FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas was on the practice court when its NCAA Tournament hopes were officially dashed Sunday evening.
The Razorbacks were listening to a guest speaker on campus when the National Invitation Tournament field was set later that night.
So Arkansas guard Kikko Haydar said the schedule set up well for the Razorbacks. There wasn’t time to sit and lament what could’ve been after blowing their chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament after losses to Alabama and South Carolina.
“We’re always disappointed about the NCAA Tournament, but we kind of found out about both at the same time,” Haydar said about Arkansas’ schedule on Sunday night. “So it was kind of like, ‘Oh, we didn’t get in.’ But ‘Oh, we’re in this one.’”
Arkansas (21-11) will get a chance to distance itself from the disappointing result and extend the season tonight, when it plays Indiana State (23-10) in the first round of the NIT in Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks are making their first postseason appearance since 2008 and have a chance to prove they intend to stick around in the 32-team field, which will crown a champion in New York on April 3.
There’s no escaping the frustration the Razorbacks felt after coach Mike Anderson said his team was in control of its NCAA Tournament hopes late in the year. But even after two straight losses, Arkansas insists it wants to get back on the court.
“It’s another chance to strap them up and get to play at Bud Walton,” Arkansas guard Fred Gulley said. “There are a lot of teams right now that are packing their stuff up. They don’t get any postseason. We’re blessed to be in this position. We’re blessed to have the quick turnaround and get to play (tonight).”
Gulley is one of five seniors who will get a chance to play at home for at least one more time. He’s also the only Razorback who has participated in a postseason game, too, playing in the NCAA Tournament with Oklahoma State as a freshman.
The rest of Arkansas’ senior class finally gets its first taste of postseason tournament experience. Anderson said there’s an opportunity for younger players to grow as well, using the tournament experience as a springboard for next season.
There are 13 teams who played in the 2013 NIT and responded with an NCAA Tournament berth this season. It includes No. 1 seed Virginia.
So Anderson said there are plenty of reasons to win and advance tonight.
“When you talk about the rewards that you get at the end of the year, it’s to participate in postseason play,” Anderson said. “Our guys have an opportunity. We have five seniors. So more important to me is not necessarily … You want the mindset to be right, but obviously there’s a lot of teams that are not playing right now. We’re fortunate to continue to play basketball.”
Arkansas will have to beat Indiana State to keep playing.
The Sycamores, who are a No. 6 seed in the NIT, lost to undefeated Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Indiana State — which starts three seniors in the backcourt — is making its fifth straight postseason appearance.
The Sycamores are road tested as well, going 12-8 in games outside its home arena this season. But coach Greg Lansing knows his team faces a big challenge at Arkansas, which wants to prove its late slide will not define the season.
“They’re scary,” Lansing said. “I can’t believe they are not in the NCAA Tournament. They should be. … I admire how they play. Coach Anderson, although I don’t know him well, I’ve always admired how he can get his teams to play for 40 minutes and compete and just be unselfish. They’re an outstanding team. Huge wins, tremendous at home. Just stubbed their toe there the last game of the year.”
The winner will advance to play either No. 2 seed California or No. 7 seed Utah Valley in a second-round game later this week. The first three rounds are played on campus sites, while the NIT Final Four is held in New York City next month.
Anderson believes there’s “a lot of good basketball left” in Arkansas despite the disappointing finish in Atlanta. Gulley agreed, saying Arkansas is determined to make a run at a championship to prove it has made significant progress.
“We’re hungry,” Gulley said. “We still have stuff we have to prove. We still don’t think that we’ve played our best basketball yet. So we’ve got to come out and do what we’re capable of doing and win games.”