Two years ago, the Arkansas Razorbacks and Alabama Crimson Tide fired their respective head coaches. Mike Anderson had never suffered a losing season and had a stellar 169-102 record at Arkansas. Avery Johnson took the Crimson Tide to the NCAA Tournament in his third season and finished 75-62 overall. Both firings were a bit surprising, but not shocking. Both the Razorbacks and Crimson Tide were tired of being “good” SEC programs and wanted to jump into actual contention. With the hirings of Eric Musselman and Nate Oats, both programs set sails for the top of the conference.
Now, just two years later, the two teams hold the top two spots in the conference standings. They face off at Bud Walton Arena Wednesday night for an SEC heavyweight bout.
The Alabama Crimson Tide (18-5, 13-1 SEC) are the biggest surprise team in the SEC this year, if not the surprise of the entire 2021 NCAA basketball season. Oats has taken a team with minimal NCAA Tournament experience in recent history and turned them into a top 10 team in the nation virtually overnight. The Arkansas Razorbacks (17-5, 9-4 SEC), on the other hand, started slow in conference play but have now reeled off seven-straight conference wins, including road wins at Auburn, Kentucky, and Missouri. The last team to beat them in SEC play? The Crimson Tide.
According to the latest bracketology by Andy Katz, the Tide are holding onto a two-seed, while the Hogs have soared to a six-seed. Arkansas cracked the AP Top-25 for the first time since 2018 a week ago, and have since climbed to the 20th spot in the poll. The Crimson Tide are knocking on the door of the top five, sitting at 6th in the nation coming into the contest. Not only do the two squads sit atop the SEC standings, but are the two highest ranked teams in the conference as well.
If the Hogs are able to pull off the upset (though they’re a -1.5 point favorite as of this writing), it would be one of the biggest wins for the program in recent memory. They could assert themselves as the favorite for the two-seed in the SEC Tournament, and might even boost their NCAA Tournament stock enough to move into the top 16 seeds. That might be a bit of wishful thinking for the Arkansas faithful, but it could be within the realm of possibility.
If the mighty Tide win, they’ll add yet another impressive win to their already beefy resume, but it wouldn’t do much in terms of seeding. For Alabama to move into the top four seeds, they’ll likely have to hope Ohio State or Michigan stumble enough to open up a spot.
Everyone knew Arkansas had the potential to be a sleeping giant in the SEC. They were a national powerhouse throughout the 1990s, but fell apart in the early 2000s. Anderson brought them back to relevancy but never got over the hump. Now, after just under two seasons, Musselman has them back in the national conversation. At Alabama, though, the thought of winning the SEC is an afterthought. For football, at least. In basketball, it never seemed possible that the Tide could be the best team in the league. Could they be a top three team? Sure. But the dominating force of the conference over an entire season? No one, not even Alabama fans, saw that one coming. Yet, in just under two seasons, Oats has the Tide at an all-time high in terms of excitement.
For Arkansas, many believed Musselman could get the team back on the rails in due time. That road got bumpy after a dismal 2-4 start to conference play, including losses by 31 points to Alabama, 16 to LSU, and 13 at home against Missouri. However, the team has since exploded for a 7-1 record with the lone loss coming on the road against Oklahoma State in a game that came down to the final few possessions. Musselman went from a warm seat to savior in the span of just a couple weeks. There’s no telling where he’ll take this Arkansas program over the next few seasons.
Now, at Alabama, the standard is not traditionally as high as Arkansas. However, Johnson did his best to change that. He kept the Tide in NCAA Tournament contention throughout his tenure, but like Anderson, never really got over the hump. Oats changed that immediately. In his first season at Alabama, he managed just a 16-15 record and finished 9th in the conference. No one batted an eye.
Then, just as everyone forgot about the Tide, he opened the 2021 conference season on a 10-game winning streak (with a non-conference loss to Oklahoma somewhere in the middle) before finally dropping a game at Missouri. However, it’s not about the fact that Alabama was winning those games, it’s how they’ve been winning them. The Tide have had very few close contests this season, but have a plethora of blowout victories. They beat Kentucky (at Rupp Arena) by 20 points. On a road trip to Baton Rouge, the Tide handed LSU a 30-point loss. They’ve already beaten Arkansas by 31 this season before tonight’s rematch.
The Tide are kicking tail. And it’s only the beginning.
As previously mentioned, this is but the beginning of both Musselman and Oats’ tenures. In their second seasons, they’ve got their programs to the highest levels they’ve seen in years. The potential for each program to improve even further is there, and they’ve both gotten the attention of the SEC at large. Of course, the perennial powerhouses of Kentucky and Florida will always be right there in the running, and teams with recent success like LSU, Tennessee, and Auburn want back in the fight as well. But the SEC isn’t what it used to be. It’s quickly turning into a legitimate threat to the NCAA basketball world. And in the growth and madness, a new rivalry could be blooming.
Musselman and Oats, in my opinion, should be seen as peer coaches. They took over programs in similar situations at the same time, and have turned them around rather quickly. In their lone meeting last season, the Razorbacks pulled out a narrow 82-78 win in Tuscaloosa. The Tide (9th) finished one spot ahead of the Hogs (10th) in the final SEC standings, but neither made much noise. Now, in year two, the two teams are once again stuck to each other in the standings, only this time it’s at the very top.
The head-to-head between the coaches sits at 1-1, and tonight will break the tie in one direction or another. If SEC fans are lucky, this could be the start of a new basketball rivalry between two up-and-coming programs ready to take on the college basketball world. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. CT at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and can be seen on ESPN2.
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