FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas men’s basketball team didn’t make it to the NCAA Tournament in coach Mike Anderson’s third season.
The Razorbacks couldn’t make it to New York City, either, after being eliminated in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament on Monday night.
But Anderson wouldn’t let the frustrating end — a 75-64 loss at California — cloud what he believed was an important year for his program. Arkansas, after a six-year absence, was back in postseason tournament for the first time since the 2007-08 season. It led Anderson to proclaim “the foundation is set” for the Razorbacks.
“If you look at what’s taken place from the first year to now, obviously it’s a positive move in the right direction,” Anderson said. “We won’t be playing for a national championship in the NCAA, but we can use (the NIT) as a springboard for next year.”
Arkansas begins the long offseason working to make its first taste of postseason experience pay off in 2014-15. There’s no doubt it starts with some disappointment after the Hogs closed the season with three losses in their final four games.
The Razorbacks were in NCAA Tournament consideration late in the year, but fell out of the picture after losses to Alabama (regular season finale) and South Carolina (SEC Tournament). They were able to enjoy the program’s first postseason win in six years against Indiana State in the first round of the NIT, but first-half shooting woes led the season-ending loss in Berkeley, Calif.
Arkansas shot 25 percent in the first half and fell behind by as much as 23 points.
“We didn’t get as far as we wanted to, but there’s hope and I think the fans saw the brand of basketball they’re looking for,” Arkansas guard Kikko Haydar told reporters Monday. “We didn’t bring it every game, every time, but they saw what’s coming. I think the nation got a chance to see Razorback basketball is on the rise.”
Arkansas did break through its share of barriers during the season.
On top of the postseason appearance, the Razorbacks won at Kentucky for the first time since 1994 and swept the season series against the Wildcats. Arkansas went 4-10 in games outside of the state, improving from a 2-22 performance during its first two seasons under Anderson. The Hogs put together their first back-to-back seasons above .500 in SEC play since 1998-99 as well, going 10-8 for a second straight year.
The Razorbacks also enjoyed one of their best stretches in SEC play — winning eight of nine games after a 2-6 start — before struggling down the stretch.
“We were in a position. We controlled our own destiny,” Anderson said before the NIT began. “And so last year, I couldn’t sit there and say we were in position to do that. Now, experience is going to be your greatest teacher. We learned. We learned. Sometimes you can pull the cart before the horse. So the lesson learned is, ‘Hey, you’ve got to finish what you started.’”
Arkansas will move on without the five-man senior class of Haydar, Coty Clarke, Mardracus Wade, Fred Gulley and Rickey Scott. Clarke (9.4 points, 5.6 rebounds) was the only senior among Arkansas’ top six scorers this season.
That doesn’t diminish the impact each made on the program.
“They’re a class guys,” Anderson said. “The thing I like about them, they’re character guys. They’re doing the right things on and off the floor. Always think you have to win off the floor before you win on the floor. I think we saw some of that, we saw that trickle into this basketball team. …
“They’ve set the bar, they set the foundation. Progress was made on and off the floor. People in Razorback nation can be excited. These guys started the movement.”
Forward Bobby Portis will return for his sophomore season, serving as the focal point for the program after averaging 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds this season.
Ky Madden (12.7 points a game), Michael Qualls (11.6), Alandise Harris (9.0), Anthlon Bell (7.2) and Moses Kingsley (4.0) are expected to join him to form an experienced nucleus that — finally — has some postseason tournament experience.
Point guard Anton Beard, shooting guard Nick Babb and forward Trey Thompson signed with the Razorbacks last fall. Point guard Jabril Durham has made a verbal commitment and will sign this spring. Arkansas also will have forward Keaton Miles, who redshirted this season after transferring from West Virginia.
“Obviously our goal was to chase the national championship in the NCAA, and for any team, that’s a downer because we were right there in the hunt,” Anderson said about the end of the 2013-14 season. “So (the NIT) was going to be an opportunity for us to get some more games, more practice times, you’re in a tournament.”
There’s plenty of work to be done in the offseason, of course, if the Razorbacks have any hope of making the jump to the NCAA Tournament next season.
For example: Arkansas needs improved guard play and more success offensively after running into problems against zone defenses. The Razorbacks must get better on the boards, too, after being overwhelmed by several opponents in losses.
But Haydar is confident the adjustments will be made after seeing the program’s steady rise under Anderson the past three seasons.
“It’s disappointing that this will be the last time I wear an Arkansas jersey, but I have tremendous confidence in these guys,” Haydar said. “What we’ve done this year, we’ve kind of put Razorback basketball back on the map. … These guys, they’ll get it done. Our senior group set the foundation and now it’s up to them to finish the job.”