Tuesday, March 17, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Arkansas back in the big dance

Leader sports editor

The Arkansas men’s and women’s basketball teams made the NCAA tournament for the first time in many years. It’s only been since 2012 for the women, but the men have waited since 2008 to dance on the big stage.

The Razorback men were a staple in the tournament for 20 years.

Starting in the mid-70s when Eddie Sutton took over the program, and running through the first 10 years of Nolan Richardson’s tenure, (minus a brief stint after the transition) Arkansas was among the very best, the elite of the elite, appearing in five final fours, two national championship games and winning one national title.

Hog coach Mike Anderson was Richardson’s top assistant throughout his stint at Arkansas, but the program has only made it to the big dance three times in the 14 years since his and Richardson’s departure.

So it’s fitting in his fourth year back, rebuilding a program run aground by John Pelphrey. Pelphrey took the team to the NCAA tournament his first year, when he had a team loaded with seniors who had made it the previous two years under Stan Heath. Since then, it got worse and worse until Anderson arrived four seasons ago.

Now, as a dreaded five seed, the Hogs draw Wofford, that often makes the tournament, but never wins there.

Hailing from a city with one of the best names in the country, the Spartanburg, S.C. squad has made the tournament four of the last six years, but hasn’t yet won.

The Terriers are 28-6 and won the Southern Conference championship. Guard Karl Cochran averages 15 points per game and has taken more than 25 percent of Wofford’s shot attempts by himself this season.

Arkansas’ big advantage will be in size, a welcome change from being dwarfed by Kentucky in the SEC championship game on Sunday. No Terrier is taller than 6-foot-7. SEC Player of the Year, 6-10 Bobby Portis, could dominate in Jacksonville, Fla. on Thursday. That is if he breaks out of the 4 for 21 funk he’s been in the last two games.

Wofford plays at a snail’s pace compared to Arkansas. The Terriers are next-to-last in scoring in the Southern Conference, while the Hogs led the SEC in scoring offense. But to be next-to-last in scoring and still be 28-6, means Wofford plays good defense. It has held opponents to 30.8 percent shooting this year and led the league in steals and defensive rebounding. Second-chance points don’t come often against the Terriers, but few teams in their league are as big as the Razorbacks, who haven’t been a great rebounding team, but did battle hard on the boards with Kentucky on Sunday.

If the Razorbacks crash the glass on Thursday as hard as they did on Sunday, and get just a decent offensive effort from Portis, they will dominate the Terriers, and move on to face the winner of the North Carolina vs. Harvard matchup.

The Arkansas Women face power conference team in the Big 10’s Northwestern at 11 a.m. Friday. The seventh-seeded Wildcats have not been to the NCAA tournament since 1997. That team was knocked out of the tournament by George Washington University. The GWU coach in that game was Joe McKeown, who now leads Northwestern back to the dance.

The 10 seed Arkansas Women have a heavy local presence in junior forward Melissa Wolff of Cabot, and sophomore guard/forward Jessica Jackson of Jacksonville.

Jackson has led the team in scoring since arriving in Fayetteville, though she hasn’t had to carry as much of the load this year. She averages 14.9 points per game while Kelsey Brooks is right behind at 14.1. Wolff is fourth on the team at 8.1 points per game, but leads the team in double doubles.

First-year Razorback coach Jimmy Dykes calls Wolff the heart and soul of the team for her unmatched hustle and locker room presence.

Arkansas is unranked with a 17-13 record while Northwestern is 23-8 and ranked 22nd in the country. The Razorbacks won two more games last year and didn’t get into the tournament, but didn’t play as tough of a schedule, had fewer wins against Top-50 RPI teams and didn’t win a game in the SEC tournament like they did this year in avenging an earlier loss to Ole Miss.

If the Arkansas Women can pull the upset, it could count as vindication for the controversial decision to hire Dykes, who is a popular figure in northwest Arkansas as a former Razorback walk-on and ESPN analyst, but had never coached a basketball game.

If the Arkansas men beat Wofford, that in itself will be a dramatic step in the right direction. If it can pull off a second-round win and advance to the Sweet 16, it could begin to lift the program back into national relevance. Longtime SEC follower and CBS sports analyst Tim Brando is fond of saying, and everyone agrees, “College basketball is better when Arkansas is relevant.”