MEN'S BASKETBALL: Despite Win, Hogs Must

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas grabbed just enough rebounds, made just enough shots, hit just enough free throws and played just well enough on defense to hold off Ole Miss 75-69 in Bud Walton Arena.

There's really no other way to describe it, which was why coach John Pelphrey sat behind the postgame podium and did his best to put the Razorbacks' fourth straight win in perspective Saturday.

It was a win — a good win.

But would it have been possible on the road?

Nope.

Arkansas may have beaten a tough, physical and much-improved Ole Miss team at home, but, at the same time, showed a handful of concerns that could prove costly if they don't improve before next week's season-defining, two-game road trip to Tennessee and Mississippi State.

The Razorbacks built a 16-2 lead in the first half on the strength of their defense, but watched it crumble. They settled for 3-pointers in the first half and, when they didn't fall, stubbornly kept shooting them. They missed 13 free throws. They were outhustled for a few loose balls and, outside of the opening minutes, struggled to stop Ole Miss.

They nearly forced their hot-tempered coach to blow a gasket.

"This next stretch being on the road we don't have that luxury," Pelphrey said in reference to the subtle things that plagued the Hogs, but didn't cost them a win Saturday. "We're going to have to play much, much better basketball."

Pelphrey, no doubt, maintains a pessimistic outlook after wins. Like most coaches, he's bothered by imperfection. No matter what happens.

The win was nice. But Pelphrey's right to place a heaping helping of importance on righting any wrongs because of the challenges — and opportunities — that lie ahead for his team on the road.

Fact No. 1: At 6-2, the Razorbacks emerged from the first half of SEC play in position to win their first division championship 1994-95 and compete for their first overall league title since 1993-94.

Fact No. 2: They'll go head-to-head against the biggest obstacles in the way of those goals this week. They play SEC-leading Tennessee on Wednesday and SEC West front-runner Mississippi State on Saturday.

Fact No. 3: This group hasn't proven it can win big games on the road.

That's why Arkansas, as Pelphrey said, has to perform much, much better.

Leaving a hot-shooting opponent open on the road can't happen. The offensive shot selection must improve because sluggish stretches will prove costly. Missed free throws? Those are simply unacceptable.

Players acknowledged as much after the Ole Miss win. Guard Patrick Beverley said the Razorbacks must learn from their mistakes, buckle down on defense and make sure they're doing all the little things on the road if they have any hope of staying in contention for the SEC championship.

Tennessee and Mississippi State will be difficult enough. The problem is, that's not it. After a home game against LSU, the Razorbacks face back-to-back road tests again against Kentucky and Alabama.

Add it up. Four road trips in the next five games.

"This is going to be a big challenge for us," center Darian Townes said.

Whether the Razorbacks are able to do more than enough to survive the stretch and win games will say a lot.

They'll be a legitimate SEC title contender. Or they'll be an afterthought sitting squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

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