FAYETTEVILLE — Most of Arkansas' players were asleep on the flight back home from the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Sunday evening when the pilot made an announcement over the intercom.
He started with the standard speech for the coaches and players to put their seats and tray tables in their upright positions. But then he slipped in a line that caught everyone by surprise.
"He goes, ‘Oh, by the way, you'll be playing USC in the NCAA Tournament," Arkansas center Steven Hill said with a grin. "It was really exciting."
And with that news, the disappointment of suffering a 77-56 loss to Florida in the SEC championship game earlier in the day was briefly forgotten. The focus shifted to the NCAA Tournament.
A Hog call broke out on the plane.
And when the team charter arrived at Drake Field at 6 p.m. Sunday, Arkansas forward Sonny Weems greeted a group of reporters with, "What's up? We're going dancing now, ya'll!"
The Razorbacks caused a stir nationally when the NCAA Selection Committee made the controversial decision to give them one of the tournament's last at-large bids, as well as a No. 12 seed.
Arkansas will face No. 5-seed University of Southern California on Friday in a first-round game in Spokane, Wash.
"I felt like we worthy to get into the tournament. I wasn't 100 percent sure that we'd get in because I knew (the field) was tight," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "But I did feel like our conference, with so many great teams, would definitely need to get at least five teams in."
However, the decision by the selection committee to give Arkansas an at-large bid came with much criticism. ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale said it was "an outrage" that the Razorbacks got into the tournament
But after enduring several weeks of rumors and talk of being on the hot seat, Heath didn't seem to mind being in the middle of the criticism. It came as a relief.
A source close to the Arkansas program told The Morning News last month that the university was willing to buy out the remainder of Heath's contract if the Razorbacks didn't make the NCAA Tournament.
"It's more vindication for my family and my team. Those guys have just been able to weather the storm," Heath said. "It just makes me feel proud that we were able to weather the storm and that's what you have to do in life, period."
Heath will give Arkansas' players Monday off to let them enjoy the moment.
And judging by the smiles on their faces as they walked off the plane Sunday, they are.
"It's a big relief, but we don't want to stop here. We don't want to lose in the first round," Arkansas guard Patrick Beverley said. "We want to go out there and shock the world again — win a couple more (games)."
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