FAYETTEVILLE — There’s no way to sugarcoat the outcome of Arkansas’ final two games considering the stakes. The Razorbacks know it.
They entered the final game of the regular season with a chance to continue their last season push for the NCAA Tournament, but turned in a 25-point loss at Alabama instead. They still had a chance to make amends with a good showing in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, but only added to their late-season dismay with a first-round loss to South Carolina on Thursday afternoon.
So as the Razorbacks sat silent in their Georgia Dome locker room last Thursday night, they seemed to understand the chase for the NCAA Tournament had likely ended with back-to-back losses to sub-.500 teams. Even if they weren’t admitting it.
“We’re going to be watching the (NCAA) selection show,” Arkansas guard Fred Gulley said, maintaining hope something unexpected could happen. “Anything is possible. We’re just going to be watching it and preparing for what is next for us.”
Arkansas will find out its fate, officially, when the 68-team NCAA Tournament field is revealed this afternoon. The Razorbacks (21-11) were among a handful of teams fighting for some of the final at-large spots in the tournament a week ago, but bracket experts don’t believe Arkansas will be rewarded with a berth today.
If so, the Razorbacks would miss the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight season after coming painfully close to a breakthrough in coach Mike Anderson’s third season. Arkansas would then look to the National Invitation Tournament.
It’s not the destination the Razorbacks — who continue to cling to hope they’ll receive an at-large bid today — were expecting after stringing together a six-game win streak at the end of the regular season. But Anderson said his team will be ready for either path when the fields are set by the end of the night.
“Well, we’re in the hunt for something. I don’t know what,” Anderson said after the loss Thursday. “Postseason play, that’s what we aim for this season. … Hopefully it is the NCAA, but if once we enter it, we’ll be ready to play in another tournament.”
The NCAA Tournament begins with four first-round games in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday and Wednesday. The rest of the field begins Thursday and Friday.
Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee are expected to land bids from the Southeastern Conference. Arkansas went 2-2 against those three teams this season.
“I feel like we had some real big wins,” Arkansas guard Michael Qualls said, pleading the Razorbacks’ case. “We also had some real big losses. Hopefully, they’ll look at our wins and know that we’ve got a legit chance to do something special.”
The NIT begins with its first-round games on Tuesday and Wednesday. The first three rounds are played on campus sites with the higher seeds given the first option to host games. The NIT’s Final Four will be held in New York City beginning April 1.
“Whatever is next for the taking, we’ll take it,” Arkansas guard Ky Madden said.
Arkansas would snap a postseason drought if it simply made the NIT. The Razorbacks haven’t been invited to a postseason tournament of any kind since 2008, when former coach John Pelphrey’s team went 1-1 in the NCAA Tournament.
Madden said an opportunity to keep playing would be a silver lining in the disappointment if Arkansas doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks haven’t played in the NIT since 1997, when it reached the Final Four.
“The NIT? It’s cool. It’s just basketball,” Madden said. “Every chance I get to play, I really do love this game. And I leave it out on the floor every time I play. So any game I can play in, I want to play.”
Arkansas is among several Southeastern Conference teams hoping for that opportunity if they don’t make the NCAA Tournament. Missouri, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss also are in NIT consideration.
There’s no guarantee all five would make the NIT because the tournament now reserves places in the field for regular season conference champions that don’t make the NCAA Tournament. There were 11 automatic qualifiers as of Saturday afternoon, which would leave only 21 at-large spots in the NIT field.
But Arkansas should to be included when the field is announced. In fact, the NIT Bracket Project’s latest prediction places Arkansas in the field as a No. 3 seed along with Missouri (No. 2), Georgia (No. 4) and LSU (No. 5).
Anderson believes his team would regroup and take advantage of the opportunity.
“I think these guys want to continue to play,” Anderson said in the locker room Thursday night. “That’s the big thing. Obviously right now they’re really disappointed and for obvious reasons. We’ve been playing as good as anybody in this conference to get to this point here, and didn’t quite get the job done.”