FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guards Kikko Haydar, Mardracus Wade and Rickey Scott have never played in the NCAA Tournament during their careers.
It wasn’t what any of the three envisioned when they joined the Razorbacks as wide-eyed freshmen. So the final stretch of their collegiate careers — one which has Arkansas in the thick of an NCAA Tournament berth — has plenty of added meaning. Even if Haydar said Arkansas is trying not to dwell on it.
“We’re just worried about our game, and if we handle our business, none of the rest of that stuff matters,” Haydar said. “All the bracketology … It’s great to be thought of in the field, but a lot can change. So we’re just trying to stay focused.”
The seniors, along with the rest of the Razorbacks (20-9, 9-7 in Southeastern Conference), will try to maintain the momentum when they play their final home game against Ole Miss (17-12, 8-8) at 7 p.m. Arkansas has won five straight games, seven of its past eight, and has put together a postseason resume deemed NCAA Tournament worthy by many up-to-the-minute prognosticators.
There’s no doubt that could change quickly, though, with a home loss. So the Razorbacks will do everything possible to make sure the Rebels don’t dampen their NCAA run. Or senior night. Arkansas will honor its five-man class of Haydar, Wade, Scott, guard Fred Gulley and forward Coty Clarke before their final home game.
“Hopefully, things will end on a good note,” said Gulley, who has played the past two seasons. “We’re very excited for what’s coming.”
There’s reason for concern, though, as senior night arrives.
Ole Miss has a history of souring Arkansas’ festivities.
The Rebels, under coach Andy Kennedy, have won six straight against the Razorbacks. Four of those have come in Bud Walton Arena. Three of Ole Miss’ victories have come on the Razorbacks’ senior night (2012, 2010 and 2009).
“The only one I remember was two years ago,” said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, whose team lost 77-75 in 2012. “I mean, they stole one. They did, they actually stole one. It’s the game where we led, and I thought we just had a meltdown where we just kind of handed the ball to them. We had the ball, and I think we ended up turning it over right there at the end. But they came in and stole one.”
Kennedy was asked about the success earlier this week, but downplayed it by saying it won’t have any impact on tonight’s game in Fayetteville.
Instead, Kennedy said his team faces a big challenge in trying to frustrate Arkansas.
“I think Arkansas is playing as well as anybody, obviously, in our league having won five straight,” Kennedy said. “Playing with a great deal of confidence. A real sense of urgency that you would expect as they’re closing in on trying to get into the NCAA Tournament and we know we’re going to have our hands full.”
It’s clear Arkansas is playing with confidence after its biggest week, beating Kentucky at Rupp Arena and following it with a home win against Georgia. It has helped Arkansas climb into a tie for fourth place in the SEC standings with Tennessee, which also is fighting to lock up an NCAA Tournament berth.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, is sliding in the wrong direction. The Rebels started SEC play with a 7-3 record before losing five of the past six games. But Arkansas understands the danger the Rebels possess, especially with enigmatic guard Marshall Henderson (19.2 points a game) roaming the floor and firing up 3-point shots.
So Anderson said his team must concentrate on the Rebels. Not the postseason.
“The next game is a big game,” Anderson said. “That’s why I always say, the games are bigger. Well, we’ve got two games and they get real big. So, let’s control that. So, let’s get ready for Ole Miss and that’s all we talk about. And if we do what we’re supposed to do, then everything will line up and fall in place.”
Arkansas’ seniors — who have been instrumental in the Razorbacks’ rise after a 2-6 start in SEC play — promise to lead the way once again.
Tonight could be the last time the group plays in Bud Walton Arena. The only possibility for future home games is if the Razorbacks are playing in the National Invitation Tournament game. So it’s no secret what the senior class wants tonight: a home win against Ole Miss that helps them move closer to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s going to be a bitter-sweet moment,” Gulley said. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears have been shed here and a lot of hard work went on here. Hopefully it’s our last go-round here.”