LITTLE ROCK — Often dismissed with snide remarks and humorous nicknames, NIT is the Newly Interpreted Tournament for Arkansas under Mike Anderson.
When a team has missed out on the postseason since 2008, an NIT bid is a sign of progress under a second-year coach.
Despite a fifth straight one and gone in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, a 19-win season and a 10-8 SEC record that includes victories over Florida, Missouri, and Kentucky should be enough to earn Arkansas an invite to the NIT on Sunday evening. The possible jeopardy is the trickle-down if a couple of surprise teams play their way into the NCAA field and bump others to the NIT.
The SEC has had four teams in the NIT in three of the last six years.
In 2000, the NIT was on the horizon for Nolan Richardson’s team that went 7-9 in the Southeastern Conference until those Razorbacks won four games in four days in Atlanta and went to the NCAA Tournament as champion of the conference tournament.
The National Invitation Tournament for a team that had become a regular in the NCAA was ridiculed with references such as “Never Important Tournament” or “Nobody’s Interested Tournament” and a perception that the NIT identified the 65th best team in the country. Updated, the perception would be that the NIT identifies the 69th best team.
A Denver Post writer once penned that the “NIT, NIT” taunt from fans was a three-letter word that “… was far more cutting than any four-letter word they could have hollered.”
This year, Arkansas fans have embraced the NIT, accurately viewing it as a stepping stone. Playing a role in that acceptance is the above-.500 record in the SEC and the truth that the Razorbacks are once again a foe to be reckoned with at home — a must for teams with postseason aspirations.
A year from now, attitudes about Anderson’s rebuilding process will be different if the Razorbacks fail to make the NCAA Tournament, but there are enough encouraging signs that fans should anticipate his third team. Personally, the positive assessment does not include Marshawn Powell or B.J. Young. There is nothing official, but I would be surprised if either is back.
Even though they scored 29 between them in the 75-72 loss to Vanderbilt on Thursday night, they were not particularly effective. Powell was 3-of-10 from the field and missed more than half of his 15 free throws. Young missed two free throws with 13 seconds left and Arkansas trailing by four.
If there was no help on the horizon, the Razorbacks would backslide. But, Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley, both 6-foot-9 and both ranked by ESPN among the top 50 players in the country, are on the way. If they are what they are supposed to be, Hunter Mickelson could move to the high post where he would be more at ease.
Redshirted this year after transferring from Houston where he averaged 13 points and six rebounds, 6-foot-6 Alandise Harris also could take up some of the slack created by the departure of Powell.
Arkansas went through the season without a true point guard and no one knows who will be running the offense in 2013-14, but Anderson is pursuing one guard, maybe two. It would be a plus if the new guard can shoot threes. Vanderbilt made 12-of-28; Arkansas 4-of-16.
Ky Madden, Coty Clarke, Mardracus Wade, Michael Qualls, Rickey Scott, Fred Gulley, Anthlon Bell, and JaCorey Williams should be back. Virtually all of them did some good things, but Madden’s contributions are most memorable because they are fresh. He had seven rebounds in only 24 minutes against Vanderbilt, was aggressive on the break, and made a couple of tough shots in the lane as Arkansas pursued the Commodores in the closing minutes.
More of that would be welcomed in the NIT.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.