LITTLE ROCK — Plausible deniability out the window, remorse is the route. The apology is for violating a personal rule against a rush to judgment in sports.
Done in by the quintessential paper trail, a column published three weeks ago today began: "Like it or not, the NIT is the best postseason possibility for Arkansas."
At the time, the Razorbacks were 3-6 in the SEC and trailing nine teams. Considering Arkansas’ wretched road record in general and a game in Lexington in particular, I did not see the Razorbacks at 8-7 with three games to go. At best, 7-8 — an on-target prediction until the Wildcats missed about 10 shots from 10 inches, failed on 10 of 22 free throws, and openly admitted they do not have a reliable 3-point shooter.
None of Kentucky’s shortcomings should detract from Arkansas’ willingness to compete. So often, winning a big game is a matter of getting to the final minute with the outcome in doubt. Just a week ago, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy complimented his players for their effort, but added the lament that they didn’t "make plays." He means score or pass or defend or rebound when the game is on the line and the do or don’t of those two words define many college basketball games.
On Thursday night, in the final minute of regulation and five minutes of overtime, an itemization of the contributions all around by by Razorbacks:
•Ky Madden’s whip of a pass to Alandise Harris along the baseline for a layup and Madden’s two free throws for 60-60.
• Coty Clarke’s 3 for the lead.
• Bobby Portis’ tip to retain the lead.
• Clarke’s two free throws at 2:24 for 67-64.
• Clarke’s two free throws at 36.7 for 69-64.
• Kikko Haydar’s two free throws at 17.9 for 71-67 with the notation that the senior played only seven minutes and had missed his only two shots from the field.
Along the way, one failure and Kentucky might have won.
Instead, the sweep of the Wildcats casts a different light on Arkansas’ victories over SMU, Clemson, and Minnesota and late Thursday night I turned my attention to sites and seeds in the NCAA Tournaments. The first-round sites include Buffalo, Milwaukee, Orlando, Spokane, Raleigh, San Antonio, San Diego, and St. Louis.
Beginning today in Fayetteville against Georgia, Arkansas still has work to do. To be certain of an NCAA bid, the Razorbacks need to win out at home, beat Alabama on the road, and win at least one game in the SEC Tournament. If the Razorbacks are 11-7 in the league and get the third or fourth seed, they need only one W to reach the semifinals in Atlanta. Such a performance should earn them a No. 10 or No. 11 seed.
Ignoring Georgia in the NCAA conversation is confusing. Missouri has been in and out of the projections by the bracket experts and the Bulldogs are 2-0 against the Tigers. I don’t understand the theory that the Bulldogs could only earn a quality win in the SEC by beating Florida or Kentucky. What if the Bulldogs complete a sweep of Arkansas, a team that is 2-0 vs. Kentucky? Doesn’t that count for something?
I understand Georgia’s non-conference failures, but I do believe teams can improve. For example, a loser to Belmont, UAB, Kentucky, and Texas before Christmas, North Carolina has won 10 in a row and is penciled in as a No. 6 seed.
Georgia’s turnaround began when the Bulldogs won at Missouri. That, said coach Mark Fox, created some confidence. It has helped that Marcus Thornton, who redshirted last year after knee surgery, is contributing much more than he did in the non-conference. In the SEC, he has scored in double figures seven times and gathered a half-dozen rebounds or more in 11 games.
(Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is email@example.com)