Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Bubble blabber heats up
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson talks with player Mardracus Wade during the second half of the game between Arkansas and LSU on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014 in Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE - There was a prevailing attitude among Arkansas basketball followers that a victory over Alabama last Saturday was all the Hogs needed to be a “lock” for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Saturday’s 83-58 loss to Alabama changed all that.
Arkansas, which had a six-game winning streak end Saturday, and Coach Mike Anderson will enter the SEC Tournament on Thursday against the winner of Auburn-South Carolina back in must-win mode.
The Razorbacks (21-10) enter the week at No. 62 in the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index, behind Tennessee (44) and Missouri (52) and ahead of Georgia (73) as SEC at-large aspirants. Arkansas powered its way, wining 8 of 9 before the Alabama loss, to the brink of locking up its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008, but can the Hogs close the deal?
“It’s a sense of urgency, like it’s right here within arm’s reach and we’ve just got to grab it,” senior Mardracus Wade said Monday.
“We know if we just handle our business and come out and play every game like it’s our last with the energy that we have done throughout this year then at the end of the day we’ll be where we need to be,” senior Fred Gulley III said. “It would definitely be good to go out with the NCAA Tournament. There’s no place like the tournament.”
Arkansas came out of Saturday’s loss smarting, but still a contender for an NCAA slot, according to the national media who keep tabs on the comings and goings of NCAA hopefuls.
USA Today included Arkansas and Tennessee among its last five teams in the NCAA field and has Arkansas as a No. 12 seed in an opening-round game against No. 12 seed Pittsburgh.
ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi has the Hogs (and Tennessee) in his “last four in” as a No. 12 seed facing No. 12 Dayton on its home court in an opening round game. CBSsports.com’s Jerry Palm projected Arkansas in the field as a No. 11 seed, also in an opening-round game against No. 11 Xavier. Palm picked Arkansas and Tennessee among his last four in.
Missouri is in the first four out for Palm and the next four out for Lunardi.
Anderson said he shouldered some of the blame for the Razorbacks’ poor showing at Alabama but also noted that the Hogs have been on the receiving end of positive press during their recent six-game winning streak.
“These guys have had some success and people talk and write about them and sometimes you start believing it,” Anderson said. “We have to make sure we do our damage on the floor and we do it on the defensive side of the ball.”
Anderson would not speculate about how many games the Razorbacks needed to win in Atlanta to nail down a bid.
“Nah … we want to win the tournament,” he said. “That’s the mind-set. And the first game is the most important game. That’s always been my mind-set.”
Anderson said his team’s roster depth and up-and-down style of play should work to its advantage over a four-day stretch.
“If we’re going to win it, we’ve got to win four games,” Anderson said. “I plan on taking four suits, to answer some of you guys’ question.”
Arkansas has won eight of its past 10 games, a key consideration by the selection committee. Tennessee (20-11) has won six of its last 10 and four in a row, including a 72-45 rout of Missouri on Saturday.
” I think on both ends of the floor now we’re playing well and we’re playing as a team,” Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin said on Monday’s SEC teleconference. “When shots fall, you have a tendency to look like a different team, especially when you’re defending the way we’re defending now.”
Asked if he liked where the Volunteers are positioned now, Martin said, “One game at a time is the most important thing. My biggest concern is who we play on Friday.”
Missouri (21-10), despite sweeping Arkansas, has fallen into a dangerous position by losing six of its last 11 games. The Tigers are the No. 8 seed and they play No. 9 Texas A&M on Thursday for the right to face No. 1-ranked Florida on Friday.
“We’ve got to pull ourselves back up after a tough loss on the road at Tennessee,” Coach Frank Haith said.
Georgia (18-12) tied Kentucky for second place in the SEC’s final standings at 12-6, but the Bulldogs are not being given strong consideration for an at-large NCAA berth based on their 6-6 non-conference record.
“To have a legitimate at large chance, I think we’d have to advance in the tournament,” Georgia Coach Mark Fox said. “But if you advance, you might as well win it.”
SEC Tournament MEN Georgia Dome, Atlanta
WEDNESDAY’S GAMES Auburn vs. South Carolina, 6 p.m.
Vanderbilt vs. Mississippi State*
Missouri vs. Texas A&M, noon
Auburn/S. Car. winner vs. Arkansas*
LSU vs. Alabama, 6 p.m.
Vand./Miss. St. winner vs. Mississippi*
NOTE Florida, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee received third-round byes and will not play until Friday.
*Will start 25 minutes following the end of the preceeding game
Sports, Pages 17 on 03/11/2014