FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade knows his days as a college basketball player are running out.
The realization began to sink in when the Razorbacks celebrated Senior Day last week. It’s hitting home even more with the regular season over. The postseason is beginning, which means his last chance to reach the NCAA Tournament has arrived.
“It’s a sense of urgency, like it’s right here within arm’s reach and we’ve just got to grab it. So it definitely makes it kind of nervous,” Wade said Monday. “But at the same time, it’s like a good nervous. Happy, like we’re going to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in a while. So hopefully we can get it done.”
Wade and the Razorbacks won’t exactly have a smooth path this week.
There are plenty of other teams expecting to achieve the same goal.
The 2014 Southeastern Conference Tournament begins tonight with only two of the conference’s 14 teams — top-ranked Florida and Kentucky — assured of a spot in next week’s NCAA Tournament. There are no guarantees for the other 12 in a conference still battling its sub-par reputation. So urgency and desperation should be the common themes floating through the Georgia Dome.
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson believes it will lead to an entertaining week.
“I think it’s going to be a wide-open tournament,” Anderson said. “You’re going to see some games with teams that are really going to be battling. All you’ve got to do is look at the different records. Florida, obviously, went undefeated in our league and they’re playing at a high level. … But then you go and put all the other teams and it’s like you put them in a bag, man, and something can come out of there.”
No one will argue with Anderson. Florida is the favorite to win the tournament championship after sweeping through SEC play unblemished in the regular season.
But the top-ranked Gators – who have likely done enough to wrap up one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament – don’t enter the SEC Tournament with the same pressure as its conference brethren who are fighting to make an impression.
Tennessee (No. 4 seed), Arkansas (No. 5) and Missouri (No. 8) are at the top of that list. Each is regarded among the SEC’s NCAA Tournament “bubble” teams as postseason play begins and need strong showings to secure a spot in the field. To make things even more interesting: all three are on the same side of the bracket.
Tennessee appears to be in the best shape after winning four straight to end the regular season. Arkansas must shake off its embarrassing loss at Alabama to beat either Auburn or South Carolina and set up an important quarterfinals battle with the Volunteers. Missouri, which was blown out by Tennessee, also needs to win its first-round game against Texas A&M to advance and play the Gators on Friday.
“Anybody can win it,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Obviously, Florida is the favorite. They won the league, did a tremendous job. But anything can happen in tournament play. You’ve got to be clicking on all cylinders. Shots have to fall for you. You’ve got to play well as a team and maybe get some luck here and there.”
There isn’t as much bubble intrigue on the other side of the bracket, but it probably won’t be short of drama with several teams believing there’s an opportunity to work their way into the championship game over second-seed Kentucky.
Third-seed Georgia has gained little to no NCAA Tournament consideration because of its poor performance in nonconference play. The Bulldogs enter the week determined to prove their 12-6 SEC record was no fluke.
“I don’t know if we’ll have to win it,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said of his team’s NCAA Tournament chances. “But it sure takes the stress out of it if you do. I think we’ll have to advance. But to have a legitimate at-large chance we’ll have to advance in the tournament. But if you advance you might as well win it.”
Ole Miss knows how to do that after winning three games in three days to win the 2013 SEC Tournament title. The road is more difficult this season for the Rebels, who lost six of their final eight regular season games. But the sixth seed is capable.
So is LSU, which brings one of the best front lines in the conference to Atlanta.
If that’s not enough, Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Mississippi State don’t have back too far to know what a team with a losing record in conference play can accomplish in the tournament. A 4-12 Georgia team won the title in Atlanta six years ago, turning in the biggest SEC Tournament surprise.
“This is the epitome of March Madness, which created this mindset that anything can happen,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “We lived that last year where we were able to go and have a magical run. So that’s still fresh on the thoughts of our players’ minds. We realize the task is going to be a daunting one.
“But at the same time, all coaches try to turn the page and say, ‘Hey, we’re all starting here anew and there’s a lot to play for heading into Atlanta.’”
For Arkansas, it’s a chance to end a six-year NCAA Tournament drought.
But Anderson knows his team isn’t the only one with NCAA aspirations in Atlanta.
“Anybody can come out of there,” Anderson said. “To me, it’s who’s hot. Who’s playing well at that particular time? …
“I think it’s going to be interesting to see how it kind of unravels.”