Hoop Hogs earn respect with NIT victory

Photos: Friars.com

The NIT isn’t where anyone involved with the Razorback basketball program wanted to be at this point in the year.

Everyone from head coach Mike Anderson to the most marginal Razorback onlooker would rather be watching the Hogs play in the NCAA Tournament.

But, that just wasn’t in the cards this season. That became apparent with a five-game losing streak in January and was punctuated with another six-game losing streak in February, the longest losing streak during Anderson’s eight seasons as Arkansas’ head coach.

Until the Razorbacks pulled the nose up on their spiraling season by winning their last three regular-season games, I had actually written off the NIT.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Who: at Indiana (NIT)
When: 11:00 a.m. Saturday, March 23
Where: Bloomington, Ind.
Watch: ESPN

After the Razorbacks’ double-digit loss to Florida in the first round of the SEC Tournament, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the NIT had bypassed the Razorbacks.

It was good to see the Razorbacks decided to bust a move at the dance they were invited to on Tuesday. The 84-72 road victory over the Friars was a strong sign that there is still life in the Razorback basketball program.

I honestly had no clue what type of performance we’d see from the Razorbacksagainst Providence, especially after All-SEC sophomore Daniel Gafford exited the season early to train for the NBA.

On paper the matchup with Providence didn’t look all that promising to begin with. Without Gafford, I thought the game might get ugly. Well, I guess it did get ugly for the Friars.

Everyone knew that Anderson and his Razorbacks would attack Providence with their quickness. What other choice did they have?

What no one knew was how effective it would be against a Providence squad that proved to be lethargic against the Razorbacks’ intensity.

The Hogs that had struggled with slow starts all season bolted out of the chutes against Friars and never really looked back.

We had seen the Razorbacks play this way in spurts throughout the season with and without Gafford on the floor, but what I noticed was a confidence and purpose by the Razorbacks we hadn’t seen all that often this season, especially not for the bulk of 40 minutes.

Maybe Gafford did the Razorbacks a favor by opting not play?

His absence certainly seemed to motivate Hogs, and maybe it allowed them to run their motion offense more comfortably?

Maybe it gave the Razorbacks more urgency on defense, knowing they didn’t have Big Dan back there to protect the rim?

No one was standing around looking to get the ball to Gafford or waiting for him to make something happen. The Razorbacks took that upon themselves and functioned well as a team on both ends of the court.

It seemed every Hog made an impact in what was the best example of Hog Ball that we’ve seen in quite a while.

Reggie Chaney played big for the Razorbacks, doing they things that a forward needs to do in Anderson system — run, rebound, and defend. Freshman Ethan Henderson was a Hog I had all but forgotten about. His length, hands, and alertness around the basket allowed him to contribute more in one night than he had all season. That was great to see.

Gabe Osabuohien led the Hogs with eight rebounds, but five other Razorbacks garnered at least four rebounds in a strong team-rebounding performance.

While those who are fueling “the fire Mike Anderson engine” aren’t going to choke on their smoke with just one NIT win, maybe if they open their minds to what they saw against Providence, they can see a glimmer of light for next season that they were blind to before?

Probably not, but I imagine many more fans will be interested in Saturday’s 11 a.m. game against Indiana after watching the Razorbacks rip into Providence.

Indiana is a better team than Providence, but the Hogs know what they’re in for after beating the Hoosiers, 73-72, in Walton Arena on Nov. 18.

This time the game is in Bloomington, and again the Hogs will be without Gafford, who punished Indiana with 27 points and 12 rebounds. Indiana certainly hasn’t mentally packed it in like Providence seemed to. The Hoosiers defeated Saint. Francis, 89-72, on Wednesday to advance to Saturday’s game.

Beating the Hoosiers in Bloomington would be an accomplishment for a Razorback squad that struggled throughout the season.

As solid as last Tuesday’s performance was, I’m certainly not bold enough to predict a Razorback victory on Saturday. However if the Razorbacks do win, it’s not something that should be ignored.