FAYETTEVILLE - The Arkansas Razorbacks left Nashville, Tenn., Sunday for Fayetteville presumably looking way more forward to Friday’s 12:30 p.m.. CDT NCAA Tournament South Regional matchup on TNT (Turner Network Television) in Greenville, S.C. with Big East power Seton Hall than looking back on Sunday’s 82-65 SEC Tournament championship game loss to SEC regular season champion Kentucky.
Coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks, 25-9, had won eight of their last nine, including SEC Tournament triumphs in Nashville over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, before Sunday’s game got away from them late in the first half.
The NCAA bid, once fading when the Hogs hit bad stretch losing at then SEC last-place Missouri followed by a lopsided home loss at Walton Arena to Vanderbilt, was rescued by the Razorbacks’ regular-season closing surge sealing their NCAA at large bid as the South Regional’s eighth-seed against the No. 9 seeded Pirates, 21-11.
The Pirates lost their last game Friday in the Big East Tournament only 55-53 to the Villanova Wildcats, the reigning national champions and Big East regular season and Big East Tournament champions seeded No. 1 of the East Regional in Buffalo, N.Y.
Friday’s Arkansas vs. Seton Hall winner advances to Sunday’s second round in Greenville against Thursday’s winner of No. 1 South seed North Carolina, 27-7 and the Atlantic Coast Conference champion, against Texas Southern..
If Arkansas and North Carolina meet in Sunday’s second round, it will mark the third consecutive second-round meeting with the Tar Heels for Arkansas’ three most recent NCAA Tournaments.
Ranked No. 1 nationally, North Carolina routed former Arkansas coach John Pelphrey’s Razorbacks, 108-77 in the second round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament in Raleigh, N.C. and in Jacksonville, Fla. beat Anderson’s Razorbacks at the 2015 NCAA Tournament after Arkansas beat Wofford, 56-53 in the first round.
However before they can even think of eyeing coach Roy Williams’ Tar Heels, heavy favorites over North Carolina Central as a 16-seed has never lost to a top seed, the Razorbacks have all on their plate they can handle with Seton Hall, tied for third in the Big East regular season at 10-8 with Providence and Creighton in the Big East regular season behind Villanova and Butler.
The Pirates of seventh-year coach Kevin Willard are a balanced team with an at least an eight-man rotation used every game and four starters averaging double figures scoring. They are 6-4 junior guard Khadeen Carrington, 16.9, 6-6 forward Desi Rodriguez, 15.9, 6-10 junior forward Angel Delgado 15.1, and 6-2 freshman guard Myles Powell 10.7.
Delgado is college basketball’s chairman of the boards averaging a NCAA 13.1 rebounds per game.
“Our name came up and that’s a good thing coming off a tough loss,” Anderson was quoted Sunday afternoon in Nashville by WholeHog Sports. “But obviously this was the big goal, We are not just going to The Dance. We are going to dance and we aren’t going to do a one-step or two-step. Our guys are excited and we are playing good basketball. It is an opportunity to play against a Seton Hall team that is playing really good basketball as well. They are dynamite. They were in the tournament last year, have great guard play and great inside play.”
Willard was was an assistant under current Louisville coach Rick Pitino with the Boston Celtics and Louisville and is a disciple of Pitino’s uptempo style clashing head to head with the style that Anderson prefers.
“I have had a chance to watch them play and they are an attacking team so it is going to be an up and down game,” Anderson said.
Although always stressing a one game at a time, one practice at a time attitude, Anderson said the NCAA Tournament of course is an annual objective,
“Again, this is the goal that your work for each and every year. I figured we were in the hunt for something. I didn't know what it was, but we get to the championship of the SEC Tournament and now we get to go play in one of the grandest events there is - the NCAA. All the hard work that this guys have put into it - which started in May and into the summer and then the (August exhibition game tour) Spain trip, I can’t say enough about just going over there and bonding," Anderson said. “I think we have paid a price and I think it is worth it as now you get a chance to play in the biggest tournament there is and we are looking forward to it.”