Can Win at Rupp Propel Arkansas to the SEC’s Third NCAA Tournament Bid?Posted by David Changas on February 28th, 2014
For the past several weeks, many have wondered if the SEC, a power conference with 14 teams, could actually only get two bids to the NCAA Tournament. The maddening inconsistency of teams other than Florida and Kentucky made it seems like a real possibility. After Missouri recently won three straight home games, it looked like the Tigers could be the third team to step up and solidify the conference’s standing. The Tigers proceeded to drop road games to Alabama and Georgia — the latter giving the Bulldogs a season sweep — and now again appear to be on shaky ground. Tennessee, which in the preseason was considered a lock by many to make the Big Dance, went to College Station last Saturday and lost to lowly Texas A&M for the second time this season, and, although a 4-0 finish to the regular season is possible, the Vols’ Tournament chances appear to be tenuous at best. LSU, another team many thought could compete for a bid, has been inconsistent, and does not have a resume that merits serious consideration at this point.
The only other hope the league has had for an at-large bid is Arkansas, and for most of the season, the Razorbacks have not been considered a legitimate contender because of their inability to win away from Bud Walton Arena. Prior to this season, Mike Anderson’s only two conference road wins came at Auburn, and this year started out no differently. After getting blown out in their first league road game at Texas A&M, Arkansas lost close but winnable games at Georgia and Tennessee, and began the conference season a chilly 2-6. That appeared to all but end any thought that the Razorbacks could make the NCAA Tournament this season. Since that time, however, the Hawgs have won six of seven, including three on the road. And none have been bigger than last night’s overtime win at Kentucky. Not only was it the first win for Arkansas at Rupp Arena since 1994, it was easily Anderson’s biggest win since taking over for John Pelphrey three years ago. Despite turning the ball over 20 times and giving up 26 offensive rebounds to the Wildcats, the Razorbacks, which led by double-figures for much of the first half and by seven at the break, were able to overcome a late five-point deficit to force the extra frame on their way to a 71-67 win. Thanks in large part to holding Kentucky to 34.2 percent shooting and a 16-of-16 mark from the line, Arkansas was able to get a win that will serve them very well with Selection Sunday just over two weeks away.
The win was the Razorbacks’ fourth RPI top 50 win of the season, with the others coming against SMU (No. 38), Minnesota (No. 44), and Kentucky (No. 10) in Fayetteville earlier this year. Not only will those wins boost Arkansas’ chances, but their computer numbers will too start to climb. They currently sit at No. 69 in the RPI, but should see that number improve in coming days. Even before Thursday night’s win, CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm had moved the Razorbacks into his bracket, albeit as one of his last four in. And while Arkansas was nowhere to be found in ESPN.com analyst Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket, that is certain to change. The Hogs finish with home games against Georgia and Ole Miss — both top-100 RPI teams — and on the road against Alabama. Given the way they are now playing, they have a realistic shot to win each of those and finish a sturdy 11-7 an SEC play. Considering the woeful start, that would be an impressive accomplishment even in a subpar league.
Given the way things have gone in SEC basketball so far this year, it’s too early to assume that Arkansas will do what is necessary to secure a third bid for the league. And it’s not out of the question that both Tennessee and Missouri, each of which is still in contention for spots in the field, might right their situations and eventually make the NCAA Tournament as well. But Arkansas’ win at Rupp Arena is more impressive than anything most bubble teams have accomplished this year, and it may be just enough to allow the Razorbacks to go dancing in March.