Hogs Hoping To End SEC Tourney Woes

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Arkansas standout Ronnie Brewer knows there will be a sizable showing of Razorbacks fans in the stands tonight at Gaylord Entertainment Center as his team opens the Southeastern Conference Tournament against Georgia in the late game.

A junior, Brewer has seen Arkansas' following the past two years in Atlanta.

Now, with the tournament 200-plus miles closer to Fayetteville, Brewer is expecting an even larger following.

And he has the sense that Arkansas fans don't want to travel all the way to Nashville for another Arkansas one-and-done.

"It's important for our team morale and for our fans," Brewer said. "The past couple years, we went to the tournament and it was one-and-done every year.

"I think our fan support has been great. They're going to follow us to Nashville and the least we could do is go out there and have a good showing in the SEC Tournament."

It's been awhile since Arkansas has turned in much of any kind of showing in the tournament. The Razorbacks' last win in the event came in 2001 when Arkansas beat LSU in the second round.

Since, the Razorbacks have dropped five straight games in the tournament.

Things are different this year, though, said Arkansas coach Stan Heath.

The Razorbacks are expected to win in today's first round, where they play Georgia for the second time in five days. Arkansas had little trouble beating the Bulldogs 74-57 on Sunday.

"We've always come in as a team expected to get beat," Heath said. "We haven't come in as a favorite. We've come in as an underdog and we've gotten beat.

"This is the first time we've gone into the tournament where people are really saying, 'Hey, Arkansas has a legitimate chance.' Before, it was, 'Can we just pull an upset?' We're not trying to pull an upset; we're just trying to continue to play well. So it's a lot different than before. Media knows that. Fans know that."

It is different.

Entering this tournament, Heath's team has won five straight games, its longest SEC win streak since 2001.

In each of Heath's first three seasons, the Razorbacks entered postseason play on losing streaks. In 2005 and 2003, Arkansas dropped two straight to end the regular season. In 2004, the Razorbacks lost three consecutive games before bowing out quickly in the SEC Tournament.

Heath feels the pressure of past Arkansas failures in the tournament.

"I don't know what Kentucky has. I don't know what Tennessee has, but I know every bit of our tickets, every bit of our hotel allotments, everything's gone," Heath said. "The pressure I feel is to make sure these fans are here more than just one day because I don't think they're going to be real happy about that (if they are).

"But I do feel like we've made progress through the year and this is the year where we have a great opportunity to advance and play games and possibly win it all."

While several teams have been far from successful in recent SEC Tournaments, only Arkansas has gone winless. Georgia is the only team to just win one game in the SEC Tournament the last four years. The Bulldogs are 1-3 since the 2002 tournament.

Only three other conference teams have won fewer than two tournament games since then.

Since Arkansas' last tournament win, Kentucky has won 10 SEC Tournament games, the first of those coming against the Razorbacks in the semifinals of the 2001 tournament.

Although Heath hasn't led Arkansas to a win in the conference tournament, he has had success in conference tournaments in the past. In 2002, as Nolan Richardson's final Razorbacks team exited the SEC Tournament in Atlanta with a first-round loss to Tennessee, Heath coached Kent State to the Mid-American Conference championship, leading his Golden Flashes to three straight wins.

But since coming to Fayetteville, Heath has had nothing but conference tournament futility.

Recently, though, Arkansas has taken to breaking another funk that has been around since the Razorbacks last had success in the postseason.

In Arkansas' first 30 SEC road games under Heath, the Razorbacks were 3-27. It's not a huge sample, but Arkansas won its final two road conference games this season, including a win at then-No. 10 Tennessee.

In addition to entering the tournament hot, Heath said this year's version of the Razorbacks is more ready to make a run in the SEC Tournament.

"We are older and better," he said. "We've matured. That's what it comes down to. Our team, I think, is better prepared. We're coming into the tournament with a different mindset. We come into it knowing we can play with anybody and we can beat anybody, but we also know if we don't show up to play, anybody can beat us.

"That's what we have to guard against."

Winning going into the tournament has made a big difference, said Arkansas senior Jonathon Modica.

"We've got used to winning," Modica said. "So we definitely don't want to stop anytime soon. I think we accomplished some things that we set out at the beginning of the season that we thought we could do as a team, and I definitely feel that we still have a lot to prove.

"We've still got a lot of respect to earn, and I think my teammates and the coaching staff feel the same way that I do. I would say that the pressure is still on, but we're definitely feeling more confident and we're playing with more energy and intensity than we have in the past."

That late-season success though, hasn't taken any of the pressure off of the Razorbacks.

"Going into this tournament, we have the mentality that we're trying to win the whole entire thing," Brewer said. "We take it personal. We need to play well. We're not relaxing at all. We're focused on our first opponent and we're just trying to take care of business and get that first win."

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