Time For A Late Run

FAYETTEVILLE -- Brandon Dean didn't feel the pressure, even though it was obvious what was at stake heading into the 2000 Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Arkansas had struggled to a 15-14 record during the regular season, and the only chance the Razorbacks had of returning to the NCAA Tournament was to win four games in four days at the SEC Tournament in Atlanta.

"I remember for about two weeks straight Coach (Nolan) Richardson reminded us that we were going to win the tournament," said Dean, then a sophomore guard at Arkansas. "We practiced hard, and our focal point even going into the last couple games of the regular season was that we were going to go into the (conference) tournament and win each game."

In a run that came as a surprise to perhaps everyone but Richardson, Dean and his teammates, the Razorbacks beat Georgia, Kentucky, LSU and Auburn to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Dean was named the tournament's most valuable player, and Arkansas flustered their opponents with a high-energy pressure defense that forced 93 turnovers in four games.

"The thing that I remember the most is that all the kids bought into the fact that we are a very good basketball team," Richardson said. "We just didn't do the things early enough (in the season) to get into the position where we wouldn't have to fight and claw (our way) back into ... the NCAA Tournament."

Seven years later, the Razorbacks find themselves in a similar situation -- returning to Atlanta with an unlikely run in the SEC Tournament as perhaps their only chance of returning to the Big Dance.

Arkansas coach Stan Heath's job might be on the line, as well. But his players can take some comfort in knowing that over the past few years several teams facing even tougher situations found a way to win their conference tournaments.

There is still hope. After all, isn't that what March Madness is all about?

"There is no question, you can always make runs, especially when you start believing," Richardson said. "And hopefully, those kids (at Arkansas) will start to believe that they can play anywhere, particularly when they walk into Atlanta and be on a neutral floor with everyone else."

A year ago, Syracuse made one of the more improbable runs through the Big East Tournament.

The Orange entered as the No. 9 seed, then beat Cincinnati in the first round on a 3-pointer by Gerry McNamara with less than a second remaining. Syracuse upset top-ranked UConn in overtime a day later, and McNamara made a pass on the winning basket to beat No. 23 Georgetown in the semifinal round.

Syracuse became the lowest-seeded team to win the Big East Tournament with a 65-61 win over Pitt in the championship game.

"We were on the outside looking in coming down here and now there's a lot of teams looking at us," McNamara told reporters at the time.

A year earlier, Oakland University strung together one of the more unlikely runs in recent memory by winning the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament.

The Golden Grizzlies began the 2004-05 season with seven straight losses, and their record was a dismal 9-18 heading into their conference tournament.

At the time, few college basketball fans outside of Michigan knew the school is located in Rochester, not California.

"It wasn't something where we were sitting there thinking, 'Oh yeah, we're going to win the (conference) tournament,'" Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. "But we didn't think the year was over, either. We thought we had a chance."

But as was the case with Arkansas in 2000, Oakland used a big win at the end of the regular season to gain some confidence heading into its league tournament.

Coaches say the key to making a surprising run in a conference tournament is winning that first game, which gives players the confidence that they can get hot at the right time. It's also important not to look ahead.

In 2005, the Golden Grizzlies won two straight games in the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament before beating heavily favored Oral Roberts 61-60 in the championship game on a last-second 3-pointer by Pierre Dukes.

As a result, Oakland entered the NCAA Tournament with a losing record, at 12-18.

"It's the single most important thing that will ever happen to the program and the way it happened, too, with Pierre making the shot and beating a team that had 25 wins and (us) being that heavy an underdog," Kampe said.

"It drew so much attention. We were the national Cinderella for 10 days."

Coincidentally, Kampe and Arkansas assistant coach Dan Hipsher are former high school rivals and Bowling Green teammates who have remained close. The two men spoke Monday morning about what it might take for the Razorbacks to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Most college basketball experts believe Arkansas must at least advance to the SEC's title game to secure a place in the Big Dance.

But this year's team is not too different from the one Richardson had in 2000. They're young. They were inconsistent during the regular season. And if they hope to return to the NCAA Tournament, they must first make a run in the SEC Tournament.

"It's one of those things, when you don't have anything to lose, I think the game becomes easier because each shot is not as important as it would be," Dean said. "... We had no pressure on us; the pressure was on the team that we played to actually beat us."

Arkansas' Run Through The SEC Tournament In 2000 (In Atlanta)

3/9 Georgia W 71-64

3/10 Kentucky W 86-72

3/11 LSU W 69-67

3/12 Auburn W 75-67

"When you get to tournament play, it isn't about the fans, it's not about the media, it's not about anyone but yourselves. This is your chance to prove to yourself, that's important. Basketball is a game where you have to be a team, and we can't have any outside influences on this team." -- Former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson

"I think it was good the fact that we were young because we didn't have any pressure. If we would have been seniors, then we would have felt the pressure, that would have possibly been our last game playing in an Arkansas uniform.

"I think being young and knowing that we have another year to come back, we have nothing to lose so let's leave it all on the table, I think that helped us out." -- Former Arkansas guard Brandon Dean, the MVP of the 2000 SEC Tournament

Hawgs Daily Top Stories