Doc Harper: Reaction To Arkansas’ NIT Appearance… It’s Complicated

 

nit reaction

Doc Harper Bio PageThere’s no way to describe the last week of Arkansas’ basketball season that doesn’t include some variation of disappointment, letdown, heartbreak, frustration, bewilderment, agony, calamity, or of course – yielded.

In the aftermath of losing two games to inferior opponents and with them any hope of an NCAA Tournament bid*, there seems to be a wide range of reactions to the Razorbacks’ NIT appearance. I’ll never tell anyone to be happy with making the NIT. It should never be the program’s goal and making that tournament is certainly not something Arkansas should make a habit of doing.

*After seeing how the selection committee chose their teams, particularly giving Kentucky an 8-seed and Tennessee a play-in game, I’m not sure Arkansas was quite as close to getting in as many thought. The Razorbacks may have had to win both the Alabama and South Carolina games just to get a spot in Dayton, and still may have needed to beat Tennessee.

By the same token, an outright dismissal of it seems like a shortsighted overreaction. Is it what everyone wanted? No. Is it something a lot of people around the country care about? Not particularly. Is it going to inspire a slew of top recruits to come to Arkansas? Pretty doubtful.

But as the old saying goes, no matter where you go, there you are.

This is where Arkansas is right now. It’s more basketball and they haven’t been invited to play more basketball since 2008. If you’re a fan of Razorback basketball, it’s a chance to win something, and that’s fun if nothing else. It’s a chance to keep playing and think out different bracket scenarios and do things Hog fans haven’t had any chance to do in years. I’ve never been one much to buy into the importance of extra practices because of a postseason appearance (especially when the team is overturning about a third of the roster next year), but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

All that being said, the relative importance of this NIT appearance will not be determined this year, regardless of how many games the Razorbacks win. What matters is how the program uses the appearance moving forward. Is this a stepping stone toward bigger things to come over the next few years? The answer to that question will tell us how Mike Anderson’s tenure as head coach of the Razorbacks will go.

There are several programs around the country who have made an NIT appearance and followed it up with substantial runs toward NCAA Tournaments.  You can see the NIT as a point in the growth of those programs. This year alone, 12 of the 68 NCAA Tournament participants were in the NIT last year, including 1-seed Virginia. If the Hogs are similarly able to look back on this NIT appearance and illustrate how it was an early point in the growth of the program, it’s hard to take issue with it.

In the short term, Arkansas will surely use this NIT appearance as tangible proof that the program is growing and getting better, which is a completely fair point to make. Razorback basketball has gotten better each year since Mike Anderson took over. The question though is can the program use this to climb farther in coming years. If Arkansas ends up in the NIT next year, it will be much harder to look at it as anything but negative.

The pressure is on for the program to make the NCAA Tournament next year. One big, immediate step Arkansas can take toward getting there – that is almost totally within their own control – is to improve their schedule. The Razorbacks and Tennessee have very similar resumes. They each won 21 games. They each claim three top-50 victories. The Hogs actually have two more top-100 wins and the Vols lost at home to Texas A&M while Arkansas’ worst home loss was to Missouri – nearly 100 places better in the RPI than the Aggies.

Tennessee won one more SEC game than Arkansas did (and one more tournament game), but the biggest difference between the two and the reason Tennessee was slated higher than Arkansas on projections heading into the SEC Tournament, was their strength of schedule. Arkansas ranked 95th while Tennessee was 23rd.  In non-conference alone, the Vols were 42nd while the Hogs were an embarrassing 205th. The Razorbacks scheduled six non-conference games against teams whose RPI was 273 or worse. Tennessee scheduled just two.

Thankfully, Arkansas is scheduled to play two true road games in non-conference next season at Clemson and at SMU, who should be very good. They may play a third road game in the SEC/Big 12 challenge. How the Hogs supplement those games will be vital. Will they still play in a non-conference tournament at a neutral site, similar to Maui? Will they schedule opponents more likely to end up in the 100-200 RPI area instead of the 250+ teams?

Yes, it’s possible for any team to win enough games to overcome whatever their schedule is, and Arkansas certainly had opportunities to do that this season. However,  the schedule created a much smaller margin of error, one so small that Arkansas’ 21 wins, 10 SEC wins, and Rupp Arena victory didn’t even get them on the First Four Out of the NCAA Tournament and resulted in a 3-seed in the NIT.

A big part of improvement in any facet of life includes learning from mistakes. This is a season Arkansas can learn from. In theory at least, it will be good for the Hogs, who should return most of their best players next season, to learn what it’s like to play in some form of postseason tournament. Just as hopefully, Arkansas might continue to learn what it will take to play in the NCAA Tournament next year.

But that’s all for later. For now, the Razorback basketball team has a game Tuesday night. And for those who enjoy watching Arkansas basketball, particularly in Bud Walton Arena, that’s fun.

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Doc Harper is the managing editor of Arkansas Fight and a contributor to Sporting Life Arkansas. You can email him at heydocharper@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @doc_harper

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  • GolfHog

    As John Pelphry taught us, anyone can recruit well enough to get one of those slots available at the lower tier. And, as Houston Nutt taught us, timing is everything in Razorback recruiting. You have to have great local talent on your watch, a Corliss or a Darren come your way just in time.

    Mike has Bobby Portis and a couple of more coming down the slot.

    • George Kok

      Since it’s inevitable that Arkansas will eventually play another Arkansas team, a good way to break the ice would be to schedule a game with Little Rock, if the administration would die of terminal clap before taking on Arkansas State.

  • 40 Minute Hell Razor

    I think Portis is the biggest factor for Hog futures. I expect to get only one more season from him before he’s off for a paying gig. Coty Clarke will be hard to replace. There must be more inside scoring and rebounding if the future is to be bright. Madden will be better, as will Kingsley. Will the incoming talent get here in time to develop and to complement Portis? I expect improvement next year, but not a lot of it. I just don’t see the talent.

    • Mike Whitley

      Having a couple of PG’s next year should help qite a bit. Having the ball out of Madden’s hands with only second’s remaining in tight games will give us a better chance at scoring that final basket.

  • Bri

    Without a coach who can teach And enforce simple things like not getting out rebounded by 20 and not throwing up stupid 3s, it won’t matter.