THE MARCH TO THE NCAA TOURNAMENT:

Bubble teams shoot to spruce up resumes

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Arkansas players Mardracus Wade and Bobby Portis react after a South Carolina turnover late in the second half of a Feb. 19, 2013 game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas players Mardracus Wade and Bobby Portis react after a South Carolina turnover late in the second half of a Feb. 19, 2013 game at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas’ late-season surge has vaulted it back into the latest NCAA Tournament projections of analysts Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com and Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com.

Victories in seven of their past eight has lifted the Razorbacks from a 2-6 SEC start to tie Tennessee for fourth place in the conference standings at 9-7 with two games left in the regular season.

Arkansas had not been projected to make the NCAA field by both ESPN.

com and CBSsports.com since mid-January, before the Razorbacks lost 66-61 at Georgia in overtime to fall to 1-3 in the SEC.

Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and LSU are viewed as the SEC’s bubble teams, with third-place Georgia considered a long shot to win an at-large berth, based on its 6-6 nonconference record; Ole Miss, which won the last season’s SEC Tournament and beat No. 5 seed Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament with high-scoring Marshall Henderson, is another with an outside shot.

No. 1 Florida and No. 25 Kentucky, which has lost two in a row, are considered the SEC’s only locks for the NCAA field.

The SEC’s bubble teams are well aware of what they need to do in the last week of the regular season and in next week’s SEC Tournament.

“If we take care of business, we’ll be where we need to be,” said Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson, whose Razorbacks are No. 35 in the power index created by ESPN.

Anderson said he isn’t concerned that his players will become obsessed with the NCAA projections to the detriment of them doing their job.

“First of all, those guys have never been into any tournament or anything,” Anderson said. “They don’t know what goes into all that, so the most important thing for them is … let’s control what we can control, and that is today’s practice.

“That’s been our mind-set all year long, and so as we get to this part of the year, we’re not going to change.

Even as outside sources keep talking and saying this here, just follow my lead.”

Arkansas senior Kikko Haydar said he knows how fleeting tournament predictions can be.

“I wouldn’t even really call it a distraction to us, because we still remember when nobody really thought too much of us, which was not really that long ago to be honest,” Haydar said.

“As long as we can come out and control the things we can control and play the basketball we want to play, I think we’ll be well off,” Arkansas senior Fred Gulley III said.

The Razorbacks, with three road victories, including a 71-67 decision at then-No. 17 Kentucky last Thursday, have climbed to No. 58 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a scale used by the NCAA selection committee to help determine at large selections for the tournament. Arkansas is one of four SEC teams between 48th and 64th in the RPI, joining No. 48 Tennessee, No. 52 Missouri and No. 64 LSU.

“We’ve got to win games,” Missouri Coach Frank Haith said. “There’s games to be played and we’ve got to take care of business if we want to play in the NCAA Tournament.”

LSU, tied with Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas A&M at 8-8 in conference, has fallen into a four-way tie for sixth place, a precarious position in the SEC pecking order.

“We’re still a firm believer in that we really need to finish strong,” said LSU Coach Johnny Jones, whose Tigers play at Vanderbilt on Thursday then host Georgia to conclude the regular season.

Lunardi had Arkansas and Tennessee in his “last four in” category on Monday, with the Volunteers a No. 11 seed and Arkansas a No. 12 seed. Palm has Arkansas as a No. 11 seed, has No. 12 seed Missouri as one of his last four in, and has Tennessee as one of his first four out.

The SEC, which put half its 12-team membership in the NCAA Tournament eight times in a 10-year stretch from 1999 to 2008, is trying to quantify its national clout, despite having won three of the past eight NCAA championships.

“The sad thing is, when we beat each other, [people say] the league is soft,” Calipari said. “Really?

When everybody else beats each other, it shows the parity of their league, how strong their league is from top to bottom. This league should have five to six teams in.”

But the SEC has averaged 3.6 NCAA teams over the past five years, and that includes the past two seasons as a 14-team conference.

This year, the SEC is ranked No. 7 in the conference ratings, behind the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, Big East, Atlantic Coast and Atlantic 10 conferences, which will make it difficult to place more than four teams in the field.

Georgia Coach Mark Fox said he was prepared to argue about his team’s inclusion if the Bulldogs remained in third place in the SEC.

“My manager came to me the other day and said there was a team - I don’t know who it was - who had lost seven games in a row and was still a tournament team,” Fox said after his team’s 87-75 loss at Arkansas. “If someone in the SEC did that they’d make them Division II.

“Our league is a terrific.

And every league’s got some black eyes, ours included. But I think I would echo John’s thoughts that there’s a lot of teams in this league - Arkansas being one - that belong in the NCAA Tournament.”

Sports, Pages 13 on 03/04/2014

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