(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
All they had to do was win four games. Four games and earn an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament after blowing the potential of a once-promising season. There were two teams with area ties in this must-win situation; one took advantage while the other ran home to pout.
Of course, I’m talking about Memphis and Arkansas. After a grueling early-season schedule that seemingly included every top-tier team in the country, the Tigers were faced with winning four games in four nights in order to go dancing with the rest of the pretty girls.
And they almost did it. They won the first three games handily and were in a position to beat hated Louisville with no time on the clock in the C-USA championship game. But freshman Darius Washington Jr. missed two free throws that would have won it, and the Tigers are preparing for a first-round NIT home game instead of packing their clogs.
The Hogs on the other hand, lost to Tennessee Thursday in the opening round of the SEC tournament and are now back on the Hill, lamenting a could-have-been season.
After Thursday’s thumping, Heath asked his players if they would like to keep playing in the NIT, and to a man they all said yes.
That’s one of the goals of playing isn’t it? To build a good enough record that postseason play is assured. Of course, everyone wants to be invited to the more prestigious NCAAs, but as noted philosopher Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want”.
The NIT has been around longer than the NCAAs and was once the tournament to be invited to. Not everyone can make the field of 65, and that is why quality coaches past and present such as John Thompson, Bob Knight, Denny Crum, Jim Calhoun, and Bill Self sometimes wind up playing for the right to go to Madison Square Garden.
John Calipari took his first two Tiger teams there, winning the third-place game his first year, and claiming the championship in his second. Even though it’s not the NCAAs, there is something to be said for being one of only two teams that finishes its year with a win.
And if the NIT was good enough for Nolan Richardson – just three years after winning a national title – then it should be good enough for Stan Heath, who hasn’t even sniffed the postseason while wearing his Hog snooter.
So instead of listening to his team, Heath issued a statement that said he wasn’t pleased with his team’s effort, they looked tired, and no disrespect to the NIT, but the Hogs were declining.
He says he slept on it and decided that after a two-game slide to end the season, he needed to “re-evaluate his team from top to bottom” and make whatever changes necessary to have a good season next year.
That sounds all well and good, until you throw this hypothetical hat over the wall…what if the Hogs had gone say 25-3, was a mortal lock for the NCAAs, but dropped their final regular season game and first round SEC game? Do you think haughty Heath would be declining a NCAA bid?
Not on your life.
If Stan felt his Hogs weren’t playing up to snuff, how about an extra game or four to right the ship? By this time of the season, he should know where his team’s strengths and weakness lie.
My column last week in defense of Heath pointed out that the Hogs were an outstanding defensive team that could get on the glass. Granted the SEC is a brutal league, but how about a chance to put that defense on display against a field of teams that would in many ways resemble the Hogs non-conference schedule?
Not to mention that Arkansas most-assuredly would have received a first-round home game, maybe even a second rounder had they won. And I don’t want to hear the garbage that projected ticket sales were down; Hog fans are loyal and would have jumped at the chance to root for their team a couple of more times on their quest for a championship.
And for you fiscal fans, let’s not forget the Razorbacks just said no to getting money for playing another basketball game or two.
Heath said that he expected a NCAA berth in his third season on the job. Goals are great motivators, and something to aspire to, but if you don’t meet your goal, is that cause to just give up?
Where I come from (that city across the river), if you fall short of what you’re trying to achieve, you keep trying.
Playing in the NIT would have given the young Razorbacks a taste of postseason ball and might have rejuvenated them long enough to make a serious run.
Conspiracy theorists will say the Hogs were just trying to avoid a match-up against UALR, but I don’t buy that. Although I do believe that septuagenarian athletic director Frank Broyles had more to do with the decision than is being let on.
If Broyles was unsure of his coach, what better way to judge than seeing how the Hogs bounce back with a chance at a title?
Whatever the reason is, they are missing out on an opportunity hundreds of other schools would jump at.
But from where I’m sitting, that’s just fine. It’s just one less school the Tigers will have to tear up on their way to a championship. I don’t care that it’s the NIT, I just like saying the Tigers are champs.
Wouldn’t you like to say that about your team?