When they meet for the first time this season Saturday afternoon in Nashville, Tenn., No. 15 Arkansas and Vanderbilt need to turn their young Southeastern Conference campaigns around.
For Arkansas (12-4, 1-3 SEC), a team that had high hopes, that need is immediate.
After winning 12 of their first 14 games and getting mentioned in a group of early SEC favorites as a possible Final Four contender, the Razorbacks have lost their last two games against ranked opponents.
The team’s current stumbles can be traced back to a pair of unfortunate occurrences earlier in the season.
Freshman sensation Nick Smith Jr. was sidelined early in the campaign with soreness in his right knee. That led to more missed games and an update from soreness to “right knee management.”
The ailment currently persists for the talented 6-foot-5 guard — a five-star talent who can create his own shot and run the offense through him.
“I would assume that that will be the case for the next, not to speculate, but I mean that’s probably going to be the case throughout the rest of the month,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said of not having Smith available. “(We) certainly (don’t have) the expectation that he’ll play in the next few games.”
With Smith likely out through January and 6-foot-10 force Trevon Brazile (torn ACL) gone for the season, the Razorbacks have dropped three of their past four games, starting with a 60-57 defeat at LSU on Dec. 28.
Arkansas lost decisively 72-59 at No. 22 Auburn last Saturday, then dropped an 84-69 decision at home against No. 4 Alabama on Wednesday after they were within two points with under five minutes remaining.
In those two defeats combined, Musselman’s group made just 45 of 117 attempted shots (38.5 percent) and 4 of 26 from long range (15.4 percent).
“It’s hard to win right now when you’re not making 3s (and) I don’t know if we will,” Musselman said after Wednesday’s defeat. “We’re offensively challenged. That’s a fact, not an opinion. And there would be a lot of other teams offensively challenged if two players they built a roster around aren’t here.”
Arkansas has an all-time record of 29-13 against Vanderbilt but has split the 16 contests in Nashville.
In their most recent meeting, on Jan. 4 of last year, the Commodores stunned the host Razorbacks 75-74, but Arkansas has still won 11 of the last 13 between the teams.
On Tuesday at No. 5 Tennessee, Vanderbilt (8-8, 1-2) played a strong first half and led 39-37 at the break after a last-second layup by Jordan Wright. But the Vols outscored the Commodores 40-29 in the second for a 77-68 win and their 25th consecutive home victory.
“I still think we had opportunities we left on the table,” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said of the impressive first half. “We’ve been in games for four years now. It’s on me and our staff to raise our level.”
Added Stackhouse, “In my mind, (Tennessee) is the best team in the SEC.”
The loss was Vanderbilt’s second consecutive on the road against a ranked team, after losing 85-82 to No. 20 Missouri on Saturday.
Vanderbilt 7-footer Liam Robbins (13.2 points per game) led the squad in both defeats and has scored in double digits his past three outings and 12 of 16 so far. The Davenport, Iowa native leads the team in rebounding (6.1) and blocks (2.9).
–Field Level Media