Arkansas eyeing NCAA berth after SEC win streak

KURT VOIGT AP Sports Writer Published:

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) -- Tom Collen wanted to do everything possible to forget about those first four Southeastern Conference games.

The Razorbacks' coach went so far as to put up a new group of standings in the team's locker room, one that featured only nine SEC teams rather than the league's full complement of 12.

Collen's philosophy: Arkansas had already lost to the top three teams in the league -- Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee -- so why not just focus on finishing at the top of what was left?

Whatever the reasoning or psychology, Collen's plan worked. Following a defeat at Mississippi on Jan. 12 -- a loss that sent the Razorbacks to 0-4 in the SEC -- Arkansas has won a program-best eight SEC games in a row.

The streak has lifted the Razorbacks (19-5, 8-4 SEC) from the bottom of the league to the top of Collen's limited standings. Heading into Thursday night's game with LSU (17-8, 7-5), Arkansas is fourth in the SEC -- with hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2002-03 season.

"They took some hard knocks again this year, but they've been able to rebound from it," Collen said. "I don't know if they could have rebounded from 0-4 last year, but this year they did."

The Razorbacks are rolling behind a group of five seniors who formed Collen's first recruiting class. C'eira Ricketts, Lyndsay Harris and Ashley Daniels were forced to play large roles as freshmen -- resulting in growing pains at times.

The lowest point was a 12-18 record two years ago, Collen's only losing campaign in 12 seasons as a head coach to that point. He had never finished with less than 19 wins before that, but a lack of depth and experience led to a 4-12 record in the SEC.

It was the first time Collen, now in his fifth season at Arkansas, had failed to reach a postseason tournament -- after reaching the NCAA tourney in eight of his nine previous seasons at Colorado State and Louisville.

The Razorbacks rebounded last season to finish 22-12, but they still struggled to a 6-10 mark in the SEC and reached the quarterfinals of the WNIT.

This season, however, they have found success.

"We play well together and we feel that," freshman Calli Berna said. "It's something you feel on the court. You go out there and know that we're on the same page and working for the same purpose.

"Sometimes people overlook that aspect of the game, but I think going on the floor now as opposed to a little earlier in the season, we can feel that and it's definitely worked to our advantage."

Another area Arkansas feels as though is being overlooked is its ranking, or lack thereof. Despite its winning streak, along with three wins over ranked teams this season, the Razorbacks are still unranked. They are 28th in votes in the AP poll, three spots behind No. 25 South Carolina -- which Arkansas easily defeated 68-47 last week.

"(We're) not necessarily surprised that we're not; maybe surprised as some of the other teams that are that we've beaten," Harris said. "But I feel like a lot of that is based on your history of your program. We're trying to be like those programs that are always in the Top 25, so we're doing what we have to do."

Collen only cares about the rankings because of the recognition it provides the players. He has no doubt that if Arkansas keeps winning, it will get all the recognition it deserves.

"I'm OK playing the underdog role," Collen said. "The only thing you can control is what you do on the basketball court. If you go out and keep winning games, then eventually you're going to be recognized. When that comes, it will be even sweeter that we had to work hard for it."

Arkansas hasn't finished the regular season in the top four in the SEC since the 1994-95 season, but that's where it is at the moment -- along with eyeing a career-ending NCAA tournament appearance for its seniors.

"We would like nothing more than to leave on good terms," Harris said. "I think this is the best way to leave, the way we're going right now. It just feels good after all the things we've been through. We've been through some heart aches and some tough times, and it just feels good to finally get to this point."