the next six weeks:
• Arkansas still has a home and home with both Florida and Missouri. Notoriously inept on the road, Arkansas plays at Alabama on Thursday night. The Razorbacks also have a game against Kentucky, albeit in Fayetteville.
I thought Arkansas had an excellent chance for 2-0 last week, but when the opponent stops turning the ball over, the Razorbacks’ offense dries up as it did at South Carolina. When Mississippi State committed almost 30 turnovers early in the week, Arkansas looked like a world beater. In victories over Vanderbilt and Auburn, Arkansas had 20 fewer turnovers than opponents.
Not only did South Carolina take care of the ball after the opening 5 minutes, the poor-shooting Gamecocks inexplicably made 7-of-10 threes in the first half. At one point, the Razorbacks made 1-of-15 field goal attempts. They finished 2-of-16 from long range.
Coach Mike Anderson says Arkansas needs a third and fourth scorer, but that is predicated on 15 or more points each from Marshawn Powell and B.J. Young. At Columbia, Young had a grand total of two when it was 62-43.
• Ole Miss has single games with Kentucky, Florida, Alabama, and Missouri and two of those are in Oxford. Otherwise, the Rebels have games against six teams that are 2-4, plus a game vs. 1-5 LSU.
• Missouri (4-2) is in excellent position, considering senior Laurence Bowers, who was averaging almost 17 points per game, is ready to return to the lineup after missing five games. The Tigers have one game each against Ole Miss, Florida, Kentucky, two games with Arkansas and LSU.
• Kentucky (4-2) has a home and home with Florida, a game at Ole Miss tonight, and a home game vs. Missouri. The Wildcats also have a game with all of the 2-4 teams.
• Alabama (4-2) has completed play against both Kentucky and Missouri and has only one game vs. Florida and one vs. Mississippi. The Crimson Tide’s remaining two-games series are against Georgia, Auburn, and LSU.
You can argue about which of the 4-2 teams has the easiest road to a top four finish in the SEC, but it is indisputable that Arkansas’ schedule is more difficult than any of the teams the Razorbacks are chasing.
Nine-nine is a stretch and that from somebody who thought 10-8 was possible before SEC play began.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.