(Razor)back in Time
Joe Johnson and Jannero Pargo reminisce about their days as Arkansas teammates in the SEC Tournament.
By Jon Cooper
Want to get Joe Johnson's attention?
Get within earshot of Johnson and holler, "Woo Pig Sooie!"
While some might throw a with weird look toward you, Johnson will give you his undivided attention. You’ll also have the ear of guard Jannero Pargo, who dresses one locker to Johnson’s left.
Both of Johnson and Pargo played college ball for two years at the University of Arkansas, with their college careers overlapping one year.
College loyalty means a lot at this time of year, as, it's tournament time in college basketball — many conferences have already played theirs while the rest are wrapping up this weekend.
"The SEC Tournament was always fun because it was a neutral site, nobody really has home-court advantage," recalled Johnson, who played the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons in Fayetteville. "Any time you get to Tournament time it's always great. I enjoyed it each year we played."
The first year Johnson played was one of the most remarkable, not only for him, but for the Razorbacks.
Nolan Richardson's squad finished the year 19-15, but only 7-9 in the conference, good for third in the West but more than likely not good enough to make the NCAAs, especially after they lost four of their final six regular-season games. The only way to get to the NCAA's appeared to be to run the table in the SEC Tournament. Winning four games in four days had never been done, making them a long shot.
But the Razorbacks’ odds improved dramatically as Johnson was taking those long shots.
The SEC Newcomer of the Year, Johnson, averaged 16.0 points per game, on 46.4 percent shooting (36.8 from three),while grabbing 5.7 rebounds and making 2.0 steals. He simply put the team on his back.
They had more than enough to knock off Georgia, 71-64, in the first round, then outlasted East runner-up Kentucky, which featured future NBA stars Tayshaun Prince, Jamaal Magliore and Keith Bogans. Johnson and Co., 60-55. The win set up a semifinal showdown with West champion, LSU. The Tigers, who were led by Stromile Swift had beaten the Razorbacks by a combined 36 points in two games, but fell, 69-67. In the final game, Arkansas made history, by beating the West’s second-place finisher Auburn, which was led by Chris Porter and Marquis Daniels, 75-67, to take the crown and the automatic berth.
"It was fun, exciting," recalled Johnson. "We had to win the SEC Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament and we were able to do that. That was probably the most memorable moment that I had in college."
The four games in four days proved to be a non-factor.
"Back then I was 18, 19. I didn't care if we played six or seven straight days," said Johnson, with a laugh. "When you get older it starts to wear and tear on you but in college you just play. It’s nowhere near as many games as we play in the pros so you can handle it."
Their run in the NCAAs wasn't a long one, however, as Arkansas was bounced by Miami, 75-71, in the first round.
The next year, Pargo arrived in Fayetteville. The two immediately hit it off and were electric in the backcourt. Johnson led the team with 14.2 ppg, while Pargo was right behind him with 12.3. They also were 1-2 in minutes played, field goals attempted and made. Pargo led the team in three-point shooting, making a team-high 73,
"I just remember in college him being a great scorer, a guy who could really put the ball in the hole,” said Johnson of Pargo.
"It was great playing with [Johnson]," Pargo recalled. "He'd create mismatches, make two people guard him and he'd find the open player.
He's been doing that ever since college. A guy like that makes it a lot easer and a lot more fun to play with."
Behind the dynamic back court, Arkansas finished 20-11, 10-6 in conference play, good for second in the West behind Ole Miss. After a first-round bye, they met LSU and knocked off the sixth seed in the West, 77-72. That set up a match-up with Eastern Division champion Kentucky for the second straight season. This time, things didn't work out as well, as the Wildcats took care of the Hogs, 87-78.
"I remember I didn't play well," said Pargo, with a laugh. "I remember Joe really asserting himself. He really looked forward to the SEC Tournament. He's pretty calm and mild-mannered, but during that season he was real up-beat and ready to play. So I kind of saw a different Joe during that time."
In the NCAAs Arkansas would again fall to a Big East power in a close game, this time dropping a 63-61 decision to Georgetown.
The following season, without Johnson, Pargo had another superb season (16.6 ppg, 43.2 shooting from three), but Arkansas struggled (14-15, 6,10) and fell in the first round of the SEC Tournament, 68-61, to Tennessee.
Pargo's postseason memories didn't go as well as Johnson's but March is still a special month and even though the rigors of the NBA — especially this season — have made it hard to keep up with University of Arkansas basketball, he still knows when the Madness begins to set in. (The Razorbacks could have used Johnson and Pargo, as they fell to LSU, 70-54, Thursday afternoon).
He’s armed and ready to talk smack — there are plenty of smack talkers with SEC rivals Florida (Al Horford) and Mississippi State (Erick Dampier) represented as well as national powers North Carolina (Marvin Williams, and Jerry Stackhouse), Wake Forest (Jeff Teague), Kansas (Kirk Hinrich) and Stanford (Jason Collins) all represented.
"If Arkansas plays against Wake Forest, Jeff [Teague] and I get into it," Pargo said. "Whenever our schools meet we tend to talk a little trash."