LITTLE ROCK — The idea that Arkansas would turn down an invite to the NIT never crossed my mind until the father of an 11-year-old soccer player mentioned he had heard the “just say no” argument during a sports talk show.
I couldn’t think of one valid reason to defend such a position and pressed for details. The show was two days earlier and he drew a blank. What a shame. Whatever the justification, I would have argued the other side.
The NIT is not the NCAA, but, coach Mike Anderson accurately described the tournament as “another step in the right direction” for his Razorbacks.
For six years, the Razorbacks’ season has ended with the first game in the SEC Tournament. That is bad enough, but, since the 2008 season, Arkansas is the only member of the league that has not played in the NCAA or the NIT.
Missouri was in the NCAA Tournament in its first year in the league and said yes to the NIT this year. Texas A&M is 0-for-2 since joining the SEC with Missouri.
With the expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 68 teams, a total of 100 are in the postseason. If a team can’t crack the top hundred in the country, the program is a tough sell to a high school athlete.
St. John’s coach Steve Lavin put it succinctly during the NIT selection show Sunday night when he said, “It’s about more games.”
Arkansas’ first-round game tonight against Indiana State also offers Razorback fans an opportunity to thank the five seniors who tried their best to do it Anderson’s way. Although only Coty Clarke averaged more than 20 minutes per game, they stuck around and contributed. Maybe they will be able to look back in a few years and take pride in being part of the group that turned around Arkansas basketball.
I would like to see Anderson add a touch of emotion to the game by sending out all five for the opening tip. Coach Nolan Richardson did that in the 1994 national championship game, starting little-used senior Ken Biley against Duke. Biley played only the first three minutes.
On effort alone, Clarke, Kikko Haydar, Mardracus Wade, Rickey Scott, and Fred Gulley would keep the Razorbacks from getting in a big hole.
Any Arkansas fan who paid close attention to the second half of the loss to South Carolina in Atlanta and who is already looking ahead to next year should be enthused about the NIT because the tournament is another opportunity to measure the growth of Moses Kingsley.
The 6-foot-10 freshman entered the South Carolina game at the first TV timeout of the second half with Arkansas trailing 42-40. Two TV timeouts later, Arkansas was ahead 59-56.
During those eight-plus minutes, Kingsley had two dunks and an in-close bucket after catching the ball with his back to the basket, three blocked shots, and a rebound. Partly because Bobby Portis was in foul trouble, Kingsley logged 18 minutes, his second-longest stint of the season.
The fact Kingsley only averaged 8.3 points per game at Huntington Prep last year tells you that he was raw offensively when he arrived in Fayetteville. His two-dribble maneuver across the lane against the Gamecocks says he is on the improve.
His average per game of 4 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks is unimpressive until you factor in that he barely averaged 11 minutes per game. Among the Razorbacks, he is the player most likely to benefit from the NIT experience.
Asked on the radio Monday to grade Arkansas’ season, I handed out a B. The host followed up by asking if the Razorbacks’ performance in the postseason would change the grade.
A loss to Indiana State would result in a B-. Getting to New York would be worth a B+. Win one, lose one and the grade is still a solid B.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.