SEC Tourney stokes memories of 2000 Hogs, gives Gafford one more chance to rattle the rims

It’s a fresh start.

That’s the message many Power 5 basketball coaches are sending to their troops as the big boys of the college game take center stage with their conference basketball tournaments this week.

The conference tournaments are a mere appetizer for next week’s main dish of March Madness, but as antiquated as the tournaments seem for the major conferences who will pack five to nine teams into the NCAA Tournament’s field, they do provide a glimmer of hope for squads on the outside looking in.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Who: vs. Florida (SEC Tournament)
When: 12 p.m. Thursday, March 14
Where: Nashville, Tennessee
Watch: SEC Network/ESPN

Note: The tourney opens Wednesday at 6 p.m. with two games featuring the four-worst teams in the league — Missouri (14-16, 5-13 SEC) vs. Georgia (11-20, 2-16) followed by Texas A&M (13-17, 6-12) vs. Vanderbilt (9-22, 0-18)

And that is the fresh start many college coaches are selling to their players early this week. It’s certainly what Arkansas coach Mike Anderson has in mind as his Razorbacks prep for their trip to Nashville to play in the SEC Basketball Tournament this week at Bridgestone Arena.

The SEC Tournament gives all 14 squads the hope — however slim it might be — to make the Big Dance by winning the title and earning the SEC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Two weeks ago when Arkansas was tumbling through a six-game SEC losing streak, it did not seem possible that the Razorbacks would make the NIT much less the NCAA Tournament.

But the SEC Tourney gives them a shot.

And let’s be clear, the Razorbacks need to win the SEC Tournament to get into the NCAA tourney. Some are speculating that if the Hogs win three games to make it to the SEC finals that, that would be enough. Maybe they are right, but it sounds like wishful thinking to me.

However, something began to turn around during the Hogs road trip to Kentucky. The Razorbacks found some composure and grit and did not roll over against the then-No. 4 Wildcats.

Though the Hogs could not hold on to their double-digit halftime lead, they played a respectable game, losing 70-66, against one of teams many experts feel has a shot of not only making the Final Four but possibly winning it all.

The Hogs backed that up with a 74-73 victory over Ole Miss at home, an 84-48 road rout at Vanderbilt, and a solid 82-70 home win over Alabama where sophomore forward/center Daniel Gafford gave the Bud Walton Arena crowd one of the most outstanding performances in Razorback history in what could be his final game on campus.

Should the Hogs gain an NIT bid, they could play a home game or two in Walton Arena, giving fans another chance to watch him play in person. However, if the Alabama game was Gafford’s last appearance in Walton Arena, he made a lasting impression.

His 29-point, 16-rebound dunk-a-thon was a sight to behold, but the stats didn’t tell the whole tale. His athleticism and effort on both ends of the floor was incredible.

I think Gafford’s the best athlete to wear a Hog basketball jersey since Alvin Robertson, and Gafford is seven or eight inches taller.

In terms of his effort last Saturday, it was a Sidney Moncrief-like performance. To me there is no higher praise, and those who remember Moncrief know exactly what I mean.

Moncrief played with an intensity and passion night-in and night-out like no other Razorback basketball player before or after him. As gritty and tough as Corey Beck was, he still didn’t match Sidney. Moncrief played like a man possessed every night. That’s why Sidney, who played 1976-79, remains Arkansas’ all-time leading rebounder as a 6-4 guard, and its why he remains Arkansas’ second leading scorer of all time.

Last Saturday, Gafford played in rarefied Razorback air, and it was a wonder to behold. He dropped jaws with a Euro-step in transition and finished with a finger roll that gave me a flashback to the 1970s and the sweet moves of Dr. J (Julius Irving). In the paint, he scored on a couple of moves that would have made Hakeem Olajuwon proud.

However, what impressed me most was Gafford’s aggression on the glass. He dominated a very good Alabama front line with his will and desire. Gafford played like he needed those rebounds, and he went and got them with a furious display of determination.

Gafford has never played better in a Razorback uniform.

Barring something unforeseen, Gafford’s entering this summer’s NBA Draft. We’ve known this since last year when he nearly made the leap after his freshman season. Gafford’s just classy enough not to talk about it while there are still games on the table.

The El Dorado native is guaranteed only one more game as a Razorback at noon Thursday against Florida (17-14, 9-9), but if he can muster up the will to play with the same tenacity and passion he played with last Saturday, I wouldn’t count the Hogs out of advancing against the Gators.

Gafford not only played well individually last Saturday but he also stepped into the leadership role that had been awaiting him all season. He led and the other Razorbacks followed. With Gafford playing that hard, the other Hogs couldn’t do anything else but respond in kind.

Now, that was just one game. Remember Gafford is just a sophomore. Leading doesn’t come naturally for most, and it takes time for a player to fully assume and embrace that mantle.

