CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Arkansas, which has abandoned the Southwest Conference to join the Southeastern Conference next season, will get a sneak preview of its new competition when it plays Alabama, the SEC tournament champion, in an NCAA Southeast Regional semifinal game tonight (4:40 PST) at the Charlotte Coliseum.
Third-ranked Indiana (29-4), will face Kansas (24-7) in the second semifinal.
The second-ranked Razorbacks (33-3), who have won 10 of their past 11 games, are attempting to reach the Final Four for the second consecutive season. They were eliminated by Duke in the championship semifinals last season.
"Last year, we got embarrassed by Duke," Arkansas center Oliver Miller said Wednesday. "But you have to realize that last year we were a young team. This year, we're more mature.
"We know how it feels to be in the Final Four. Now we want to get back to the Final Four and we want to know how it feels to win the national championship."
Fourth-seeded Alabama (23-9), which has reached the sweet 16 five times in the past seven seasons, has never advanced to to the Final Four, losing to Loyola Marymount in the West Regional semifinals last season.
Why hasn't the Crimson Tide been able to roll into the Final Four?
"I thought you'd never ask that," Coach Wimp Sanderson said. "I'm very proud that we've been able to arrive at the final 16 five times. The crux of the story that you want to write is that we haven't gotten through once. The crux of the story that I want is that at least we've gotten to the sweet 16.
"I think there's a certain amount of luck to getting to the final 16 and catching somebody that has upset somebody else. We haven't been able to do that. Most of the teams we've played have been very high-seeded teams. Yes, we haven't passed the final 16, but we're very proud of what we've accomplished."
To win tonight, Alabama will have to neutralize the Razorbacks' so-called "40 Minutes of Hell" pressure defense, which has forced an average of 22.6 turnovers a game.
Alabama must also contain Miller, Arkansas' 6-foot-9, 286-pound junior center. Miller, college basketball's most accurate shooter at 70.4% this season, is averaging 15.7 points and 7.7 rebounds.
"When you play a team like LSU that has Shaquille O'Neal in the middle, that prepares you for anybody else in college basketball," said Alabama forward Melvin Cheatum, who has been assigned to cover Miller.
James Robinson, a 6-3 freshman guard, is averaging a team-high 16.9 points. The first freshman to lead Alabama in scoring since 1953, Robinson was fourth in the nation in freshman scoring this season.
Sanderson won't allow Robinson to be interviewed because he thinks the 1989 Mississippi prep basketball player of the year received too much preseason publicity. The gag order was placed on Robinson after he ripped Sanderson in print for criticizing his shot selection.
"I don't know what a good shot is anymore," Robinson told Birmingham reporters. "I think every shot is a good shot."
Said Sanderson: "The media made him a great player before he played. In Alabama's basketball program, you play, and then you or I determine if you're good. It's not determined prior to playing."
After Alabama lost two of its first four games, Sanderson removed Robinson from the starting lineup and inserted Bryant Lancaster. The Crimson Tide has won 21 of its past 27 games with Robinson as the sixth man. Although Robinson doesn't start, he averages 29.3 minutes a game, Lancaster 9.5.
Kansas, after being ranked No. 1 midway through the 1989-90 season, was eliminated by UCLA, 71-70, in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament.
"Last year's team had a lot of pressure because we spent a great deal of time at No. 1," forward Mark Randall said. "I think we handled the pressure well, but then we got into the tournament and lost to a team I think we should have beaten. I think that motivated us this season."
Missing four of five starters from last season, the Jayhawks started slowly, losing four of their first 13 games. But they have rebounded to win 15 of their past 18.
Indiana and Kansas run similar offensive schemes, which rely on the passing game and back picks. Both teams also emphasize defense.
"The only team we've faced that plays a similar style of defense is Oklahoma State, and on offense the closest team would be us, so we've seen a lot of them in our practice," Kansas Coach Roy Williams said.
NCAA Southeast Notes