As the Arkansas Razorbacks ease their way into the college basketball postseason, they've steadily built their case for being a Top 8 national seed — thereby securing a possible Super Regional hosting opportunity if they can win the presumed Fayetteville regional first — in a manner that belies how difficult it really has been to get this far.
Keaton McKinney, who burst onto the scene as a freshman (6-2, 3.21 ERA in 18 starts) in 2015, fell off the map during the Hogs' miserable 2016 season, and his arm clearly wasn't right. He was shelved and redshirted for 2017 but expected to contribute in 2018, and yet, the big righty has battled his own health misfortunes again and has seen one start and two innings worth of action all year. Jared Gates, expected to be an asset as a left-handed power bat after bopping six homers in limited duty last year, has struggled all season and lost playing time to sophomore Jordan McFarland. Coming off a season lost to injury as McKinney did, Isaiah Campbell has been an enigmatic third starter, looking brilliant at times and bafflingly bad at others when his command betrays him, though to his credit he's done some of his absolute best work the past few weekends.
Against Texas A&M, Arkansas authored its SEC-high fourth season sweep of the year, all at Baum Stadium, but it came at a cost. Shortstop Jax Biggers fractured a finger on his left hand in the opening inning of the first game and went out, not to return all weekend, and then on Sunday, catcher Grant Koch planted awkwardly after setting up to return a throw of a passed ball to the infield and went down in agony. Biggers' injury looked painful but also comparatively minor, and Jack Kenley filled in well defensively and provided some sparkling at-bats in lieu of Biggers the remainder of the series. Koch, on the other hand, looked like he did damage to his Achilles tendon or, at a minimum, sustained a badly turned ankle, and it is anyone's guess whether backup Casey Opitz can fill that void for any length of time.
Yet, with those obstacles, Van Horn's 2018 team is 36-15 overall, 17-10 in the SEC, and accordingly sits comfortably in second in the SEC power rankings behind the consensus top team in the country, Florida, which had to scrape by Arkansas earlier this year to win a home series in Gainesville, and which the Hogs thoroughly pummeled 16-0 in last year's SEC Tournament semifinal. In other words, Arkansas is again among the elite in a thoroughly competitive league, and far from intimidated by the defending national champions in blue and orange. Even with injuries, the Hogs have excelled and been remarkably consistent, as their only real outlier performances include a weekend sweep at the hands of West Division also-ran Mississippi State and a frustrating pair of third-game series losses on the road against Ole Miss and LSU that could've easily gone the other way. The Hogs' most predominant struggle this year is a lack of situational hitting — for a squad batting a healthy .304 and having four players in double figures in the home run ledger, they've left a whopping 444 men on base across 51 games so far, and that's easily diluted their overall and league record by at least two or three games.
Then again, the Hogs also dominated then-No. 4 Texas Tech in a midweek game in April, walloped a 33-18 Texas team in a two-game home series, and also took games from likely tourney entrants Missouri State, Arizona, San Diego State and Kent State in building up a fine RPI that has the Hogs in a much better position to stay situated in the Top 8 overall than they were facing last season at this time.
Arkansas closes out the regular season with a three-game series in Athens, Ga., and the Hogs are still having to fight off the pesky Rebels from Oxford for the West title. A sweep would give the Hogs a 20-win SEC slate for the first time in Van Horn's 17 years at the helm, but the Bulldogs have had a remarkably steady season and entrenched themselves in second in the East behind the Gators. They've got plenty at stake, trying to fight off a surging South Carolina to keep their position for the conference tournament, and the Rebels get the better draw in their pursuit of snatching the West title away, heading to last-place but deceptively capable Alabama for their final three. Even if Arkansas manages to take two of three in Athens, the Rebels can take the West crown by winning three in Tuscaloosa, since they own the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Hogs after squeaking out two one-run wins in that series way back at the end of March.