NASHVILLE — Arkansas forward Marshawn Powell has been with the Razorbacks’ basketball program since the 2009-10 season.
He’s the most experienced member of coach Mike Anderson’s team. So Powell knows what it’s like stepping on the floor for the Southeastern Conference Tournament after starting postseason games with the Hogs in 2010 and 2011.
But there’s something the veteran has in common with Arkansas’ first-year players as the seventh-seeded Razorbacks play No. 10 seed Vanderbilt in the 2013 SEC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn., tonight. He doesn’t know what it’s like to advance.
“It’s real frustrating,” Powell said Tuesday. “I’m trying to get a win.”
Arkansas (19-12, 10-8 in SEC) will press for success in the SEC Tournament for the first time in five years when it meets the Commodores (14-16, 8-10) in Bridgestone Arena at 6:30 p.m. The Razorbacks haven’t experienced a tournament victory since 2008, when it won two straight before a loss to Georgia in the championship game.
The disappointments since have included first-round losses to Florida (2009), Georgia (2010), Tennessee (2011) and LSU (2012). The four losses also ended the season for the Razorbacks, who haven’t played in the postseason since 2008.
Anderson said his team — which is much deeper than the group that lost to the Tigers in New Orleans last year — is better equipped for tournament play now.
“Typically the teams I’ve been associated with, they start playing some of their better basketball this time of the year and depth has a big part of that,” Anderson said Tuesday. “But the only way you’re gong to be able to create and use that depth is you get past the first game. That’s the most important critical game.”
Arkansas’ recent history in the tournament is proof winning game one is no easy task. It won’t be easy tonight, either, considering Arkansas’ road resume this season.
The Razorbacks carry a 1-11 mark in games played outside of Arkansas into the SEC Tournament. Its only win came at Auburn, which finished last in the SEC.
The poor performance has left Arkansas staring at a well-known reality as it begins SEC Tournament play: Its only path to the NCAA Tournament for will be winning four games in four days in Nashville to earn the SEC’s automatic bid.
But Powell isn’t deterred by what happened in the regular season. He believes the Razorbacks can be the first team to win four in four days since Georgia in 2008.
“I feel like if everything clicks — who knows when it may click — we can do some damage,” Powell said.
That is everyone’s goal this week in a high stakes tournament featuring only two teams that appear to be locks for the NCAA field (Florida and Missouri).
Everyone else needs to make an impression this week. The list includes Vanderbilt, which split the season series with the Razorbacks and has won four of its past five games after a rugged 2-7 start to open conference play this season.
“We are all just trying to win the game Thursday night at 6:30,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said Monday when asked if winning four games in four days is feasible this season. “That’s all we are trying to do right now. And I think the same can be said for the other 13 teams. All we are trying to do is win that one game while it is going on and then worry about everything else”
Vanderbilt won the 2012 SEC Tournament, but looks nothing like last year’s team with nearly all of its key performers and contributors gone. Its youth was evident in Arkansas’ 56-33 win against Vanderbilt in early January, but Anderson said the Commodores have improved this season and it has shown in a 6-3 record down the stretch. It includes a 67-49 win against the Razorbacks in Memorial Gym on Feb. 9.
“They’re playing some good basketball,” Anderson said. “So it’s not the same team we played earlier. We played them I think our first home game of conference play and at that time we beat them pretty good. Went to there place and they beat us pretty good. So now you’ve got the rubber match.”
The Commodores do have the hometown advantage against the Razorbacks, remaining in their own city to play in Bridgestone Arena. Stallings said Monday it doesn’t necessarily mean his team has an edge on the court tonight, though.
Either way, Arkansas guard BJ Young said the Razorbacks can’t let anything distract them from their goal of grabbing their first SEC Tournament win in five years.
“It’s the most important game of the season,” Young said. “We think it’s a game we’re capable of winning and we’re going in here confident. We’re feeling pretty good.”
The winner of tonight’s game will advance to face No. 2 seed Kentucky on Friday at 6:30 p.m. Arkansas beat the Wildcats 73-60 in Fayetteville on March 2.
But Anderson won’t let the Razorbacks get ahead of themselves. The only goal for now is to take the next step by winning an SEC Tournament game.
“That is what postseason is all about, getting into situations where you can test yourself and get better,” Anderson said. “I think this is going to be great for our basketball team. We will find out a little bit more about them and continuing to play — no question — Is a big benefit. I think just from the experience factor.”