ATLANTA - Is this the beginning or the end?
Arkansas opens what it hopes is an improbable four-game winning streak to an NCAA Tournament bid when it faces Tennessee Thursday night in the Georgia Dome.
The Razorbacks (18-12, 7-9) and Volunteers (18-13, 8-8) are scheduled to hook it up at 6:30 p.m. in game three of the opening day of the SEC Tournament.
"It's exciting," Arkansas junior guard Rotnei Clarke said after his team's practice inside the Georgia Dome on Wednesday. "All the records and the wins and losses are really thrown out and anyone who comes to this tournament really has a chance win it and has the same opportunity as anyone else to get to the NCAA Tournament."
A loss on Thursday night would not only eliminate the Razorbacks from NCAA post-season play, but also likely a bid in the NIT tournament.
It also would ramp up the speculation on the future of head coach John Pelphrey.
"We think Tennessee is a tremendous basketball team, has great depth, good experience, tremendous coaching," Pelphrey said. "We know it's going to take a lot of toughness on our behalf."
Arkansas beat Tennessee 68-65 in Fayetteville earlier this season and the last time the two teams played in the SEC Tournament.
That was at Georgia Tech back in 2008 in Pelphrey's first season when a tornado moved the tournament from the Georgia Dome to a campus site.
That was the last time Arkansas played four games in four days at the SEC since winning it in 2000.
"All we know is that the last time we played Arkansas, they beat us," Pearl said. "The last time we played (against visiting Kentucky on Sunday), we lost. We would like to play better and be successful. We want to advance in the tournament."
Pearl knows that Arkansas will be playing with a sense of urgency.
"We're not concerned, or I don't think we give much thought to what the other team has to play for," Pearl said. "We just know what we are playing for.
"We will again focus on the fact that the last two times we got on the floor with this team they were better than we were and they beat us," Pearl added.
Pearl noted that Arkansas is worthy of respect.
They're a really good team," Pearl added. "They have beaten some really good teams this year. They hurt us inside at the four and five. We had a hard time guarding the ball screen stuff and they got to the rim too often. Of course, you have got to do everything you can to contain Rotnei Clarke."
Pearl was actually not on the sideline in Fayetteville as he was serving the first game of an eight-game suspension for not been forthcoming with the NCAA about recruiting irregularities.
"Obviously I wasn't there to see up close and personal," Pearl said. "We watched, we did the game plan and obviously seen lots of tape. I don't think it is going to make much of a difference."
Both teams are likely to have a key player back – as both practiced on Wednesday.
The Vols should have the services of senior center Brian Williams, who missed the Kentucky game.
"I think Brian is available to us and I would anticipate he would play," Pearl said. "I don't know how much he will play in that first game or when exactly he will get his first rotation, but it won't be like before he was out."
Arkansas has played the last two games without Jeff Peterson, who has been stymied by a pulled muscle.
"We just felt like if he's going to have a chance to play tomorrow, he's got to get a little confidence today," Pelphrey said. "By far it is the most he has done since he hurt it. We'll have to wait and see."
Pearl says his team will be trying to put its best foot forward for the NCAA Selection Committee.
"You never want to feel like you've done enough," Pearl said. "We're approaching it with our players that obviously we know where we are sitting – and it may be in – but it's not a done deal.
"You don't ever want to put yourself in a position where somebody else is really in control," Pearl added. "You want to help your chances as much as you possibly can."
"We're going to look at it like we've got work here to do to secure our position, to improve our seeding and to compete for a championship," Pearl said.
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