Before flying to Atlanta for the SEC Tournament in 2000, Nolan Richardson told the media he packed four suits for the trip and than he intended on using every one of them.
The message, of course, was his intention for his Arkansas Razorbacks to win the SEC Tournament and garner the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. With his Razorbacks sitting at 7-9 in SEC play and 15-14 overall, it was a bold and brash prediction, meant to fire up his troops and himself.
Since the SEC expanded to 12 teams in 1992, no team had fought their way through the opening round to win the tournament, and as strong as Arkansas’ program had been, none of Richardson’s Razorbacks teams had won the conference tournament.
However, the Hogs did roll through that tournament, knocking off Georgia, Kentucky, LSU and Auburn in succession. Sophomore guard Brandon Dean played out of his mind during that run, but freshman Joe Johnson was the straw that stirred the drink. While Richardson had a coaching career filled with firsts and accomplishments, considering the circumstances, capturing that tournament crown had to be one of the highlights.
Of course, the tie that binds the 2016 Razorbacks to that tournament championship team is Hog head coach Mike Anderson, who was Richardson’s top assistant at the time, and current Anderson assistant T.J. Cleveland, who was a defensive specialist on that squad. No doubt, they have each packed four suits for this week’s trip to Nashville, Tenn., but what they really need is a player like Johnson and a supporting cast to fit around him. That’s really neither here nor there.
If Anderson’s current Hogs are to return to the NCAA Tournament this season, they will have to pull off the improbable and win the SEC Tournament for the automatic bid just like that 2000 squad did.
Short of that, some feel if the Hogs could win two or three games, they might slip into the NIT by leapfrogging other conference members who are more in line for a NIT bid after regular-season play.
Those are fine storylines and talking points going into the tournament, but to borrow from Razorbacks football coach Bret Bielema, Anderson’s Hogs need to maintain a 1-0 attitude as they enter the tournament.
Winning just one game in the SEC Tournament has been difficult for the Razorbacks program since stunning the conference in 2000. The Hogs have bowed out of the SEC Tournament after their first game 10 times in the last 15 seasons, with a SEC Tournament mark of 12-15. A third of those 12 victories came in 2000. So yeah, the Hogs are an atrocious 8-15 in SEC Tournament play since 2001.
Two of those victories came last year when the Hogs made it to the finals before bowing out 78-63 to Kentucky. Anderson’s squads are 2-4 in SEC Tournament games, and the Hogs are 1-3 all time against Florida, their noon Thursday opponent, in tourney play.
So, history is not exactly on the Razorbacks’ side, but as interesting as those facts may or may not be, SEC Tournament history has no bearing on Thursday’s game. That’s good news.
The bad news is that this Razorback squad has had to fight desperately all season, just to be in position to win games, much less worrying about trying to win four in four days.
However, the most impressive aspect of this Razorbacks team is its resiliency. These Hogs know how to bounce back after being knocked down. We will see if they have more bounce left in them on Thursday.
Florida defeated the Hogs, 87-83, on Feb. 3 at Gainesville. It was one of many close losses for the Razorbacks this season. Better decisions and more focus on the part of the Hogs, and Arkansas could have conceivably won that game. However, the same could be said for two-thirds of the Razorbacks’ losses this season. Arkansas’ margin of error is ever so slim.
Looking back at the box score from the game, Anthlon Bell led Arkansas with 24, Dusty Hannahs had 20, Moses Kingsley scored 15 and Jabril Durham had 10. Anton Beard scored 7, but the bench added little beyond that. Scoring isn’t the sum total of a player’s performance, but it does say a lot about Arkansas’ players as a team and as individuals.
For the Razorbacks to defeat Florida, Arkansas’ starting five needs more help. That will only come if the Razorbacks play better defense and are able to pick up easy baskets in transition. For that to happen, the Razorbacks need to shoot well, between 45 and 50 percent from the field so they will have a chance to set up their press and not get killed on the defensive glass. Arkansas is not good at transition defense. Stopping the ball has been an issue all year. The Razorbacks’ best transition defense has been hitting shots so that they don’t have to play it.
Honestly, those have been the keys all season. Anderson’s offense feeds off its defense, and the offense in turns protects its defense.
I would not be surprised to see Arkansas playing on Friday against Texas A&M, but then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Hogs were back in time for their Friday classes, either.
The Razorbacks have hovered around .500 all season, and Thursday’s game looks like another 50/50 proposition.
SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament
First Round (Wednesday, March 9)
Game 1: Tennessee vs. Auburn, 7 p.m.
Second Round (Thursday, March 10)
Game 2: Arkansas vs. Florida, noon.
Game 3: Tenn.-Auburn winner vs. Vanderbilt, 2:30 p.m.
Game 4: Alabama vs. Ole Miss, 6 p.m.
Game 5: Miss. St. vs. Georgia, 8:30 p.m.
Quarterfinals (Friday, March 11)
Game 6: Texas A&M vs. Game 2 winner, noon,
Game 7: LSU vs. Game 3 winner, 2:30 p.m.
Game 8: Kentucky vs. Game 4 winner, 6 p.m.
Game 9: South Carolina vs. Game 5 winner, 8:30 p.m.
Semifinals (Saturday, March 12)
Game 10: Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner, noon.
Game 11: Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 2:30 p.m.
Finals (Sunday, March 13)
Game 12: Game 10 winner vs. Game 11 winner, noon.