ATLANTA - in a perfect Razorback world, the University of Arkansas basketball team would just be dropping by the SEC Tournament on its way to the Big Dance like it used to do back in the day.
But the Razorback world is not that perfect right now and so Arkansas (18-11) will not only have to be Tennessee (13-16) in its opening round game of the event Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. at the Georgia Dome, but run the table just like the did back in the 2000 season on their way to their only SEC Tournament title.
According to Mike Jones, the UA's lone senior, Razorback head basketball coach Stan Heath put it rather simply for his team.
"The postseason is something special," Jones said. "To re-emphasize something Coach Heath told us in practice yesterday - this is the time that if you want it you can get it. And if you don't want it you can just go home. I think this team of basketball players really want it. We want it so bad. It's right there on the tip of our tongue, right there on our heart. We are coming up short on one loose ball, a couple of rebounds, a couple of shots. I think we are ready to turn it around and go into this ballgame with a great attitude and a very positive atmosphere to try and win this ball game."
Heath was asked if he thought his team really believed it could win four games in a row to get to the NCAA Tournament or if all of this was just talk for the media and the fans.
"My players believe that can win four games," Heath said. "Do we exactly know how to do it? That's the work in progress right now, but they believe it and I believe in them. I know they can beat anybody in this tournament."
They must start by taking down the Volunteers, a team they beat 70-68 in Bud Walton Arena back on Feb. 26 when both Scooter McFagdon - Tennessee' leading scorer - and Arkansas' Jones missed the contest.
Arkansas' balanced attack in that game overcome a season-high 30-point effort by Tennessee freshman sharpshooter Chris Lofton, who is shooting 47 percent from 3-point range this season and stepped up big-time when McFagdon - who will play in the SEC Tournament - went out with an injury after big man Brandon Crump was already out with an injury.
"As far as Chris Lofton, the only thing you can do with him is try and limit his touches, take him a little bit further out of his range than he would like to be and make him play a little bit more off the bounce than the catch," Heath said. "He is a very, very good player and with McFagdon out there next to him now, they are even more potent offensively."
Peterson is understandably worried most about Brewer, who had 23 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists in the first game between the two and was named to the eight-member SEC Coaches All Conference first team on Wednesday.
"Arkansas is very good with a deep group of athletes and Brewer is just one of my favorites," Peterson said.
Peterson - who has had his former North Carolina coach Dean Smith and Tennessee women's coach Pat Summitt come out in support for him since there is speculation that he will lose his job after the season - is just happy to finally have a healthy team to go into the tournament.
"It's pretty good to have all these guys out there again," Peterson said. "It's a really good feeling. It seems like it has been about mid-January since we had everybody healthy. What a great feeling to go down to Gainesville and get a great win and then Crump goes down with a knee and then we lose Scooter."
There is no secret that Tennessee is going to come out in a zone against Arkansas after playing it 85 to 90 percent against them in the first game, but Peterson is wary of the 16 offensive rebounds the Razorbacks had in that game.
"That's probably the most zone I have ever played in one game," Peterson said. "Coach Dean Smith called me and said "that's a lot of zone you played there.' It's like playing golf. If you are hitting your 3 wood well and you're scoring well, you stay with it and we stayed with it. But we've got to watch against an Arkansas team, giving up the weak side rebound. Those guys can get to the boards."
Arkansas, which shot 47 percent from 3-point range and overall in that game, has certainly put in the time this week working against the zone in preparation for the tournament.
"In our first game against Tennessee, I felt as though we had our best game attacking the zone with how well we shot from the perimeter," Heath said. "...We feel as though if we can open up some seams in the inside game, we can open up our perimeter game. We are not looking to just settle for threes, but also get some big offensive rebounds.
"I really think we have looked at some little things," Heath continued "Some different parts of the zone that we can attack with gaps and not just settle for the 3s, but attack on the inside."
While Tennessee's problems have been physical, it's clear Arkansas' have been more mental. That's something Jones said they addressed in a Sunday night meeting.
"We covered a lot of ground as a team in that meeting," Jones said. "We have a new opportunity and a new vision. We have to stay positive as a team and forget the regular season. If we do that, we feel like good things will happen for us."
It was clear during Arkansas' workout on Wednesday that there was more energy and picking up each other than normal.
"We had a lot of emotion out there today and we are trying to come together as a team," Brewer said. "I think this is the time right time for it to happen."
Asked toward the end of his press conference for a state of the team report, Heath answered it has been mixed.
"I knew going into a couple of years ago that we needed to recruit and we needed to bring in some talent to compete in this league," Heath said. "It is a very talented league. It is a very good league. We have made very good progress in getting the pieces of the puzzle in place. I think we do have the ingredients to be good, to compete against anybody and to battle.
"In some ways I feel like we are right where we should be, but I am also disappointed as the players are that we have had some games in our grasp that we didn't get," Heath continued. "We could have had a little bit more of a special year, but I do think we are making tremendous progress in our program and I am excited about our future. I still think we have a lot of basketball left this year to show how good of a team we could be."
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