March 12, 2015

There's a seven-seed gap between Arkansas and Tennessee in the SEC tournament, but given the narrative that played out in the regular season, all that distinction does is belie just how close the series has been.

After five-point home wins for each, the schools face off in a decisive game Friday night in Nashville with the winner advancing to the tournament semifinals.

No. 21 Arkansas (24-7) won 24 games for the first time since reaching the national title game in 1994-95 and 13 league contests for the first time since its 1993-94 national championship season to earn the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. The victory it got against 10th-seeded Tennessee (16-15) didn't come easily, and the 69-64 home win on Jan. 27 just canceled out a 74-69 loss at Tennessee two weeks prior.

"We're familiar with them; they're familiar with us," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "I'm more worried about what we do right now."

He's got a great player to charge with leading that.

SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis remained consistent through both Tennessee games, scoring 17 in each while averaging 9.5 rebounds. The forward was possibly even better in his last four games of the season, averaging 20.5 points and 8.8 rebounds, including a 21-point, 15-rebound effort in Saturday's 81-78 home loss to LSU.

He's now within 29 points and one rebound of becoming the first Arkansas player to hit 1,000 points and 500 rebounds as a sophomore. But Portis, who finished the regular season second in the conference in scoring (17.8 points per game), first in field-goal percentage (56.3), fourth in rebounding (8.7) and sixth in blocked shots (1.5), was surprised to be given the award over a Kentucky player. His coach wasn't.

"He deserved it," Anderson said. "He was consistent. The numbers don't lie, number one. And number two, the impact he's had on what has taken place for our basketball team. Night in and night out, he's been that kind of a bellcow for our basketball team."

The LSU game followed a win at South Carolina and a loss at No. 1 Kentucky, and though ending the regular season with losses in two of three is far from ideal, the Razorbacks' NCAA Tournament hopes are safe and Anderson thinks the best could still be to come.

"I still don't believe we've played our best basketball for a full game," Anderson said.

Now might be as good of a time as any, given the Razorbacks haven't won an SEC tournament game over the past three seasons.

Tennessee didn't have the luxury of a double-bye to the quarterfinals but reached this stage with Thursday's 67-61 win over Vanderbilt. The Volunteers' season seemed to be coming to a close before they ended the game on a 20-2 run that started with 6:18 left after trailing 59-47.

Josh Richardson scored 15 of his 22 points in the second half on 7-of-8 shooting, and Robert Hubbs matched a career high with 16.

Richardson has been nearly as good against Arkansas this season, averaging 18.5 points on 62.5 percent shooting, while Hubbs, who averages just 7.2 points for the season, has managed 15.5 on 66.7 percent in the meetings with the Razorbacks.

After exerting so much in the final minutes, coach Donnie Tyndall expects to use his bench more against rested Arkansas.

"It's a huge challenge, no question, because Arkansas is a deep team," Tyndall said. "They're a team that wears on you with their press and their style of play. We're just going to depend on our bench a little bit more. We'll have to. The fact that these guys are fighting for their basketball lives, hopefully they don't get tired."

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