FAYETTEVILLE — It wasn’t a surprise when Arkansas was left out of the 68-team NCAA Tournament field. The Razorbacks’ fate was all but sealed after the early exit in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
But Arkansas still got some good news Sunday night. The season isn’t over.
The Razorbacks were one of 32 teams selected to play in the National Invitation Tournament, securing its first spot in a postseason tournament since 2008. Arkansas (21-11) was named a No. 3 seed and will open NIT play against No. 6 seed Indiana State (23-10) in Bud Walton Arena at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
The consolation prize isn’t what Arkansas expected when it made a late-season surge, winning eight of nine games before back-to-back losses to Alabama and South Carolina. But Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said his team had no one to blame.
"We didn’t do what we needed to do in order to be in the NCAA," Anderson said during an interview on ESPNU. "So that’s going to be a lesson for our team to learn."
Arkansas guard Ky Madden said it’s a difficult one.
"It’s real disappointing," Madden said after the South Carolina loss. "You work hard all season and this is what you prepare for, to set yourself up to be successful. We set ourselves up good late in the season, but we just didn’t come out and finish."
Arkansas still will make its first postseason appearance under Anderson and its first since going 1-1 in the NCAA Tournament in 2008. The Razorbacks will play in the NIT for the first time since 1997, when Arkansas reached the Final Four. Arkansas is making its third appearance in the NIT and is 4-3 in those games.
Anderson said his team plans to make the most of the opportunity to win a postseason tournament. The first three rounds of the NIT are held on campus sites, while the Final Four will be played in New York City beginning April 1.
"It’s another step in the right direction," Anderson said on ESPNU. "We talk about building and building in the right direction and we’re taking the right steps. … We have great tradition here and we’re used to being in postseason play. We’re used to challenging for championships and we’re in a championship tournament in the NIT."
Indiana State and Arkansas haven’t played since 1979, when the teams met in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional Final. The Sycamores — led then by Larry Bird – beat the Razorbacks 73-71 to reach the Final Four. The series is tied 2-2.
Indiana State lost its final three regular season games before rebounding to win two straight in the Missouri Valley tournament. The Sycamores reached the championship game, where they lost to undefeated Wichita State.
The winner of Tuesday’s game will advance to play either No. 2 California or No. 7 Utah Valley in the second round. The higher seed will host the game. So California, which beat Arkansas 85-77 in the opening game of the 2013 Maui Invitational last November, will host a second-round game in Berkeley, Calif., if it advances.
The rest of the eight-team region includes Southern Methodist (No. 1), San Francisco (No. 4), LSU (No. 5) and UC-Irvine (No. 8). Arkansas beat SMU in Bud Walton Arena earlier this season and went 1-1 against LSU.
The Razorbacks and Tigers were among four SEC teams invited to the NIT, joining No. 2 seeds Georgia and Missouri. Only three SEC teams reached the NCAA Tournament: No. 1 seed Florida, No. 8 seed Kentucky, No. 11 seed Tennessee.
Arkansas was holding out hope it would be one of the last teams in the NCAA Tournament despite the ugly ending in Atlanta, but missed the field for the sixth straight season. This time, though, the Razorbacks knew they were likely headed to the NIT and said they’ll be prepared to play despite the NCAA disappointment.
"We just want to go out there against whoever we’re paired up with and keep playing basketball," Arkansas guard Fred Gulley said after the South Carolina loss.