FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas has busted through some big barriers this season.
The Razorbacks snapped a 12-game losing streak at Mississippi State last month, winning in Starkville for the first time since 2000. They erased a 20-year drought in Kentucky’s Rupp Arena a few nights later, enjoying an even bigger moment.
Arkansas also has reached the 20-win mark for the first time since 2008, pieced together its longest Southeastern Conference win streak since 1998, and logged its second straight season above .500 in league play for the first time since 1998 and 1999.
The accomplishments are proof of Arkansas’ progress in its third season under coach Mike Anderson. But the Razorbacks aren’t satisfied.
“I want to finish out with a bang,” Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade said.
The Razorbacks have to clear another hurdle— one that has tripped them the past five years — to accomplish it. Arkansas (21-10, 10-8 in SEC) opens the 2014 Southeastern Conference Tournament against South Carolina today at 2:30, looking for its first postseason win — of any kind — since 2008.
The Razorbacks haven’t enjoyed any success since reaching the SEC Tournament title game that season, eventually advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. There only has been postseason ineptness since with five straight seasons ending because of first-round losses in the SEC Tournament.
Anderson and his team don’t want the one-and-done dilemma to continue.
“I really feel our team is made for the tournament,” Anderson said. “I think this particular team is certainly primed for the tournament. But the biggest and most important thing is that first game. You got to get past that first game. So unfortunately, I guess through the years, Arkansas hasn’t been able to get past those games, and even in my first two years. So let’s turn the trend.”
There’s added incentive this time for a program that has limped into the SEC Tournament for most of the past six years. The Razorbacks have to avoid a first-round stumble if they have shot of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
NCAA bracket experts like ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm regard Arkansas as one of the last four teams in the 68-team field after its 25-point loss at Alabama last week. It’s no secret another loss would knock the Razorbacks off the bubble and, likely, push them into the 32-team National Invitation Tournament.
It’s nice to have a probable consolation prize waiting considering Arkansas’ lengthy postseason drought. But the Razorbacks, who are led by a five-man senior class getting its last chance to reach the NCAA Tournament, don’t want to think about the alternative as they make their last impression before Selection Sunday.
“You definitely want to end it on a high by playing in the (NCAA) tournament,” said guard Fred Gulley, who is the only Razorback who has played in an NCAA Tournament game. “There’s no place like the tournament.”
South Carolina is the first potential roadblock after beating Auburn in a first-round game on Wednesday night. The Razorbacks grinded out an 71-64 win against the Gamecocks in Fayetteville last month. South Carolina — which earned its first SEC Tournament win since 2008 on Wednesday — is eager for the rematch.
“It definitely feels good to get a first win here in the tournament in quite some time here at the university,” South Carolina senior Brenton Williams said. “We’re going to go in against Arkansas and try to build off this game and do what we did (Wednesday), try to repeat it (today).”
The winner of today’s game will advance to the quarterfinals, facing No. 4 seed Tennessee on Friday.
An Arkansas-Tennessee game would carry important NCAA Tournament ramifications. Both teams are fighting for one of the few remaining at-large spots in the 68-team field. The winner will help its case. The loser stands on shaky ground.
But Arkansas refuses to look ahead. It’s a good idea, considering their recent history.
Wade, Rickey Scott and Kikko Haydar have been part of the program for three of the 0-1 appearances at the SEC Tournament. So Wade said the veterans know nothing will come easy even though Arkansas is expected to advance tonight.
“Those guys are going to come out with a lot of fight,” Wade said. “Like I’ve been telling the guys, teams play a little different once the tournament starts. They are a little tougher and have a little more energy. We can’t go out there with the mindset that we have already beat these teams once. We can’t go out there and think it is going to be an easy win. It’s not going to be like that.”
Arkansas’ 25-point loss at Alabama last Saturday was a painful lesson.
Arkansas guard Michael Qualls said players met before boarding the flight to Atlanta to discuss the loss, which was Arkansas’ largest of the season. Qualls said it “humbled” them and the Razorbacks vow not to let it happen again in Atlanta.
They can’t let it happen today if they hope to reach the NCAA Tournament.
So Qualls said Arkansas’ goal is clear as it begins postseason play in Atlanta.
“Win,” Qualls said. “That’s pretty simple. Everybody wants to winner. You don’t want a bracket full of losers, so we’re taking it one game at a time to win games. That’s the emphasis I feel like to any, every team, to win games. We’re not focused on that, we can only control what we can control, and we control whether we win or lose a game. But that’s what it’s all about to me. That’s just how I see it.”
Arkansas (21-10, 10-8 in SEC) vs. South Carolina (13-19, 5-13 in SEC)
When: Approximately 2:30 p.m.
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta
TV/Web: SEC TV
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Series: Arkansas leads 15-11
Last Meeting: Arkansas 71, South Carolina 64 on 2/19/14
Coaches: Arkansas — Mike Anderson (58-37 in third season); South Carolina — Frank Martin (27-37 in second season)
Projected Lineups: Arkansas — F Bobby Portis (6-10, Fr., 12.4 ppg), F Coty Clarke (6-7, Sr., 9.6 ppg), G Michael Qualls (6-6, So., 11.8 ppg), G Ky Madden (6-5, Jr., 12.7 ppg), G Fred Gulley (6-2, Sr., 4.1 ppg); South Carolina — F Demetrius Henry (6-9, Fr., 4.1 ppg), F Mindaugas Kacinas (6-7, So., 5.5 ppg), F Michael Carrera (6-5, So, 6.3 ppg), G Brenton Williams (5-11, Sr., 15.2 ppg), G Sindarius Thornwell (6-5, Fr., 13.5 ppg)