The Two Key Turning Points That Brought Arkansas to the NIT

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013-14 season was a rollercoaster ride that landed the Hogs right back in the middle, the NIT. How did they get there?

The highs and lows of this season were plenty for the Razorbacks, who won over 20 games and are playing in a post-season tournament for the first time since 2008.

The Hogs won four games outside the Arkansas borders, something many thought would never happen with "Homecourt" Mike Anderson at the helm. Wins over Minnesota (in Maui) and at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Kentucky all spring-boarded a team, after road woes kept them out of the NIT last season, onto the bubble of the NCAA Tournament.

Any one of those wins could be considered a key turning point in the season. With every win, the Hogs became more confident in their ability to play outside the Natural State. The one win that was not only a key turning point for the season, but for the program as a whole, was the win at Kentucky. Nothing warms a Hog fan's heart more than silencing Big Blue Nation and John Calipari on their home court.

After struggling to a 2-6 start in conference play, the Kentucky win felt as if the Hogs were finally out of the hole they dug for themselves with that poor conference start. Every bracketologist from Jerry Palm at CBS to Joe Lunardi at ESPN had the Razorbacks in the field of 68.

That game was the first time the Hogs clicked on all cylinders as a cohesive unit in a true hostile environment. (Because, do you really count Vandy and The Hump as hostile?) Four players scored in double figures and Anderson tightened his rotation to where only nine of the ten guys who saw game action played double digit minutes. It wasn't a perfect game, however, the Razorbacks gave up 26 offensive rebounds, committed two more turnovers, and committed seven more fouls than that Wildcats. Despite all that, they went 16-16 from the charity stripe and an efficient 7-19 from behind the arc. The ball was finally bouncing in their favor and, if they kept winning, they would be dancing in March.

They handled their next two games against Georgia and Ole Miss, including hanging 110 points on the Rebels. There was nothing stopping them. All they had to do was win in Tuscaloosa and they would have a shot at a double bye in the SEC Tournament. Not showing up against Alabama was the second major turning point in the Razorback's season and one that ultimately landed them in the NIT.

Because of the expansion of the conference and their outdated television deal with ESPN, the game was ESPN3 only, which, as it turns out, might have prevented riots. The Hogs shot 31% from the field while allowing the Crimson Tide to shoot 52%. The Hogs were swagger-jacked going into the the SEC Tournament. They now had to win at least two games in Atlanta to be back in the good graces of the selection committee.

South Carolina defeated Auburn for the right to play the Razorbacks on Thursday of the SEC Tournament. Unfortunately for the Hogs, their confidence of winning six straight before the Alabama loss was gone. Even if they had defeated the Gamecocks, a win over Tennessee in the quarterfinals was a must to get the Hogs back on the bubble. Instead, they added two bad losses to their résumé and landed them in the NIT.

The win at Kentucky gave the Hogs NCAA Tournament hope and the Alabama loss killed it. The first turning point gives the Razorbacks proof of progress, while the other will keep them hungry and humble (and apply some pressure) for the 2014-15 season.

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