NASHVILLE - When March's conference tournaments come round, new hope arrives for every college basketball team no matter how it finished the regular season.
It sure fits Thursday night when the University of Arkansas (14-17, 7-9) and Georgia (13-16, 5-11) meet in the SEC Tournament at 8:45 p.m.
"Obviously it is very exciting to part of a tournament-type atmosphere - win a game, anticipation of the next one, sticking around while other people are going home," UA head coach John Pelphrey said. "As far as atmosphere in college basketball, it has its own unique feel to it."
The Razorbacks are on a five-game losing streak while the Bulldogs have lost 4 of their last 6 and lost their last three at home.
While Arkansas lost an 11-point lead to Ole Miss, Georgia is coming in off a 50-48 loss to LSU to complete an 0-11 road slate.
"I am sure that Arkansas is excited for a fresh start in the SEC Tournament just like we are," Fox said. "Both teams are probably hungry for new beginnings and need to play well."
Arkansas senior guard Stef Welsh said his team will be trying to make sure it is not the season finale for his team and his career finale as a Razorback.
"I just think if we go down there and play together, play with toughness, be disciplined every possession and not take one possession off, it is not over with," Welsh said.
The two teams met earlier this season in Athens with visiting Arkansas rallying from a 15-point deficit to win 72-68.
It is also a rematch of the 2008 SEC championship when Georgia won four games in four days, finishing it with a win over Arkansas and both teams ending up in the NCAA Tournament.
The Razorbacks also went to the championship game and the NCAA Tournament in 2007.
"Some of those guys had the opportunity to go on a couple of occasions so they can attest to the different feeling, to the excitement you have to win and move on," Pelphrey said.
Fox said there is a picture of Georgia's 2008 celebration in his team's locker room, but it means nothing for this game.
"Our focus is not on the entire week, our focus is on Arkansas," Fox said. "We have to take this one day at a time, one game at a time. Outside of telling them to pack for a week, our complete focus has just been on playing well Thursday night."
Georgia boasts an imposing front line that includes sophomore Trey Thompkins (6-10, 247), an first-team all-SEC pick who is averaging 17.7 points and 8.2 rebounds this season and plays alongside 6-11, 265-pound senior Albert Jackson.
"Tremendous front court," Pelphrey said. "They are going to pound that basketball inside. Trey Thompkins is a big-time basketball player. They are the dunking Bulldogs. I don't know of anybody who dunks more than them – whether it is halfcourt, offensive rebounding, transition."
The leading of that dunk squad is 6-4, 202-pound sophomore Travis Leslie, who has gone from an average of 6 points as a freshman to nearly 14 as a sophomore.
"From one season to the next, he has really elevated his game," Pelphrey said. "He is a tremendous player."
Thompkins, whose team did not beat an SEC West team this season, was impressed with the Razorbacks.
"Arkansas is a great team and they have a group of talented guys who can score the ball," Thompkins said. "We broke down defensively and we didn't take care of our jobs we were suppose to do. Hopefully we have matured as a team to be able to take care of those things and have a great game."
Arkansas will be hoping to play more like it did in the second half of the win over Georgia instead of the first 20 minutes.
Courtney Fortson had 19 of his game-high 27 points after intermission and forwards Michael Washington (15 points, 8 rebounds) and Marshawn Powell (11 points, 9 rebounds) fared well inside.
Fortson also helped the Razorbacks score 27 points off 17 Bulldog turnovers.
"We really dried up scoring the ball, turnovers, foul trouble then became a problem," Pelphrey said. "Our inability to score, whether it be turnovers or shots, put them in transition and let them come down for easy baskets.
"After halftime we played a lot better," Pelphrey added. "Offensively, defensively we were able to keep our core of guys on the floor . Mike and Marshawn played better up front in the second half and Courtney had a big second half scoring the ball as well."
Fox, whose team was led by Thompkins' 21, thought part of that loss had to do with his team playing defense away from the bench.
"Early in the year and even in the last half of conference play, we have been a much better defensive team when our team is right in front of our bench," Fox said. "Certainly in that first game we went to the other end and had to play defense away from our bench, we had not yet matured to be an effective team when we were out of earshot of the coaching staff. I don't think we have completely matured there yet, but we have made some progress.
"I know in the first game it was partly of our defense, but certainly Fortson had a great second half and they played very good offensively in the second half and we just couldn't find a way to slow them down."
Fox said his team has improved throughout the season.
This is a team I have really enjoyed coaching," Fox said. "What we have talked about all year long is trying to get better from game-to-game and week-to-week. We felt like if we could do that towards the end of the season we would be playing our best basketball. I think over the last month we have played as well as we have all year."
Pelphrey knows one thing for sure.
"We'll have our hands full," Pelphrey said. "The last time we played them we were down 15 at their place and were lucky to come back. That certainly wouldn't be a great formula for us this time."
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