FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn thought his team understood the stakes three weeks ago, but wanted to vocalize it anyway.
So he made sure the Razorbacks understood they were getting dangerously close to being left out of an NCAA Regional for the first time in his 12 seasons with the program. The good news was that Arkansas still had two weeks left in the regular season and the SEC Tournament. But they needed a strong finish.
“I just wanted them to know the facts,” Van Horn said at the SEC Tournament on Saturday. “So I brought it up. I didn’t spend a lot of time with it. They knew what I meant — that we needed to win games or we’re not going to get in.”
Arkansas (38-23) accomplished it, winning eight of its final 11 games to take most of the drama out of today’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show. The Razorbacks closed the regular season by going 5-1 against Texas A&M and Missouri, then went 3-2 en route to the SEC Tournament’s semifinals.
The success ensured Arkansas of a place in the NCAA’s 64-team field when it’s unveiled this morning.
One question does remain: where will Arkansas play? The 16 regional host sites were announced Sunday night and one of them will have the Razorbacks in their four-team double elimination field. First baseman Eric Fisher and the Razorbacks will carry confidence with them as well after one of their best stretches this season.
“We know that wherever we get picked to go to, the team that is hosting us, they’re going to be nervous because we have all the talent in the world,” said Fisher, who has a team-high 9 home runs. “We know we can go wherever and win the regional ahead of the supers. We’re excited because we know we have what it takes.”
Arkansas hasn’t had the easiest path, working with a young pitching staff early this season and an offense that struggled in tight games. There have been injury issues lately as well, with key contributors Jalen Beeks (sore elbow) and Blake Baxendale (hamstring) sitting out the 11-game stretch.
But the Razorbacks have benefitted from a strong 1-2 punch on the mound in starters Trey Killian and Chris Oliver. The offense has improved as well. And there have been key contributions from unlikely sources like designated hitter Clark Eagan and catcher Alex Gosser the past three weeks.
“I’m really proud of the way our guys fought these last few weeks,” Arkansas second baseman Brian Anderson said at the SEC Tournament. “We had our backs up against the wall there. … We said we have to take it one day at a time and battle and try to pull out Ws as well as we can. I think we’ve done a good job of that lately.”
Arkansas accomplished most of it on the road, too, playing eight games in 10 days.
The lengthy road trip began with the season-ending sweep at Missouri, which included an impressive ninth-inning comeback in the series finale. Arkansas also climbed out of a 6-0 hole against Ole Miss in Friday’s elimination game at the SEC Tournament, advancing to play for the fifth time in five days in the semifinals.
The run ended with an 11-1 loss to the Tigers on Saturday. Van Horn said it was clear playing for the fifth time in five days finally caught up to the Razorbacks.
“They played well down the stretch,” Van Horn said. “I told them after the game, we all wanted to win. We didn’t have enough left and they were better than us today. But I’m proud of this team the last three weeks. … It’s a long trip back and I want guys to start thinking about the future and move on from this tournament mentally.”
Arkansas, which arrived back in Fayetteville early Sunday morning, took the day off and will watch the selection show this morning. The Razorbacks will practice in preparation for the NCAA Regional on Tuesday and Wednesday. Then Arkansas will go back on the road Thursday, arriving ahead of their NCAA Regional opener Friday.
It’s a welcomed trip, though, for a team that was an NCAA Tournament question mark three weeks ago. Arkansas now is confident its successful run can continue.
“The other teams are going to know what we have coming in,” Anderson said about the NCAA Tournament. “We have quality starting pitching. We’ve got a deep bullpen. And if we get those bats rolling, then we’re going to be dangerous.
“I think we’re just really exited to see where we’re headed to.”
The NCAA announced the 16 schools that will host Regionals this week. The list includes five Southeastern Conference schools. The eight national seeds will be unveiled along with the rest of the 64-team NCAA Tournament field at 11 a.m. Below are the 16 NCAA Regional hosts:
Baton Rouge, Louisiana – LSU (44-14-1)
Bloomington, Indiana – Indiana (42-13)
Charlottesville, Virginia – Virginia (44-13)
Coral Gables, Florida – Miami (Fla.) (41-17)
Corvallis, Oregon – Oregon State (42-12)
Columbia, South Carolina – South Carolina (42-16)
Fort Worth, Texas – TCU (42-15)
Gainesville, Florida – Florida (40-21)
Houston, Texas – Rice (41-18)
Lafayette, Louisiana – Louisiana-Lafayette (53-7)
Louisville, Kentucky – Louisville (45-15)
Nashville, Tennessee – Vanderbilt (41-18)
Oxford, Mississippi – Mississippi (41-18)
San Luis Obispo, California – Cal Poly (45-10)
Stillwater, Oklahoma – Oklahoma State (45-16)
Tallahassee, Florida – Florida State (43-15)