For Hogs, The Time Is Right Now

MEMPHIS -Just around the corner from Beale Street, this is the perfect setting for singing the blues, something Arkansas coaches and players may well be doing late this afternoon.

Just three games into Arkansas' Southeastern Conference schedule and it's official: The Razorbacks' rears already are squished firmly against the NCAA Tournament wall.

After a mostly soft (and it's starting to seem like too soft to make a smooth SEC transition) nonconference schedule and rocking not-so-good Ole Miss in the SEC opener, the Hogs (13-3) have dropped two straight - At Florida, 82-74, last Saturday and against No. 23 Alabama, 64-61, on Tuesday night.

During both those losses, Arkansas showed some good signs.

But none of those even begin to point them toward the Road To The Final Four.

And there still are loads of dangerous twists and turns.

Next stop: At No. 11 Mississippi State today, where the Hogs, who have dropped 10 straight SEC road games, will try to get over The Hump and all those screaming rowdies who will fill it.

Several of the somewhat fragile Hogs talked about the noise in Florida's O'Connell Center shaking them up. Well, they haven't seen - or heard - anything like what they'll run into at Humphrey Coliseum.

Soon after Tuesday night's loss, junior guard Eric Ferguson bowed his head ("It's hard. Real hard, you know," he said) and Arkansas coach Stan Heath talked about the importance of picking his youthful team back up.

The Razorbacks also need to get back to lobbing to their post players for inside scoring or kick-outs for open jumpers. They must play frenzied defense before it's too late, and again rebound like it matters.

They need to play smart and tough, which has not been the case for the majority of minutes during the last two games. They've got to hit the key shots and cut their losses.

What the Hogs absolutely have to do after failing to hold serve at home is pick up a road win. At Mississippi State would be a good start because it won't get much easier (at LSU, for instance, looms on Wednesday).

"Hey, we need some road wins," Heath said. "We have to go on the road and win some games. Obviously you never want to give one away at home and that happened for us.

"We've got to make it up somewhere down the road. And this stretch coming up in front of us ... these first five games, 'You say, man, that's a vicious schedule, the way we're starting out.'

"But we've got to find a way to pick up one of those games on the road. Obviously we're going to go in there and try to get both (MSU and LSU), but this Mississippi State game is key for us."

To make an NCAA tourney drive for the first time in Heath's third season, the Hogs likely must go 8-8 in the SEC (but because of the nonconference schedule a tourney bid still would not be a slam dunk). In this conference, home courts are a great advantage and big-timers must protect their turf while picking off road wins here and there.

Tuesday night's winnable loss in Bud Walton Arena put the Hogs in a serious jam, so it's not too early to look ahead.

It's hardly panic time, but look at it this way: Even if 1-2 Arkansas holds serve for the remainder of its home schedule - Auburn, Kentucky, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Mississippi State - that would leave the Hogs with just 19 wins.

Despite the Hogs' obvious improvement, something Alabama coach Mark Gottfried raved about after Tuesday's game, young Arkansas knocking off Kentucky and Mississippi State, even in Bud Walton Arena, might be a stretch.

So that brings us back to the road, where Arkansas must face Mississippi State, LSU, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Alabama, Vanderbilt and Auburn.

You'd like to pencil in wins at Ole Miss and Auburn, but the Rebels are a different deal at home and the Tigers have been surprisingly solid. Keep that eraser handy.

Given the Hogs' road woes, falling LSU seems to be a coin-toss game and the same probably could be said for the matchup at solid South Carolina.

A win at Alabama would take a Herculean effort, and with that silly configuration (benches behind the baskets), and really loud crowd, at Vanderbilt is a scary place to go, although the Hogs' last SEC road win was there way back on Feb. 26, 2003.

Arkansas guard Ronnie Brewer said the Alabama loss hurt no more than any other. But he admitted the home setback makes today's game pretty doggone important.

"Losing a game is always disappointing, especially at your home in front of your fans," Brewer said. "We've got to recover."

And fast.

There's no more time - or opportunities - to waste.

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