A *lot* has changed since Auburn and Arkansas last played each other.
The Razorbacks weren't at full strength back in January, and they're still a top 20 team in the NET. But the Tigers aren't the same, either.
C Johni Broome (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Remember Auburn basketball’s win over Arkansas this season?
Like, really remember it?
It’s understandable if you didn’t. It happened back on Jan. 7, a late Saturday night tipoff. For both teams, it was only the third SEC game of the season.
When the Tigers and the Razorbacks cross paths again Thursday evening at the SEC Tournament in Nashville, it will have been more than two months since their last meeting. Both teams have played 15 more games.
Fresh off a disappointing road loss at Georgia, Auburn jumped out to an early lead on Arkansas and never trailed in a 72-59 victory. Wendell Green Jr. went 5-8 from the floor and 7-9 from the line to lead the Tigers with 19 points. Allen Flanigan, the Arkansas native, had 18 points and eight boards, while Johni Broome posted a 10-10 double-double with six blocks.
It would be natural to think that Auburn’s wire-to-wire win in its only other meeting with Arkansas this season would be a good sign for the Tigers heading into the postseason. And it would be natural to see Arkansas’ 8-10 record in SEC play and assume that Auburn would be a favorite on a neutral floor.
Right off a regular-season finale win over Tennessee that Auburn really needed to have to solidify its March Madness hopes, it faces another difficult matchup — despite the fact that the Tigers held onto a top-half finish in the conference standings.
“Now the reward for such a job well done is we get to play the 18th-best team in the country, according to the NET,” Bruce Pearl said Tuesday. “Arkansas is seeded 10th in the SEC tournament, but based on the NET, they're the 18th (best) seed in the NCAA tournament.
“You go figure that one. What a great reward.”
Take whatever you might have learned from Auburn’s win over Arkansas more than two months ago and cast it all aside. Postseason basketball is already a different beast altogether, and it’s clear that these Razorbacks are different than the ones that came to the Plains in early January.
And that’s even with a losing skid to end the regular season. Arkansas lost five out of its first six games in SEC play, then reeled off five straight conference wins before dropping five of its last seven. The Razorbacks’ only wins in the past month came at home to a Colin Castleton-less Florida and a crumbling Georgia.
But there Arkansas sits, still at No. 18 in the NCAA’s NET ratings. KenPom rates the Razorbacks as a top-20 team nationally, even with a losing SEC record. ESPN’s BPI rates Arkansas as a top-15 team.
Those numbers aren’t based on what could’ve or should’ve been for an Arkansas team that was predicted to finish No. 2 in the SEC but fell all the way to No. 10. Like Auburn, Arkansas went 3-9 in Quadrant 1 games this season — but its three wins were over San Diego State (No. 16) on a neutral floor, at Kentucky (No. 20) in Rupp Arena and at home against SEC runner-up Texas A&M (No. 23).
“They’re an athletic team,” Broome said Tuesday. “They’ve got a lot of great players, explosive players who can make plays. We’ve got to try to keep them in front and help each other out on the defensive end.”
Auburn was able to hold Arkansas to 59 points earlier this season. But the Razorbacks were without shooting guard Nick Smith, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit for the class of 2022 and a potential lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
Arkansas shot an abysmal 2-16 (12.5%) from deep in the first matchup against Auburn, which decided to play a lot more zone than usual in order to pack the paint and frustrate the ice-cold shooting attack.
Pearl estimates that Auburn has played zone defense around 80 possessions this season, and half of them came against Arkansas. Smith’s return changes that.