ATLANTA – There seems very little doubt that the University of Arkansas would be playing USC in the NCAA Tournament this upcoming weekend had not been for the late-season emergence of true freshman Michael Washington.
Washington, a 6-10 forward from McGehee, was one of the lone bright spots in Sunday's SEC Tournament championship game loss to Florida with career highs of 17 points and 7 rebounds.
He bounced off the bench to score nine early points when Charles Thomas came up lame and finished the day 8-of-14 from the field, 1-of-3 from 3-point range, picked up a couple of steals and blocked a shot in 19 minutes of action in the 77-56 defeat.
"I have just been playing in practice hard and doing what I did (today) that I what I do," Washington said. "It gives me a lot of confidence."
Arkansas (21-13) – winners of five of its last six games – is a 12th seed in the East Regional and will meet fifth-seeded USC (23-11) Friday in Spokane, Washington with the winner battling Sunday against the Texas-New Mexico State victor.
Heath is obviously glad he will be going into that game with Washington coming alive.
"His upside is so obvious," Heath said. "Anyone's watched us the last five or six games can recognize his talent. He's active, he can make shots, he can put the ball on the floor, he's a very good passer as well. You know, there's no question the future is really bright for Michael, and the way he can impact our Razorback basketball team."
Not only did Washington play well Sunday, but he did it while matched up Sunday with two likely first-round NBA draft picks in Florida's dynamic dup of Joakim Noah and Al Horford.
"They are some good players, NBA material," Washington said. "But I feel that I am the same way. I am going to go at them just like they are going to go at me. I was not intimidated at all.
"I know my strength and I know their strength," Washington added. "I know they can post me up and I can take them off the dribble. I was not intimidated at all."
Washington said he didn't really realize that he had piled up so many points and rebounds – he was just trying to replace the production of Charles Thomas, who played only 82 seconds before leaving for good with an ankle injury.
"I didn't realize that," Washington said. "I just went out and played my best. That was a real good team and we needed everybody when Charles got hurt. I just had to try and do what he did yesterday when he had 18 and 18."
Heath admitted missing Thomas was a tough break for Arkansas.
"It took away an experienced player that could have settled us down when it seemed like we got sped up, but Michael did a great job filling in," Heath said. "He played outstanding for us and hopefully we will get Charles back soon."
Heath said it was probably on the defensive end where Thomas was missed the most against Noah, who picked up three first-half fouls on Washington.
"Michael played great," Heath said. "He played terrific. But there were times out there where Michael defensively trying to handle Noah, was pretty difficult. No one's a great match up against Noah, but Charles has done a pretty solid job the last times we've played them."
Washington said he was very impressed with Florida.
Yeah, they're a great team," Washington said. "I believe they're the best team in the nation right now."
O o o
Thomas hopes to be able to play this weekend, but was noticeably limping as he left the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon.
"It hurts, but I will get some treatment and be ready to go," Thomas said.
Heath said he was missed greatly.
"Well, they took X rays, and the information I have right now is it was negative, and it's a sprained ankle," Heath said. "It's a severe sprain, but over the next couple of days we're treating it with ice, with rest. I believe he'll heal up and be fine.
"So the prognosis is pretty positive for the future," Heath said, "but he wasn't able to go today, which was unfortunate for us."
O o o
Sonny Weems was named to the all-tournament team along with the Florida quartet of Noah, Horford, Tauren Green and Corey Brewer.
"I thought Sonny had an outstanding tournament," Heath said. "He showed a lot of leadership in our basketball team in huddles and locker rooms, just the energy he brought to the floor."
Arkansas' Michael Washington scores over Florida's Al Horford
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