The Tide (15-10, 7-7 SEC) probably needs one more win to secure a bid, but coach Mark Gottfried is telling his players not to pay any attention to outsiders' perspective.
"I'm sure they're thinking about it," Gottfried said. "It's something they want to achieve. I told them three or four weeks ago that one thing they need to be careful of, and I believe this with everything I have, all my soul: you better not listen to people who claim to be experts on the topic of who's in, who's out, who's a lock, who isn't, they're in, they're out.
"I watched TV over the weekend and I heard ten different commentators on TV just talk like they were the ones making the decision: 'they're out, they're in. They're in; they're out.' You've got to be so careful in that because the committee will get together. The committee will discuss it. And until that Sunday night at 5:30 or 6 o'clock, you cannot fall into that trap at all. Let's just play basketball. And that's what we talked about back then, that's what we've been trying to do and play as hard as we can and see where we end up."
The continued quest for a bid now lands the Tide at Arkansas for a televised (JP) tip-off at 7 p.m. Arkansas (12-13, 4-7 SEC) is tied for last in the SEC West, but there's no reason to mark the Razorbacks off as an easy win. Earlier in the season, the Tide defeated the Razorbacks 81-65, but that game was in Tuscaloosa.
"I think they're a lot different (now)," Gottfried said. "Their key players are the same key guys. They start different lineups every night. But (Ronnie) Brewer, (Jonathon) Modica, (Eric) Ferguson, (Olu) Famutimi, Matt Jones--Matt Jones is the guy who has made them different. I think the first time we played them he wasn't playing then and they'd just finished football and I think he's just made them a lot better team. When you look at their record, you may say, 'wow, they're not very good.' And then you look at the scores and the type games they've had and they've been knocking on the door every night. Every night. They are a good team this year and obviously their future is real bright."
Jones, a junior who is the starting quarterback on the football team, saw more playing time after the Hogs' loss to Alabama earlier this season. The 6-foot-6 forward is averaging 4.9 points per game, but gives the Hogs a much-needed presence on the inside, something Arkansas has been lacking this season.
"Matt Jones has made a difference for them at the forward position," Gottfried said. "I think he's a versatile player who gives them a different dimension with his ability to pass the ball."
Arkansas coach Stan Heath employs a variety of starting lineups, but the two best offensive players are 6-foot-7 freshman guard Ronnie Brewer and 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Jonothan Modica. Modica leads Arkansas in scoring at 16.9 points per game, and Brewer is second and leads all SEC freshmen with 12.9 points per game.
Other key contributors include sophomore point guard Eric Ferguson, freshman swing man Olu Famutimi, senior forward Billy Pharis, the Hogs' top three-point shooter, and sophomore guard Kendrick Davis.
Gottfried has been monitoring the status of sixth man Emmett Thomas, a 6-foot-4 forward who leads the Tide in three-point shooting. He injured his right knee against Ole Miss, but he did practice on Monday.
"I've been told today that he's better," Gottfried said. "We're going to see how he does jogging today at practice. I do think that he'll be a little bit limited but I don't know how much. We'll have to wait and see today and tomorrow how effective he can be. Really, we have a little bit of time. It's not as serious as I feared (on Saturday). I don't think any surgery is going to be required. He does have a lot of swelling on his knee, so we'll take a look and watch him close for the next day or so."
When asked if there was any temptation to hold Thomas out in the Arkansas game, Gottfried responded, "We talked about it in our staff meeting, but that would just depend on how effective we think he can be. If we jump out there today at practice and he gets loose and he moves around pretty well, then we'll just play him. If he's limited or we feel like he can't be effective, then I don't think there's any use in doing that. So we'll see. We'll know a little bit more today, tonight and tomorrow."
Wednesday's game will go a long way in determining if the Tide is tourney-worthy, but it won't be a complete disaster if the Tide loses--that is, until you consider that No. 5 Mississippi State, looking for revenge, will come to Tuscaloosa on Saturday. But Gottfried and the Tide will continue not to worry about selection, just winning.
"That's the trap you can start to fall into when you start trying to figure out if we do this then win the tournament," Gottfried said. "I'd rather just concentrate on playing hard. We don't control it. We have an opportunity Wednesday night at Arkansas. And that's where our mind needs to be and that's where our mind is."