NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Arkansas’ reaction to its first NCAA Tournament berth in seven years told the whole story of how hard a fight it has been to get back in the Big Dance.
The Razorbacks players and coaches exploded with emotion during Sunday’s CBS selection show when it was announced that No. 21 and fifth-seeded Arkansas (26-8) would be playing 12th-seed Wofford (28-6) Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I thought about that as we came here this week (for the SEC Tournament),” noted Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson, who watched the show with his team at the Marriott Airport in Nashville before heading home. “Razorback Nation deserves this, our students deserve this, the state of Arkansas deserves this.
“And you are talking about a guy that understands it,” added Anderson, who was an assistant for Nolan Richardson during the glory years at Arkansas. “Because at the pinnacle of success I was there. I understand how the Razorback family feels and how they want it and our thirsting for it.
“…This is for you guys,” Anderson continued. “We know there has been a drought there, but I feel these guys are for real. They want the Razorbacks to be relevant - not only in SEC play, but on a national scope.”
While the game is in Florida, it is actually in the West Regional with the Arkansas-Wofford winner playing Saturday against the winner of Thursday’s contest between fourth-seeded North Carolina (24-11) and 13th-seeded Harvard (22-7).
The winer of that game will advance to the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles.
“I am glad this group of guys are not only getting in the tournament, but a fifth seed,” Anderson said. “That is a big-time statement.”
Arkansas sophomore star Bobby Portis - the SEC’s Player of the Year - was obviously pleased.
“It feels great because I feel like all the hard work we put in finally paid off,” Portis said. “…I’m very excited. Coach had us getting up at 5 a.m. in the offseason and it’s all paid off. I am very happy and humbled about it.”
Arkansas junior guard Michael Qualls saw his team’s emotion was genuine.
“It is an amazing accomplishment,” Qualls said. “We have been working hard just for this day to get here. It is a great feeling. There is life and we are looking forward to it.”
It will be a match-up of the Southeastern Conference runner-up against the Southern Conference champions.
?Arkansas finished second to No. 1 Kentucky (34-0) - the tournament’s overall top seed - in the regular season.
The Wildcats downed the Razorbacks 78-63 on Sunday in Nashville for the SEC Tournament title.
“I am really, really excited for our players and you can see they kind of got over that Kentucky loss pretty quick because they understand the goals that we set at the beginning of the year was to be in the Dance,” Anderson said.
“But not only to be in the Dance, but we want to dance for awhile,” Anderson added. “It’s the opportunity to participate in what I think is one of the greatest sporting events there is - the NCAA."
Wofford had wins over Iona and North Carolina State during its regular season and also losses to West Virginia (77-44), Duke (84-59) and Stanford (74-59).
The Terriers have won eight straight games since losing to Chattanooga 56-46 back on Feb. 12.
“We will play against a Wofford team that is pretty good,” Anderson said. “I think they won the league and won the tournament. Every team in this league is good and we have our work cut out for us. It is a quick turnaround as we play on Thursday.”
Wofford allows an average of only 59.8 points per game and finished 16-2 to win the Southern Conference regular season title.
The Terriers also won the league’s tournament and NCAA Tournament automatic berth - albeit winning just 67-64 in the finals over Furman (11-21).
They has an experienced team led by its senior backcourt of Karl Cochran (14.6, 5.8) and Lee Skinner, who have combined to start 213 games.
They also start two juniors and a sophomore and their top eight players all played in last season’s NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan.
“Wofford is a very good basketball team and you can’t take anybody lightly in this tournament,” Anderson said. “I recall the year we won the championship (1994), we opened up with North Carolina A&T and they took us to the wire.
“The next year we opened up with Texas Southern and they took us to the wire,” Anderson added. “The first game is the most critical game so our guys have got to get prepared mentally and flush Kentucky out.”
• • •
West Regional games in Jacksonville, Fla.
5) Arkansas vs 12) Wofford
4) North Carolina vs. 13) Harvard
6) Xavier vs. BYU/Ole Miss winner
3) Baylor vs. 14) Georgia State
• • •
West Regional games in Omaha, Neb.
1) Wisconsin vs. 16) Coastal Carolina
8) Oregon vs. 9) Oklahoma State
• • •
West Regional games in Portland, Oregon
7) VCU vs. 8) Ohio State
2) Arizona vs. 15) Texas Southern
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