By Nate Allen
Special to the News-Times
FAYETTEVILLE - Neither the Arkansas Razorbacks nor Missouri Tigers can win the SEC season’s championship.
Yet both are far from merely playing out the string in today’s regular season finale tipping off at 5 p.m. on ESPN2 from Missouri’s Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo.
Both coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks, 21-9 overall and 10-7 tied for third with Florida and Kentucky in the SEC, and coach Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers, 19-11, and 9-8 tied with Mississippi State a game back of Arkansas, Kentucky and Florida, aspire to be in the NCAA Tournament and more immediately improve their seeding for next week’s SEC Tournament running Wednesday through Sunday in St. Louis.
Arkansas, with a 65-63 victory over Missouri in hand back on Jan. 13 at Walton Arena, obviously stands in better NCAA Tournament standing, particularly after Tuesday night beating nationally No. 14 SEC leading Auburn, 91-82 at Walton avenging a Jan. 6 loss to Auburn in Auburn, Ala.
Still, the Razorbacks conceivably could stumble towards the NCAA Tournament bid bubble with a loss to Mizzou and a one-and-done SEC Tournament.
Mizzou might need to go deep into the SEC Tournament to garner a NCAA bid if it can’t hold serve at home against Arkansas.
“It’s a lot at stake in this particular game,” Anderson said. “It’s a big game in a lot of ways for them and for us as well. What this game represents is an opportunity to go out and put ourselves in pretty good position in terms of the seedings for the SEC Tournament.”
Anderson seldom mentions the NCAA Tournament unless asked.
He says that’s always understood to be the ultimate goal to qualify and advance in the Big Dance.
To do that, he says, inevitably hinges on a team playing its best ball marching into March.
So he sees Saturday in Columbia as the next step building off last week’s 76-73 SEC success at Alabama and Tuesday’s triumph over Auburn.
“It’s an opportunity for us to continue to get better,” Anderson said of this clash in Columbia. “And that’s all I talk about with our guys. ‘Let’s get better!'”
Anderson explained both his team and Martin’s Tigers are better than when they met five games into the SEC season in Fayetteville.
“I think both have gotten better playing through the rigors of the SEC and on the road,” Anderson said.
“They’ve had some guys that they’ve lost, and it’s amazing how sometimes when you have subtraction you have addition. Because you have some guys that step up to the plate.”
Mizzou’s biggest loss, 6-10 Michael Porter, probably the nation’s most heralded 2017-2018 freshman signee, hasn’t played since injuring his back two minutes into the season opener. Porter has been cleared to practice and possibly could play against Arkansas, Martin said. But it wasn’t so much Porter’s presence, but his absence that Anderson discussed in the emergence of graduate transfer guard Kassius Robertson, 16.6 points, and senior forward Jordan Barnett, 13.9 average and 10 rebounds against Arkansas, and junior guard Jordan Geist, not always a starter but always a player often logging more minutes than most starters.
Robertson, scoring 26 against Arkansas in Fayetteville, and Barnett, a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in Fayetteville, will be honored on Mizzou’s Senior Night.
Anderson lauded all three and said “the big kid, (6-10 Mizzou freshman Jeremiah) Tilmon is playing pretty good here lately.”
So is Jontay Porter, Michael’s 6-11 brother who is averaging 9.5 points and strong on the boards with 6.7 rebounds and adept at shooting threes.
Anderson calls Kevin Puryear, formerly a Mizzou starter, “a blue-collar guy” off the bench.
Arkansas plays better, too.
Though still effective with eight rebounds and six assists, Arkansas senior guard Daryl Macon, 18.4 scoring average in 17 SEC games, in only one SEC game scored less than the eight he scored against Mizzou in Fayetteville.
Fellow senior scoring guard Jaylen Barford, 18.5 in SEC games, never again has committed six turnovers like he did while scoring 13 against Mizzou.
Arkansas 6-11 freshman Daniel Gafford of El Dorado played big against Mizzou, 15 points, six rebounds and a shot block, but has played even bigger since. Gafford scored 21 points with 10 boards and blocked seven shots against Auburn last Tuesday.
Arkansas’ biggest difference seems its bench, a key component in the Razorbacks winning six of their last seven.