But maybe Gafford did that last Saturday, and maybe this week will be a fresh start for the Razorbacks?

Though it’s been nearly two decades, the Razorbacks have won four games in four days to win the SEC Tournament before.

It happened in 2000 when sophomore guard Brandon Dean exploded to play the best basketball of his career over a four-day span when the Hogs knocked off Georgia (71-64), No. 16 Kentucky (86-72), No. 10 LSU (69-67), and Auburn (75-67) in succession.

It was Arkansas’ first and only SEC Tournament Championship, and it was the first time a team that did not have a bye into the quarterfinals won the title, although Georgia has equaled the accomplishment since.

While Dean won the tournament MVP honors, he was aided and abetted by the stellar play of freshman phenom Joe Johnson, who was the straw who stirred the drink for Dean and the other Razorbacks. Teddy Gipson, current Hog assistant T.J. Cleveland, Chris Walker, Carl Baker and Alonzo Lane were also key performers on the team that not only won the title but also likely saved Nolan Richardson’s job as head coach for another couple of seasons.

As wild as it may seem today, just six seasons after winning the national title, Richardson was feeling real heat.

Going into the postseason, rumors had spread that Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles was considering making a change at the top of the program. The Razorbacks weren’t going to the NCAA tournament that season without winning the SEC Tourney. Arkansas was 15-14 overall and 7-9 in regular-season SEC play.

Winning the SEC tourney made that a moot conversation, even though the Hogs lost quietly to Miami, 75-71, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Though that history has absolutely no bearing on Arkansas’ situation this year, there are some eerie similarities between the two squad’s situations.

Though second-year Arkansas athletic directer Hunter Yurachek has kept his true thoughts about the job Anderson as doing as head coach to himself, there is a vocal sect of Razorback fans who have made their desires for a change known through social media and various sports talk shows throughout the year.

Some of that talk has simmered down over the last two weeks following three wins and a solid performance at Kentucky, but even those who champion Anderson don’t like going into the postseason with Arkansas needing to win the SEC Tournament to get into the Big Dance.

Though Gafford and Johnson are totally different players, the Razorbacks do have a future NBA player to lead them just like in 2000. Both rosters relied on young talent. I might give the 2019 squad a bit of an edge in overall talent, but Chris Walker was a solid senior leader in 2000. This Hog squad has no mature influence to look to like him. I’d opine the 2000 Razorbacks were a grittier bunch, too.

I also think the SEC in 2019 is better at the top than it was in 2000 and probably all around.

If the Hogs were to win the SEC Tournament, they would have to likely beat at least two Top-10 teams along the way.

Thinking of that is putting the cart before the horse. Florida is up first, and the Gators have never been an easy opponent for the Hogs. Florida played one of their worst games of the year when they visited Walton Arena on Jan. 9, but still upended the Razorbacks, 57-51.

Should Arkansas defeat Florida Thursday, then the top-seeded SEC champion LSU would await them on Friday. Arkansas split with the Tigers in the regular season with each winning on the other’s home court. It’s not a bad matchup for Arkansas.

However, with head coach Will Wade suspended indefinitely for refusing to meet with LSU brass to discuss an FBI-taped discussion about an offer made to freshman guard Javonte Smart, who is also suspended, there is no telling how the Tigers will play once they make it to Nashville?

If the Razorbacks somehow won those two games, an opponent like Auburn (22-9, 11-7) or South Carolina (16-15, 11-7) would await Arkansas in the semifinals on Saturday. Both thumped the Hogs in the regular season.

Should Arkansas some how win their way into the finals, then in all likelihood No. 4 Kentucky (26-5, 15-3) or No. 8 Tennessee (27-4, 15-3) would be standing on the hill daring Arkansas to knock them off.

As a Hog fan I’ve got my fingers crossed for the best, but I don’t really believe the Razorbacks have a shot at winning four games in four days. This Razorback team hasn’t played consistently well enough to warrant that type of faith, and too many of the opponents standing in the way have.

Frankly, Kentucky, LSU, and Tennessee have played at a higher level than the rest of the league this entire season although the Tigers and Vols are showing some cracks going into the tournament. Auburn would be my dark-horse pick.

If LSU weren’t facing its current issues, they might be my favorite to win it. They may do it anyway, but the SEC Tournament isn’t called the Kentucky Invitational for nothing. I think the Wildcats will win it like they do most of the time.

As for Anderson, I don’t think his job is in jeopardy after the Hogs pulled themselves out of that six-game losing spiral, no matter what happens in Nashville. A couple of wins might get the Razorbacks an NIT bid and a championship to play for.

Either way, I’m glad we have at least one more chance to see the Razorbacks play this year. Maybe Gafford, who was named first-team All-SEC by the Associated Press on Tuesday, will give us at least one more rim-rattling performance to remember.