NIT bid not totally off the table for below .500 Hogs

Arkansas guard Tramon Mark (12) runs a play against Kentucky during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

The Arkansas Razorbacks’ basketball team has dipped under the .500 mark on the season, but ironically, Eric Musselman’s Hogs arguably played one of their best games in SEC play last Saturday in a hard-fought loss to Mississippi State at Starkville, Miss.

The Bulldogs posted a 71-67 victory over the Razorbacks, but the game was in doubt until the final minute.

That’s not a lot of consolation for the Hogs (12-13, 3-9 SEC), who are back on the road for a 6 p.m. contest with the Texas A&M Aggies (15-10, 6-6) in Bryan-College Station tonight.

Arkansas has lost three of its last four games and is desperate for a victory. The Razorbacks may see some light at the end of the tunnel as they enter Aggie Land. One of their three SEC victories came against Texas A&M when Buzz Williams brought his Aggies to Bud Walton Arena on Jan. 16.

The Hogs led most of the game, but had to hold off the Aggies for a 78-77 victory. No doubt the Aggies remember that and will not overlook the Hogs as they attempt to position themselves for a NCAA Tournament bid in the late stages of the season.

The Razorbacks’ only hope of making the Big Dance is by winning the SEC Tournament, which opens play at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., on March 13.

In ESPN’s Bracketology column from Feb. 16, Joe Lunardi had Texas A&M in his bracket as a ninth seed. The column is at most a well-informed, educated guess at this point with two and half weeks left in the regular season plus the conference tournaments to be played, but it’s as good of a measuring stick as we have at this point in the season.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: at Texas A&M
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20
Where: Bryan-College Station, Texas

Next 5 games

Feb. 24 – Missouri, 11 a.m. (ESPN2)
Feb. 27 – Vanderbilt, 8 p.m. (SEC)
March 2 – at Kentucky, 12:30 p.m. (CBS)
March 6 – LSU, 6 p.m. (SEC)
March 9 – at Alabama, 11 a.m. (ESPN)

The Aggies can ill afford another loss to the Razorbacks at this juncture in the season both for their NCAA resume and for their standing in the league.

As of today, most prognosticators predict the SEC will receive nine bids to the tournament, and the Aggies occupy the eighth spot with Chris Beard’s Ole Miss Rebels on their heels. Ole Miss (19-6, 6-6) plays at Mississippi State (17-8, 6-6) at 8 p.m. Wednesday in a Magnolia State showdown on ESPN2.

Currently, Lunardi ranks Mississippi State as a ninth seed in his NCAA bracket just like the Aggies, while Ole Miss is an 11th seed and is considered one of the last four teams in the tournament.

Based on a new set of standards for bids to the NIT Tournament announced in October, the Razorbacks are still in the hunt for a bid. The top two teams in terms of NET ranking from the the Big Six conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Southeastern) that are not included in NCAA Tournament will automatically receive bids to the NIT Tournament. A third team from some of those conferences could get a bid, but there is no guarantee beyond two.

If nine SEC teams make the NCAA Tournament, the Razorbacks remain a long shot for a NIT bid even with a record currently below .500.

The Hogs are the 12th ranked SEC team based on NET rankings at No. 136. LSU at No. 88 and Georgia at No. 96 are in front of the Razorbacks, and would receive the SEC’s two automatic bids to the NIT if the season ended today.

Obviously, there is a lot of ground for Arkansas to make up if the Razorbacks hope to leap over either the Bulldogs or the Tigers in the NIT pecking order.

One has to wonder if Arkansas would even want to participate in the NIT after a season like this? Would the players want to participate?

With so many seniors, Musselman may want to spend his time recruiting rather than preparing for what ultimately would be a meaningless game or two?

However, if the NIT is something the players and Musselman would want to participate in, it still dangles like a carrot in front of them as they work through the final stretch of this season.

This Razorback squad, obviously, won’t be remembered all that fondly by fans. It just hasn’t won enough. However, to their credit, the Hogs have not quit this year. They worked to the final second last Saturday against Mississippi State, and based on that alone, I expect them to compete hard against the Aggies tonight as well as the rest of the season.

In the past, the NIT has been a springboard into the next season for a few Razorback teams.

Today is a somewhat different day with the transfer portal and the fluidity of rosters.

With this senior-laden team, I’m not sure if more games would be a value to the program, but that is Musselman’s decision to make.

I hope the Razorbacks win enough over the next few weeks for the NIT to be a consideration whether the Hogs opt to play in it or not.