NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Less than 24 hours after Valentine's Day, it appeared the story of the University of Arkansas basketball season was going to be another one of heartbreak for the team and its fans.
But six wins in seven games and a month later, the surging Razorbacks (22-9) and their supporters are extremely happy to be on the verge of being one of 65 teams that will be involved in the Big Dance.
When their name is called today it will end a six-year drought from the NCAA Tournament and mark their first postseason action since a loss to Georgetown in 2001.
"There's still a lot of things, we don't know - who we're playing, where we're going, anything like that, "Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said, "but I think the main thing that we talked a little bit about in the locker room was we are in a new season and we faced a little bit this weekend of what one and done is like. I just put a little pressure on the seniors letting them know that we lose again, it's the last time you will play.
"So the urgency has really got to pick up and you've got to come with that - every player on the team even if you're the last man on the bench," Heath added. "Your role is very important, whether you are playing, you're waving a towel or whether you're giving encouragement."
Arkansas, whose six-game winning streak ended in a 74-71 loss to Florida (26-6) Friday night in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, will find out Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. where they will next play when the NCAA Tournament Selection Show comes on CBS.
Arkansas players and coaches will meet in their locker room at that time to learn details of what's next for them.
Sophomore forward Charles Thomas, who had 17 points in the loss, said his team was certainly ready to get at its next foe - no matter who it is.
"What I'm thinking right now, this is behind us," Thomas said. "We're a very angry group so I think the next game that we're going for right now we're going to look to kill somebody. We're just looking forward."
The Razorbacks are expected to be one of at least six SEC teams who will be in the NCAA Tournament although a South Carolina victory over Florida Sunday in the SEC championship game would vault them in and possibly knock bubble team Alabama (17-12) out.
The Crimson Tide have lost four of their last seven games and ended in a second place tie in the SEC Western Division with the fast-closing Razorbacks.
"I will be unbelievably frustrated and disappointed if Alabama is not in the field," noted Crimson Tide head coach Mark Gottfried, whose team lost a 12-point lead late and the game to Kentucky on Friday. "If you go 10-6 in the regular season and you look real close at where our 10 wins came from and who we beat.
"The only thing our team has not done," Gottfried added, "we don't have three or four more wins to make our schedule look real glamorous. And that's because we played a great schedule.
Estimates by national basketball pundits and talking heads have differed on where Arkansas might end up being seeded - with some predicting as high as a 7 seed and USA Today even throwing out the Razorbacks being a 12th seed when the weekend started.
Most see Arkansas somewhere in the 8-10 range with the Razorbacks seemingly not to worried about where they will be seeded, where they will be going or who they will be playing.
"I feel we went through so many close losses and tough losses as a team," Razorback senior Jonathon Modica said. "Once we found out how to win and what it took to win , we just continued to build on that and we know we are playing with a lot more poise than we did down the stretch.
"We are making good decisions with the ball and I think overall as a team we are just playing good basketball," Modica continued. "I think that is what it comes down to It's more about team than individuals...We're ready for this, but not satisfied yet with what we have accomplished."
The story of Arkansas' season - one in which they rallied from a 5-6 league mark after the loss to Ole Miss on Feb. 15 to finish 10-6 - was one of losing close games early and winning them late.
"I think Stan has done a terfific job with his team this year," Florida head coach Billy Donavon said. "I think what happens sometimes in this conference is when you lose games as Arkansas did early in the year, perception is that they're not playing well.
"The margin for winning and losing in this league is so small and so fragile and I thought their kids showed great resiilency coming down the stretch of the season," Donovan added. "They managed to find a way to win some games and in my opinion were playing as well as anybody in our league. My team knew that and knew they had to be ready."
Arkansas' three guard set of 6-7 Ronnie Brewer, the 6-5 Modica and quick senior Eric Ferguson presents a foe many problems according to Donovan.
"They're a hard team to guard on offense," Donovan said. "They run motion very well. They're big for a great job screening. Modica and Brewer are very, very difficult along the baseline. They do such a great job and Stan and the staff have done a great job teaching those kids to play the game. I like watching them play as they play the game the right way."
"I think the biggest difference from Arkansas from a year ago to this year is their ability to move and pass the basketball," Donovan continued. "... I think they wear you down over a period of time with their offense, with their screening and their physicality. It was just one of those games where they had some good looks that didn't go down and we did a pretty good job of limiting them to one shot."
Early in the season, Arkansas played No. 1 UConn, Big 12 co-champ Kansas and ACC squad Maryland in the Maui Invitational, a solid mid-major who may get an at-large bid in Missouri State and then won 11 of its 18 games against SEC foes in the regular season and tournament.
"We've been there before in Maui, played on the big stage with great competition," Thomas said. "We've been there before. It's just not a walk in the park for us. This right here is really helping us towards the NCAA tournament. Whatever games that we go through is going to help us and make us a better team."
Arkansas hopes it gets increased production from 6-10 Darian Townes, who is averaging over 9 points a game and has excelled at times inside, but also disappeared during stretches.
"Darian averaged about 11, 12 points a game for us as a freshman," Heath said. We're really not getting the same sort of production from him. I think the answer is a two fold situation. We've got to give him the ball. He's got to recognize some double teams.
"He's got to have some patience down there and go to some moves that are that are going to get him a good shot and not rush and hurry things," Heath continued, " and then we've got to get him more touches so he doesn't get you know, so quick with it when he gets it and that's just something we've got to continue to work on.
"In fairness to him, if you're a big guy and maybe you only touch it about three, four times, you're going to be a little bit quick to make something happen and he's still young." Heath added. "He's just a sophomore and he's just got to learn that 'hey, you know, when I get it, I can still show some patience and playing inside out if I get doubled team or if I throw it back in I can get it back again. I don't need to force it.' That's just something that as he matures he'll get better at."
Brewer, the SEC's leading scorer and a junior, could be playing his final game or games for the Razorbacks if he decides to leave school early for the NBA draft.
But that's not his focus at the moment.
" I just now think that we need to go into practice focused just try to get better and try to move on," Brewer said. "We know how to get it done. Now it's just about getting it done."
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