Arkansas’ B.J. Young drives the ball to the basket as Kentucky’s Julius Mays defends in the second half of their March 2 game in Fayetteville. (Special to The Arkansas News Bureau/Sarah Bentham)
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas basketball coach Mike Anderson and the Razorbacks understand they won’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament later this week.
But they’re hoping the season isn’t over yet.
The Razorbacks are waiting anxiously to find out if they’ve landed a spot in the 32-team National Invitation Tournament field tonight. It would be a consolation prize for a team that believed it had NCAA Tournament potential when the year began, but one Anderson said the Razorbacks would gladly accept minutes after his team’s disappointing 75-72 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament on Thursday.
“I’d love for this team to continue to play,” Anderson said Thursday night, minutes after the early exit in Nashville. “They’ve had a good year. They’ve improved from last year. They did some good things. If we have an opportunity to play and get some more practice time, that will only benefit our team.”
The NIT field will be announced after the NCAA Tournament finalizes its picks tonight. Arkansas appears to have the resume needed to earn an invitation and mark its first postseason tournament of any kind since 2008. It would be the program’s first NIT berth since 1997, when the Razorbacks reached the semifinals.
But Arkansas forward Michael Qualls also realizes the decision is out of Arkansas’ hands after its one-and-done performance at the SEC Tournament. The loss to the Commodores dropped Arkansas to 1-12 outside of the state this season.
So Qualls was a little nervous Thursday night as Arkansas’ wait began.
“I hope we do. But I don’t know,” Qualls said about getting into the NIT. “We had a horrible away record this year, horrible neutral record. Hopefully we can get the chance to try to redeem ourselves, but if not, just got to keep moving forward.”
Arkansas is one of several teams vying for – at this point - 23 available spots in the NIT field because of the tournament’s guarantees regarding conference champions.
Regular season conference champions that didn’t win their conference tournament or reach the NCAA field will be granted a spot in the NIT. So Charleston Southern, Mercer, Niagara, Norfolk State, Stony Brook, Robert Morris, Long Beach State, Northeastern and Louisiana Tech each fit the bill. Middle Tennessee State, which won the Sun Belt, is in if it doesn’t reach the NCAA Tournament field as well.
The Razorbacks could have plenty of competition for those at-large spots within the SEC depending on how things shake out for NCAA Tournament bubble teams like Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Ole Miss tonight. LSU – which beat Arkansas this season and won an SEC Tournament game – is in consideration as well.
So Arkansas forward Marshawn Powell knew Arkansas had no guarantee after struggling in Nashville.
“I’m kind of concerned about it,” Powell said. “But you really can’t dwell on it. The only thing you can do is wait until (tonight) and see.”
The good news for Arkansas: Two websites that devote time to projecting the NIT field each have Arkansas included among the 32 teams heading into selection night.
The NIT Bracket Project (bracketproject.com) listed Arkansas as a No. 3 seed facing No. 6 seed Indiana State in a first-round game as of Saturday. Bankrollsports.com also projected Arkansas as a No. 4 seed in the field Saturday. Top four seeds will host first-round games, which will be played Tuesday and Wednesday.
The first three rounds of the NIT are held at campus sites. Hosting games could be critical to Arkansas’ hopes of reaching the NIT’s Final Four, which will be played in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Razorbacks are 17-1 in Bud Walton Arena.
But that wasn’t Arkansas’ primary concern after the Vanderbilt loss. Guard Ky Madden said the Razorbacks simply want to extend the season a little more.
“I feel that way. I’m sure everybody in the locker room does, too,” Madden said. “It’s a game we enjoy and love to play. We get the opportunity, I’m all for it.”
Powell agreed. The forward, who will announce whether he’ll return to Arkansas for 2013-14 or pursue a professional basketball career, said he wouldn’t want the Vanderbilt loss to be the last impression of his career with the Razorbacks.
“Who knows what I might choose?” Powell said about his upcoming decision to stay or leave. “I really don’t know, man. I really don’t like to go out like that, the way we lost. I don’t want to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.”