Hog Heaven a little leaner this go-round
ATLANTA -- The SEC tournament used to be one of the greatest environments in college basketball. Arkansas fans would sit on one side of the arena, seemingly "Calling the Hogs" each and every time the Razorbacks ran up and down the court during their "40 minutes of hell." On the other side of the arena sat throngs of Kentucky fans, a scene so intimidating and surreal it was once described as the "big blue mist" by former Georgia coach Hugh Durham.
Surprisingly, the Razorbacks will play again in Sunday's SEC tournament championship game, against two-time defending champion Florida in the Georgia Dome. But Arkansas, which beat Mississippi State 81-72 in Saturday's semifinal, won't hear the traveling party it once enjoyed, a fan base that was so large and boisterous it seemed the Hogs had the home court no matter where the SEC played its tournament.
In fact, defending national champion Florida, which beat Ole Miss 80-59 in the other semifinal, figures to have the most fans on hand, after the Gators supplanted the Wildcats as the team to beat in the SEC the last three seasons.
"Most people weren't expecting us to be here for three days," Arkansas center Steven Hill said. "We know we've got the support at home."
Most of the Hogs' fans stayed in Arkansas this weekend after the team endured another inconsistent season. The Razorbacks won 12 of their first 15 games, including impressive victories against Southern Illinois and West Virginia in November. But then Arkansas lost nine of its next 13 games and fell to 5-9 in SEC play. The Razorbacks won their last two regular-season games, against Mississippi State and at Vanderbilt, to give an otherwise forgettable season new life.
"We had our backs against the ropes the last five or six games," point guard Gary Ervin said. "So it's fun to start winning again."
But the Razorbacks still might have to win once more to guarantee themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the second season in a row. Arkansas is 21-12 and 7-9 in the SEC West, which was considered the weaker division in the league (although three SEC West teams reached the semifinals of this tournament).
Even after beating South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State on consecutive days, the Razorbacks are still like a lot of other teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The Hogs were 11-10 against teams ranked in the top 100 of the RPI, but have only one victory against a top-25 opponent (they beat Southern Illinois 61-53 in overtime in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando on Nov. 23). Arkansas went 2-6 in SEC road games and lost at Texas and against Texas Tech on a "neutral" court in North Little Rock, Ark.
If Arkansas doesn't beat Florida, the Hogs will have to hope their profile is good enough in the eyes of the NCAA men's basketball committee, even though popular belief coming into this weekend was the SEC would get only four teams in the NCAAs. And Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are definitely in the tournament.
The SEC, which produced two Final Four participants in 2006, is probably a victim of its own balance. Florida is the only dominant team, and perhaps the only squad from the SEC with realistic chances of getting past the second round of the NCAAs.
But none of the SEC's 12 teams are really bad, either. For instance, none of the six teams in the SEC West won more than half its league games, which makes for a great title race and a lot of bad records. LSU, which returned three starters from the team that lost to UCLA in the national semifinals in 2006, finished last in the division.
"In my opinion, it's really a no-brainer," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "I think we've removed any doubt that, yes, we belong in that field."
But there is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Razorbacks as they prepare to play the defending national champion Gators, who beat Arkansas 79-72 in Gainesville, Fla., in the schools' only meeting this season.
There aren't a lot of Arkansas fans sitting in the stands at the Georgia Dome because Heath isn't very popular at home. Fan support has diminished so much that the Razorbacks crowd gathered here is perhaps one-fifth the size of the thousands of Hogs fans who were here in 1995. Former coach Nolan Richardson's team lost to Kentucky 95-93 in the 1995 SEC championship, which is considered the best game ever played in the tournament.
With the Hogs missing the NCAA Tournament in three of Heath's first four seasons at the school, most Arkansas fans wouldn't cross the Mississippi River to see them play, let alone travel all the way to Atlanta.
"People can question anything," Ervin said. "But we're fighting for each other. Everybody has each other's backs, from the head coach down to the 13th player."
When Heath was hired to replace the fiery Richardson after the 2001-02 season, he was coming off a remarkable run at Kent State, where he led the Golden Flashes to a 30-6 record, including a memorable three-game winning streak in the 2002 NCAA Tournament. Heath's 10th-seeded club upset higher seeds Oklahoma State, Alabama and Pittsburgh in that tournament, before losing to Indiana in the region finals.
But Heath has led the Hogs to the NCAA Tournament only once, and they were upset by Bucknell 59-55 in the first round last season.
"He's a classy guy," Ervin said. "He told us not to worry about what's going on and just go have fun and win some games. It hasn't been an issue for us."
But Heath admitted Saturday the speculation surrounding his future at Arkansas has weighed heavily on his wife and two sons, as well as his players.
"Believe it or not, I really and genuinely am happy for my players and probably my wife and kids," Heath said. "It really probably bothers them more than it bothers me. As a coach, you go into this field and you know you're a target. You know that people are going to like you, people are not going to like you. You get to the point where you say it really doesn't matter."
But with perhaps a trip to the NCAA Tournament and possibly Heath's job hanging in the balance, the SEC tournament championship game matters even more for the Razorbacks.
"We've got the SEC championship tomorrow," Arkansas forward Sonny Weems said. "We've got a lot of gas in the tank. I don't think we're tired at all. When you're playing for a championship, you've got to bring it all."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.