Hogs try to defend NCAA title

The Hogs slipped out of the top spot in the rankings, but Chris Bucknam said it wouldn't have mattered either way. The Hogs are shooting for another track title in Albuquerque.

Arkansas heads to the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in New Mexico on Thursday as defending champs, but coach Chris Bucknam would prefer to remind his team about not getting it done in the last two tries at a national crown.

The Hogs were third outdoor in June, just 6.5 points out of first. They finished 12th at the NCAA cross country meet in the fall. Never mind that they were the runaway winners last year at the Tyson Track Center even while missing out on some predicted points.

It doesn't surprise that Bucknam isn't focusing on winning last March at home.

"I haven't really thought about it," Bucknam said. "You know you are only as good as your last national meet and  the two national meets we have had since then we were  Outdoors six and a half points out of a win and we were 12th at the Cross Country National Championships. 

"As far as I am concerned,  we have got  work to do.  Honestly we are very, very proud of that championship, no question about it.  But we are focused on this one."

The Hogs won the SEC meet over Florida and Texas A&M. Those three SEC teams, along with Oregon, are the favored teams. Florida replaced the Hogs as No. 1 in the most recent track polls, mainly on the strength of some high quality scorers.

"We are looking forward to this meet," Bucknam said. "This is the one we have circled, the national championship.  I think we are in pretty good shape going in. I am excited about going to Alburquerque and getting  after it with all of our friends at A&M, Oregon, all those guys.  I am looking forward to a good meet and see what happens. 

"There is no cushion. We had a little bit of a cushion last year.  We were overwhelmingly strong in a lot of events and probably should have scored  more points in the Indoor meet last year.  Dropped the stick in the DMR.  Our leading 800-meter runner in the country fell all on that first day. 

"The good thing about it is everybody is the same  going in, the top 16 in each event and our goal is to make it to the finals and do well in those final events, the pole vault, the long jump, the triple jump, the high jump that are finals only.  We have to get the job done, be dialed in.  And be dialed in with the 400 and the 800 and 60-hurdles."

Bucknam is pleased to be taking his ace mult-event specialist along. Kevin Lazas, who won the heptathlon indoor last year, missed the SEC meet because of a family emergency. He's fit and ready to compete in Albuquerque. He set the tone by setting personal best in the early events on Thursday last year.

"Kevin is back.," Bucknam said. "He is back in our wheeelhouse and around his team and his extended family I guess you would say.  He is feeling a lot better.  He hung out in the office today which is something he normally does.  I'm not saying he's 100 percent back - it was a pretty rough time for him and his family.  But he had a great practice last Friday so I am excited to watch him compete."  

Bucknam said falling to No. 2 behind Florida in the rankings isn't significant. He said the Hogs would be going with the same mindset as if they were No. 1.

"We kind of downplay that a little bit," he said. "Everybody knows where we are ranked.  It's not something that we talk about because really the only one at the end, that's the one that counts.  So our goal was to win the SEC Championship.  We  got that done.  "Our goal now  is to win the NCAA title.  And we have got to go after that.  And that's what we are focused on.  If we were ranked No. 1, it wouldn't faze us.  That we're ranked No. 2 now, doesn't faze us.  We're just focused in on scoring points."

The battle with Florida is interesting because there are some head-to-head matchups in the hurdles and sprints.

"We have to do well where we are up against them," Bucknam said. "They are very good in the hurdles, the 200, the 400. We do have a hurdler (in Omar McLeod) we think is exceptional.  He is the SEC Freshman of the Year. He ran exceptionally well - he hadn't run a (hurdles) race except for the Texas dual meet at the SEC Championship and going into the fourth hurdle it could have been either way. 

"The national champion (Florida's) Eddie Lovett or Omar McLeod, either one.  Our guy hit the hurdle - still a little bit rusty.  Lovett is a phenomenal hurdler, he is going to be hard to beat. We can go head to head.  

"(Neil) Braddy, this is his senior year, this is his last open 400 indoors.  He is ranked ninth in the country, a fraction from, just a whisper from being second, third or fourth, just basically a snap of the fingers  between 45.98 whatever he has run to 45.5 which would be a great run for him.  It's just a fraction of a second.   We have to do well.  If Braddy can get in there and get into the final, that's huge."

Coach Lance Harter's women's team enters as No. 7 in the rankings, behind No. 1 Florida, followed by Oregon and Texas A&M, respectively. Georgia comes in at No. 5, with Texas in the No. 6 spot. That spot was a bit of a surprise to Harter because his team slipped four spots without running.

"I think we've actually kind of surpassed and probably exceeded anyone's expectations," Harter said. "To be rated in the top 10 in the United States consistently anywhere from fourth to fifth now. I don't know what we did last week to be lowered to seventh in the nation. I guess there was something we did wrong. But nobody else ran last weekend either. So I don't know how we flipped people around."

The women's team is strong in the middle distances. It will be an interesting set of races with the high altitude of New Mexico.

"We're excited about going to Albuquerque,: Harter said. "We've got a huge contingent and we're real proud of the number of qualifiers we were able to achieve. Now it's a matter of trying to make sure we put ourselves in as many scoring positions as possible."

"I think what will be interesting is because we're going to altitude, 5,000 feet in Albuquerque, it's going to make everybody a wild card when it comes to the middle distance and distance events," Harter said. "So from the 800 to the 5,000, I think there's going to be some people that everybody pretty much penned in that would be an easy winner. But none of those people have run at altitude before. And interesting, in the 800, the mile and the 3,000, as best as I can tell there are no altitude trained individuals.

"So it's going to be a race of sea level people all adapting to altitude. Otherwise, if you're an altitude trained individual and you're racing at 5,000 feet you are at a distinct advantage. I think there are some people that, it would probably be considered an upset according to the experts if there is such a thing in track and field. But I think it's a possibility that any of our middle distance crew on a given day.

"Our distance medley is considered very, very competitive. I'm going to go Dominique Scott, Grace Heymsfield, Stephanie Brown, and then one of our good quarter milers. That's as good a group as maybe anybody has in the country."

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