Arkansas Ready To Defend Title, Ranking

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- John McDonnell doesn't have to go too far back to warn his team of the dangers of complacency.

His No. 1 Razorbacks will open their defense of the Southeastern Conference Outdoor team title today at Vanderbilt as an overwhelming favorite, but McDonnell knows that guarantees nothing.

Arkansas was considered unbeatable during the 2004 indoor season with seniors like Alistair Cragg and Chris Mulvaney along with sprint newcomers like Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon Jr..

Then came the SEC and NCAA Championships with collapses rarely seen in McDonnell's 33 years as a coach leading to disappointing runner-up finishes at both.

Top-ranked once again with a group quite possibly more formidable than last year, Arkansas will go for its 12th SEC title in 14 tries and the 76th conference title of McDonnell's career.

Jimmy Duke will try to improve on his eighth-place finish in the decathlon from a year ago with the two-day, 10-event competition begins at 3 p.m. today.

The 800 and 200 preliminaries will take place Friday with the first running event final taking place with the 10,000 at 8:50 p.m.

"It's just a matter of going down there and putting it into operation," McDonnell said. "We cannot go down there and get complacent. We've lost a couple conference meets over the years when we were the better team by not taking care of business."

If McDonnell doesn't want to go back as far as last year, he can point his team to the Penn Relays two weeks ago for examples of how he does and doesn't want his team to compete.

In reality, McDonnell didn't expect to beat Michigan in the distance medley, 4x800 or 4x mile relays.

But he certainly didn't expect his team to roll over and concede to Michigan by coming in 15 seconds behind in the 4x mile or for James Hatch to not run at least a sub-1:50 split on the 4x800 anchor leg to try and challenge Michigan's Nate Brannen.

For examples of how his team should compete, McDonnell could cite junior Eric Brown winning the javelin on his last throw after losing the lead in the final round to run his undefeated streak to four this season.

Or sophomore Harun Iman, who ran an incredibly gutsy 1:49 split on the second leg of the 4x800 to bring Arkansas from near-dead last to fourth in his two laps.

Arkansas certainly has the tools to dominate the conference meet like it did last season when the Hogs racked up a whopping 183 points -- the second-most in school history -- to put a 63-point whipping on Florida, which took advantage of the Razorback mistakes to claim the 2004 SEC indoor title.

The Razorbacks owned the sprint events last season with a 1-2-3 finish in the 200 by Gay, Spearmon and Omar Brown for 24 points and a 1-2-4 finish by Gay, Brown and Spearmon to score 23 in the 100.

Arkansas also won the 4x100-meter relay for the first time in school history at the SEC meet and just the second time ever at a conference meet dating to the Southwest Conference days when Wallace Spearmon Sr. was running with the Razorbacks.

The SEC sprint corps has been upgraded a bit with Mississippi State transfer Steve Mullings, who should challenge for a top finish in the 100 and 200.

Mullings and Gay are both former Barton County products and Gay's showdown with Mullings in Gay's 100 meter debut should be a highlight of the meet.

Gay, who missed the SEC and NCAA Indoor meets with a sore hamstring, was undefeated in collegiate meets in the 100 last season after making his debut in the 100 at the SEC Outdoor.

"He's doing real well in practice," said sprints coach Lance Brauman of Gay. "He's killing the workouts. Every indication is that he's ready to run well. It's just a matter of getting in the blocks and running the race. I'm not going to project he's going to win, but he's going to be hard to beat."

Equally hard to beat will be Spearmon, a two-time NCAA champion at 200 meters who owns the American indoor record at the distance and the world's best time this outdoor season with his school-record 19.97.

Arkansas will also field event favorites in the 5,000 and 10,000 with junior Josphat Boit, the steeplechase with Peter Kosgei, Brown in the javelin, Jaanus Uudmae in the triple jump and Said Ahmed in the 1,500.

Pole vaulter P.J. Brown is tied for the conference lead and high jumper Greg Martin is ranked second.

With its depth from the 100 on up, Arkansas can reach 100 points in quick order with the 100, 200, 5,000 and 10,000, where the Razorbacks should score more than 20 points in each event and close to 30 in the 5 and 10Ks.

Two question marks for Arkansas heading into the meet will be Hatch and Terry Gatson.

Hatch still needs to post an NCAA Regional time in the 800 and Gatson is battling a sore back that's bothered him since the middle of April.

Gatson's back seized up just as he was trying to make the pass to Brown on the 4x200 relay at Penn, causing him to fall and drop the baton.

Brauman said Gatson, who owns the school indoor record in the 400 with a 45.27, the third-fastest collegiate time ever, is doing better but will be watched closely to see how his back responds to the prelims.

"It's his last conference meet and he's a senior, so he wants to run," Brauman said. "I think he'll be all right."

Arkansas has entrants in every event except two, the hammer and the shot put, and expects to score everywhere it has competitors.

The biggest competition, as usual, will come from Florida.

The Gators have the best 4x400 meter team in the conference led by world indoor 400 record holder Kerron Clement.

Gator Josh Walker will be a favorite in the 110-meter hurdles, as will be Mike Morrison in the high and long jumps and Clement in the 400-meter hurdles.

Florida's Kyle Farmer will be a factor in the 100 and 200 and some of the Gators strong 400 group can step down to the shorter sprints as well.

Tennessee will be strong as usual in the decathlon with the league's top three entrants and in field events like the hammer and javelin, but the Vols don't have the depth to challenge Arkansas.

"We have a real balanced team," McDonnell said. "It will be a real battle between us, Florida and Tennessee. LSU could be up there, but they'd have to have a real good meet.

"I think our guys are fired up and they are going to take care of business."

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