Razorbacks are again on the cutting edge NCAA TOURNAMENT


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Everyone who picked Arkansas in his NCAA pool will be glad to know that Nolan Richardson and the Razorbacks are getting testy again.

Last year, Arkansas ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation, forward Corliss Williamson was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and Richards received several Coach of the Year honors, but he somehow convinced his players that the Razorbacks weren't respected.

Now, it seems that no one -- at least outside Fayetteville and the White House -- wants to applaud Arkansas' becoming only the third defending champion in the last decade to get to the Sweet 16.

Instead, everyone wants to know about the desire of the first NCAA champion in nearly 30 years to return every starter. They want to know how the Razorbacks like being the hunted instead of the hunter.

The questions started with a season-opening whipping administered by Massachusetts, and continued through two narrow escapes last weekend to the Midwest Regional at the Kemper Arena, where Richardson has news for anyone who thinks Arkansas is going to blow out Memphis tonight and handle the Kansas-Virginia winner in Sunday's final.

Forget it.

"When you create a monster," Richardson said, "which we have done at Arkansas, the fans at home and around the country want to know: 'What's wrong with the Razorbacks?' "

"We've already played more games than last year. It's a long basketball season, and every team you play wants to cut the nets down on you. This has been the most exciting, rewarding basketball year of my life. Having been a player, I know how hard it is to do the things these kids do."

After his customary knock at the media, Richardson took on some long-sighted historians.

"People confuse this with the '60s," Richardson said. "Not to take anything away from UCLA [which won 10 titles in 12 years], but those teams only had to play four games to win a championship. We've got to play four just to get to the Final Four. UCLA's first two games back then were against West Coast teams. Those days are over."

Last year, the Razorbacks' margins of victory in the NCAA tournament were 25, 12, 19, eight and nine points before Scotty Thurman's last-minute three-pointer lifted them past Duke in the championship game.

This year, they learned about parity in a hurry. A week ago, Arkansas nearly became the third No. 2 seed in history to lose in the first round, as the Razorbacks nearly were taken into overtime by Texas Southern. Two days later, they were grateful for overtime, as Syracuse's Lawrence Moten called an illegal timeout in the dwindling seconds of regulation.

It may be more of the same to night, another opponent that can make its season by beating the defending national champions.

"Hopefully, we'll be the team that beats them," said Memphis forward David Vaughn. "They're fortunate to be playing us. They're just very lucky."

The Razorbacks' charmed existence began on Feb. 9, when Mingo Johnson missed a three-pointer that would have given Memphis the win at Fayetteville. Instead, Arkansas began a 10-game win streak that didn't end until it blew a 19-point lead on Kentucky in the SEC tournament championship game.

Arkansas' defense wobbled out of the gate. Williamson, who broke a hand in last year's NCAA title game, passed on the Goodwill Games and instead fortified himself on the home cooking in Russellville, Ark., and his weight soared from 245 pounds to more than 280.

Dwight Stewart, another big man with an occasional weight problem, missed all eight games in February after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Swingman Davor Rimac missed four games after surgery to remove a kidney stone.

The Razorbacks, however, persevered, and no one in the nation has more wins. In Corey Beck, they've got a point guard who sets the tone at both ends. With Thurman showing the way, Arkansas led the SEC in three-point shooting. Williamson is still one of the nation's premier low-post scorers.

"We're as hungry as ever, but a lot of people say we're not, because we're not blowing people out," Thurman said. "We're getting tired of hearing it. As long as the man over there [Richardson] is happy, that's what counts."

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