Arkansas will open it’s quest to get to Omaha on Friday with an old foe in a place with which it is very familiar.
The second-seeded and No. 20 Razorbacks (35-22) - who have won 20 of their past 27 games - will battle third-seeded Oral Roberts University (41-14) Friday at noon in Stillwater, Okla., in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
The game will be televised by the SEC Network and those teams will joined in the Stillwater Regional by top-seeded and host Oklahoma State (37-18) and fourth-seeded St. John’s (38-14), who will play at 6 p.m. on Friday night.
Arkansas won 20 of its last 27 games after struggling to a 15-15 start.
"We are looking forward to heading over to Stillwater," Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said on Monday. "I told the team the other night after the game that I was really proud of of them for hanging in there and getting it together really the second half of the season - the toughest part of the season in terms of wins and losses - and give ourselves a chance to get into a regional.
"It is big for our program for the future and it is right out there in front of us. It is a great field and we are excited that it is a little closer than last year (Virginia). We feel like it will give our fans that really want to come see us an opportunity to get there. Hopefully Razorback fans will show up and that will be fun for our players."
ORU, whose is second in the country with a .321 batting average, won both the Summit League regular season and tournament titles, Oklahoma State won the Big 12 regular season and fell to Texas in the league’s tournament while St. John’s was the Big East Conference regular season champ.
"Just looking at their roster and looking at the ages and that was just a few minutes ago," Van Horn said. "A lot of seniors and juniors, kids from all over the country. Team that's won 40 - what was it? 45 games? A lot of ball games. Just rolled through their conference tournament. They're used to winning. They know how to win, so that's about it right now. I know I looked at some of their pitching records. I know one of their pitchers is 8-2. I'm figuring that we'll probably see him. It's a guy who has tremendous stuff."
The regionals at Oklahoma State and Missouri State are matched up with each other meaning there is a possibility that Arkansas could host a Super Regional because Missouri State is unable to because the Class AA Springfield Cardinals have a home series the following weekend at the stadium the two share.
That is putting the cart way before the horse according to Van Horn.
"Well anytime you look at your regional and you think if we were fortunate enough to win it, but believe me we have a lot work to do," Van Horn said. "There's some really good teams in our regional."
Van Horn said that he is likely to start pitcher Trey Killian in game one and Keaton McKinney - if healthy - in game two of the regional, which will continue through at least Sunday and could go into Monday.
"As of right now I'd say we'll probably go with Trey," Van Horn said. "He's our oldest pitcher and threw well last weekend. He's our most experienced (pitcher).
"As far as McKinney, I'm not sure where he's at yet. I haven't talked to him yet. I'll talk to him here in just a little bit and see how he's feeling. But that would probably be the order if everybody's healthy. We'll try to determine that definitely by tomorrow."
McKinney felt some soreness in his hip during his start at the SEC Tournament and was only able to go two innings.
"It's sore," Van Horn said. " There's some soreness and inflammation in there, some pain... I just know it's been bothering him off and on for a while and it really hadn't come about in a game until the other day. And you could tell it really affected his command, because he throws strikes, and he threw 7 out of 8 pitches for a ball, and that's unusual."
Van Horn does not try to hide the fact that the chances of his team winning the series are much playing three or four games than five or six.
"It's huge," Van Horn said. "I mean, when you have to get into the your bullpen in the second or third inning, you're in trouble. Maybe not so much the first tie, but after that, you're thinning yourself out pretty good. And if you're going to a regional and you have to play again on Monday or you have to play two on Sunday to get to Monday, you're going to have to recycle some guys, and you're hoping they haven't had to pitch too much where they can give you some more innings.
" … There aren't too many teams nationally that can go into a tournament and have to play five and six games to win. Three and four is very doable for most everybody. You just have to have guys have a good day."
Obviously Arkansas' chances would also be better if SEC Player of the Year Andrew Benintendi puts last week's struggles at the SEC Tournament behind him."
"He's gone through a lot," Van Horn said. " He's come out of nowhere to now the professional organizations all want to get a part of him whether it's, Can he do this for us? Can I talk to him? Can we interview him again? We're bringing in this bigwig again to talk to him, will he … I mean, it's been ridiculous."
Winning the (SEC Player of the Year) award and then being there around all the guys who didn't win it that all had awful good years. I think just a lot of pressure mounted up with him, and he felt it. He's still young. He's only been in college two years. A lot of those kids are juniors and seniors. The kids that are going to be drafted up high that are in our league that were at the tournament, they're all juniors except him. "
"Another year, you can handle things a lot better. I just think he felt a lot of pressure and felt like he had to do way too much. Hopefully, he'll calm down and when we play in the tournament he'll do well.""
Arkansas has won the last five games it has played against ORU, but have not played in 2012.
"We couldn't work it out a few different times and there are a few different reasons," Van Horn said of not playing the Golden Eagles lately. "Probably RPI issues and different things, but we are actually working on getting together in the future, whether it is home and away or getting together every other year."
The Razorbacks finished the regular season by going 7-0-1 in its last eight series against SEC foes.
"It was a little bit of everything," Van Horn said. "... The reason we got better is because we started pitching better. It all really started with the bullpen guys. And a lot of those guys were our mid-week pitchers … because we we'd get through a game or two on the weekend, then it became real iffy when we played mid-week games.
" We were walking people and hitting people. We couldn't build a big enough lead it seemed like. And then when we started throwing strikes and relaxed a little bit, we just started pitching better. I think the confidence went up, we started winning games and then those mid-week guys did a good job on the weekends coming out of the pen."
• • •
Stillwater Regional Schedule
Friday, May 29
Game 1 - No. 2 Arkansas vs. No. 3 Oral Roberts, Noon CT (SEC Network)
Game 2 - No. 1 Oklahoma State vs. No. 4 St. John’s, 6 p.m. CT (ESPN3)
Saturday, May 30
Game 3 - Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, Noon CT
Game 4 - Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m. CT
Sunday, May 31
Game 5 - Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, Noon CT
Game 6 - Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 6 p.m. CT
Monday, June 1
Game 7 - Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6 (if necessary), TBA
Arkansas Set To Battle ORU In Stillwater
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