Accept NIT and try to win like UConn
Only four years removed from the NCAA championship, Connecticut lost 11 games and settled for the National Invitation Tournament.
Jim Calhoun, a genius when the Huskies won the big one in 1999, was still in charge and he was right on target with his approach in 2003.
After opening the NIT with a 72-65 victory over South Carolina, Calhoun said, “We kept saying to the kids during timeouts, ‘It’s a 32-team field, and there’s a championship to be won. It’s not the one we aspire for, but right now, it is the only one.’ ”
Stan Heath should plagiarize Calhoun if Arkansas is in the NIT in mid-March and his Razorbacks should adopt the attitude of UConn’s Edmund Saunders. One of three seniors left from the 1999 team, Saunders said, “I want to go out with a bang, get as many wins as I can.”
Making the NCAA Tournament was always a longshot for these Razorbacks, but many people lost track of that with the fast start that included a victory at Missouri. Even competing well at Alltel Arena against top-ranked Illinois was interpreted as a harbinger of things to come.
In the South-eastern Conference, the Razorbacks have done just enough to be a big tease. Before conference play began, Arkansas had to beat Alabama, Kentucky, or Mississippi State at home and win two games on the road to finish 8-8.
That formula is still rock solid with three games to go except that Alabama and Kentucky — the cream of the SEC — have already won in Fayetteville. Getting close against those two was enough to make you think that Arkansas might break through at South Carolina, and a three-game winning streak buoyed hopes for Saturday night’s game at Vanderbilt.
Arkansas was not a threat to win at Columbia or Nashville.
Football coach Houston Nutt knows it is important for his Razorbacks to qualify for a bowl game because failing to do so means spotting several SEC opponents a couple of weeks of practice. By the same token, the NIT is an opportunity to play more games.
Last year, six SEC teams were in the NCAA Tournament and three more were in the NIT. This year, the SEC probably will get five teams in the NCAA and three more in the NIT.
If Arkansas does wind up in the NIT, particularly at .500 in the conference, it would be a clear sign of progress after the 4-12 of 2004. The NIT is also an additional “X” number of games to work on attacking a 2-3 zone or getting the ball to Darian Townes. In the postseason, maybe Heath could institute a quota system of 10 touches per game for Townes.
No matter how many games the Razorbacks play in the postseason, they will not suddenly develop a gee-whiz shooter. The lack of such shows up game after game. That guy is not on this team unless it is redshirt Preston Cranford. Vanderbilt trotted out a bunch of them, including 7-foot-2 Dawid Przybyszewski, in its 79-65 victory Saturday. While pulling away in the second half, the Commodores were 6 of 10 on 3s, many of them unchallenged.
In addition to the extra games, it would be nice if the postseason was again a regular part of Arkansas’s basketball season. In each of the past three years, the Razorbacks season ended when the team was eliminated in Atlanta or New Orleans in the SEC Tournament.
Although UConn backed up its NIT title with another NCAA championship in 2004, the 2003 postseason did not put the Huskies over the top. Michigan won the NIT last year and the Wolverines are awful this year.
The Razorbacks vs. a Wisconsin-Milwaukee or a George Mason or a Drexel in the NIT might not do much for Arkansans, but the Razorbacks against the University of Arkansas-Little Rock should pack the house. A 16-game winner, UALR is tied for first in the Eastern Division of the Sun Belt Conference and is one of four teams with a good shot at winning the conference tournament. If the Trojans fail in Denton, Texas, they would be a good choice for the NIT and happy to accept.