March 10, 2010

Rob Keys, Special to NCAA.com

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Arkansas senior Scott MacPherson knows what it feels like to win a national championship. He was there the last time the Razorbacks did it.

That was 2006, and for a program that won 12 in a row during its stretch of 19 indoor titles in 23 tries, three trophy-less years feels like a drought. Despite fielding just six individual entries and one relay team, Arkansas hopes to be back in the championship hunt at this weekend's NCAA Division I Track & Field Championships.

The meet will be held Friday and Saturday at the Randal Tyson Track Center in Fayetteville.

"Team-wise, it's been a while since we had a legit shot at a national championship and that's what we're going in there to do," MacPherson said. "We're going in there to win a national championship.

"We've done the preparation, so now it's a matter of going out in front of the home crowd and having fun, doing what we know how to do."

It won't be easy. Despite coming off a Southeastern Conference championship victory over No. 1 Florida and No. 5 LSU, Razorbacks coach Chris Bucknam said No. 8 Arkansas probably isn't among the favorites at the national meet.

"Oregon and Arizona State and Texas A&M, Florida, LSU - those are the teams in the driver's seat," said Bucknam, who is in his second year as John McDonnell's replacement. "We think that we're on the fringe of that and we hope that things play out so that we're in a position at the end of the meet to score some points."

If Arkansas is to challenge, it almost surely will need significant points from its group of three jumpers. Senior Alain Bailey is the NCAA leader in the long jump and finished 1-2 along with sophomore Tarik Batchelor, who is ranked third nationally, at the SEC meet.. Freshman Brede Raa Ellingsen will compete in the high jump.

Senior Dorian Ulrey, meanwhile, will run the 3,000 meters and is expected to anchor Arkansas' DMR team. Ulrey won the mile and 3,000 at the SEC Championships.

Then there's MacPherson, who bounced back from last year's redshirt indoor season to win the 5,000 meters at this year's SEC meet. A gritty competitor and the glue of the Razorbacks squad, MacPherson believes a top-three finish in this weekend's loaded 5,000 field is realistic.

"I'm going to put my nose in the front and hopefully I'll be there with a couple laps to go and I can have my say at it," MacPherson said.

Bucknam credited MacPherson with fostering the chemistry that has carried a youthful Arkansas throughout the indoor season.

"I think it's well-documented that he's been a bridge between the old and the new staffs, and has helped our transition be easier," Bucknam said of MacPherson. "He's such a coachable guy and he sees the good in everything."

That apparently included the changes that occurred when Bucknam replaced McDonnell.

"Although John's and my style are a little different on a daily basis, I think our coaching theories are similar," Bucknam said. "Scott was able to adjust to the daily change and I think that bled into the rest of the team.

"To some people at this level, if you tip the apple cart just a little bit, they go off. Scotty isn't one of those guys."

MacPherson said Arkansas has won championships with similarly small numbers, and this year's group is confident it can replicate that success.

"I think the morale on the team is the best it's ever been," MacPherson said. "The guys are comfortable and happy, and it's just a good aura.

"It's just a matter of guys doing what we've done all season."

The nation's top five teams, the same ones Bucknam recited, have done plenty this indoor season, too. With so much talent on display, Bucknam said he expects most events to be fiercely competed.

That kind of scenario, he added, puts an emphasis on being near-perfect.

"The margin of error is so small that you can't hiccup," Bucknam said. "You've got to be on it and ready to go. ... You misstep or you flinch, and you're done."

Because Arkansas proved it can excel under similar circumstances at the SEC meet, Bucknam is hopeful the Razorbacks can overcome their lack of depth.

"Sometimes talent trumps everything, but we're all so evenly balanced that when it comes down to it, some of those intangibles really make a difference," Bucknam said. "That's guys having an attitude of, 'I can't wait to race. I can't wait to jump. The day can't come quick enough.'

"I think that's what this team is like. They're excited about this weekend. They don't fear it, they're going to embrace it."