Arkansas vs. Virginia: unappreciated matchup NCAA TOURNAMENT


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Finally, Arkansas gets an opponent that feels even more unappreciated than the Razorbacks.

Tired of the expectations that accompanied bringing back every starter from last year's champion, it's an ornery bunch of Razorbacks that will face Virginia in the Midwest Regional final at Kemper Arena today.

The Razorbacks have been under the microscope all season, and the scrutiny has increased with three close calls in the NCAA tournament.

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, lost their top player to a broken ankle five weeks ago, and have been hanging off to the side since the NCAA basketball committee seeded them fourth and thus deemed them the weakest of the four teams that shared first in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Most of the nation probably is clamoring for an Arkansas-North Carolina semifinal next Saturday, which would match the past two NCAA champions. The Cavaliers, however, would like to get another shot at a team that few recall they split with this season. Some of his players wish they were getting more attention, but that's fine with coach Jeff Jones.

"In some ways, it's been an advantage not to be talked about with the other top teams in the tournament," Jones said. "We were 6-3 at the end of December, and not a whole lot of people, including ourselves, felt good about the way we were playing. Virginia became somewhat of an afterthought in the ACC race, and Wake Forest to the same extent. Carolina and Maryland, that's all you heard about."

Jones made another reference to the Terps when he was asked which ACC team was closest to Arkansas in its style of play.

"Maryland or North Carolina," Jeff Jones said. "Probably Maryland more so, because they give you constant pressure. Plus, they have the big guy inside who really battles."

Arkansas forward Corliss Williamson is coming off his best game of the tournament -- he had 27 points and 13 rebounds in Friday's defeat of Memphis.

The Razorbacks reached the 30-win plateau for the fourth time in six seasons against Memphis, their second straight overtime win and third narrow victory in as many NCAA tournament games.

Texas Southern, Syracuse and Memphis all prefer a fast pace, but Virginia, which has gotten great work from Harold Deane at the point since junior Cory Alexander broke his right ankle, has the ability to be more patient.

"We expect to run and attack, while Virginia's in a situation where they'll try to control the tempo," Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said. "We cannot allow Virginia to control the tempo."

In contrast to the bad blood that followed the Arkansas-Memphis overtime game, Virginia didn't give the Razorbacks any bulletin board material. Jones admires the way Arkansas has staved off elimination three straight times.

"I find it interesting that so many people make a big deal over the margin of victory and how they [the Razorbacks] look," said Jones, who didn't sound too eager to run with Arkansas. "It's not as easy as saying we want a slower pace. Arkansas dares you, forces you to play at a faster pace, but we've got to be smart about our opportunities."

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