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Arkansas plans to honor Richardson at SEC tournament

Updated:

ATLANTA (AP) _ Nolan Richardson won't be around for opening day of the Southeastern Conference tournament. Florida will be.

Both are stunning developments.

Richardson was forced out as Arkansas' coach less than a week ago, leaving the Razorbacks in the hands of interim coach Mike Anderson as the SEC tournament opened Thursday at the Georgia Dome.

``This was something I looked forward to,'' Anderson said of his first head coaching job. ``But under the circumstances, it's very, very bittersweet.''

Florida spent virtually the entire season in the Top 10 _ rising as high as No. 2 in The Associated Press poll. In the final week, the Gators slipped to 11th and didn't even get a bye in the conference tournament.

No. 12 Kentucky and No. 17 Georgia, which tied with Florida in the SEC East, earned a day off by virtue of the tiebreaker.

``Florida began the year in the top five and may still be a top-five team, but they weren't even able to gain one of the top four spots in their own league,'' South Carolina coach Dave Odom said Wednesday. ``That's unbelievable.''

Florida (21-7, 10-6 SEC) will open against last-place Auburn (12-15), while Arkansas (14-14, 6-10 SEC) takes on Tennessee (14-15, 7-9). The other first-round games are Vanderbilt (16-13, 6-10) vs. LSU (16-13, 6-10) and South Carolina (16-13, 6-10) vs. Mississippi (20-9, 9-7).

Also getting byes were No. 8 Alabama, which won its first regular-season title since 1987, and Mississippi State from the Western Division.

Kentucky has won eight of the last 10 tournaments and comes in as defending champion.

Richardson, who coached at Arkansas for almost 17 years, was forced out by the school on Friday after he criticized fans and the media. He also bemoaned his status as the only black head coach at the school.

While the Razorbacks played their final regular-season game Saturday with Anderson running the team, Richardson's presence was everywhere. On the sideline, an empty red chair was left in the middle of the players. Draped over the chair was a red towel with Richardson's name in white _ a gift for his 500th Division I victory.

Anderson and his team planned to honor Richardson again in Atlanta.

``He was our leader the whole year,'' the interim coach said. ``He was the daddy of this family. We want to make sure he's paid a tremendous tribute.''

Despite Richardson's overpowering legacy _ he led the Razorbacks to a national championship in 1994 _ Anderson is trying to keep his players looking forward. He also noted that he was at Richardson's side for 21 years, first as a player, then as an assistant.

``It's not that strange,'' Anderson said. ``I just moved over a seat. Daddy's gone, so the next guy has to step up. That's Mike Anderson.''

Arkansas must win at least one game to qualify for a postseason invitation _ or four in four days to earn an improbable trip to the NCAA tournament. The Razorbacks pulled off the same feat only two years ago.

``This gives us a chance to escape some of the negative things,'' senior guard Brandon Dean said Wednesday. ``We can get on the floor and do what we enjoy doing.''

Still, Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson said it will be strange to play Arkansas without matching strategy with Richardson.

``I think he was good for the game and good for our league,'' Peterson said. ``I hated to see him step down.''

Florida won 14 of its first 15 games, then slumped to 7-6 down the stretch. The Gators finished the regular season with a 70-67 loss at Kentucky, missing a chance to clinch the East outright.

``We had some tough, heartbreaking losses on the road, but we've been right there all year,'' coach Billy Donovan said. ``It's a new day, a new challenge for us.''

No matter what happens Thursday, Florida and Mississippi are likely assured of NCAA bids. Even so, Rebels coach Rod Barnes doesn't want his team to relax.

``Maybe there's a little more comfort because we don't have the pressure to win a game,'' he said. ``But we didn't come here to finish second or third or eighth. If we don't win, we won't be satisfied.''
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