LITTLE ROCK — Like it or not, the NIT is the best postseason possibility for Arkansas. Even that will take some doing by the Razorbacks and some cooperation from some of the teams chasing Florida and Kentucky in the SEC standings.
Five years without a postseason appearance, Razorback fans should not look down their hog snouts at the NIT. If it’s good enough for Kentucky, one year removed from its eighth national championship, it’s good enough for Arkansas. The Wildcats were one of three SEC teams in the NIT last year.
Despite Arkansas’ victories over Kentucky, SMU and Clemson, I am surprised that ESPN continues to mention the Razorbacks as one of the SEC teams in pursuit of an NCAA bid. A week ago, the telecast from LSU included a chart that had the Razorbacks right there with Missouri, Ole Miss, LSU and Tennessee. At the time, Arkansas was down double digits to the Tigers and on its way to its sixth conference loss vs. two victories.
Prior to Arkansas’ trip to Baton Rouge, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had LSU in his first four out of the field and Arkansas in the next group of four. Maybe that was his way of easing the Razorbacks out of the conversation after he used the victory over Kentucky to justify Arkansas in his NCAA field.
Halfway through the conference schedule, Ole Miss is 6-3 and there is a crowd at 5-4 — LSU, Tennessee, Georgia and Vanderbilt. Missouri and Texas A&M are 4-5. The Razorbacks have lost to five of the teams at 5-4 or 4-5 and play at Vanderbilt today. Considering Arkansas’ road woes, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Arkansas could finish in the top four or five in the league.
Florida and Kentucky are already in the NCAA field and, despite an appreciation for the Gators and the Wildcats, the SEC is only seventh in conference RPI. The guess is the NCAA Tournament max is five from the SEC and four is more likely. In the last five years, the SEC has had more than four in the NCAA only in 2010-11 when five of the six teams in the Eastern Division qualified.
Every SEC team that falls short of the NCAA and drops into the NIT squeezes Arkansas. The thing is, Missouri, A&M and Georgia are finished playing Florida and Kentucky. Both Vanderbilt and Tennessee have a home game remaining against Florida. Ole Miss has home games against the top two teams. LSU is in a bind with games at Lexington and Gainesville.
Tennessee is best equipped to post a decent conference record. At 6-foot-8, 260, both Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon are men, a point made when TV showed a tight shot of one of those guys side by side with Arkansas’ Bobby Portis. The Vols also have a true scorer in 6-foot-6 Jordan McRae.
No matter how that group shakes out, Arkansas must get to at least 9-9 in the SEC to make a case for the NIT.
Optimistically, say that the mid-week victory over Alabama kicked off a five-game home court winning streak. The Razorbacks have road games at Vanderbilt, Missouri, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Alabama. Two or three road wins are a must, but they are not going to beat Kentucky, and are unlikely to win in Columbia, Mo.
Last year, NIT selection committee chairman C.M. Newton said Arkansas was close to making the field. The 1-12 road record did in the 19-13 Razorbacks.
Before the NCAA took over the NIT, it seemed a team with 19 or 20 victories and a loyal fan base had a chance to submit a winning bid for a tournament home game. Now, a team must earn a spot. If Arkansas is going to make a push, Nashville would be a good place to start.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.