No matter what happens this week at the SEC Tournament, Razorback fans will be able to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show on Sunday afternoon as a participant for the first time since 2008. Arkansas' locked up a bid sometime during their 7-game winning streak in February and for a rabid fan base growing desperate for some Madness over the last several years, simply punching that ticket was the goal last fall for many.
Just get in the NCAA Tournament, and please don't make us stress about the bubble. Done and done.
Arkansas enjoyed undoubtedly its best season of the 21st Century, routinely forcing 1995 references like "first time since Hootie and the Blowfish were peaking". So the Hogs are pretty much done here, right? They've already met expectations so everyone should be happy, correct?
It's not November anymore. Expectations, like everything else, evolves. With 24 wins, 13 conference wins, 7 road wins and I don't know how many SportsCenter Top 10 appearances, Arkansas has created an expectation that they're capable of more than simply showing up in March.
The Razorbacks will likely go into the Tournament with their highest seed since earning a 4-seed in 1999. They'll probably be favored to win their first game. Beyond that, who knows?
Obviously, every fan wants the Hogs to go as deeply as they can over the next couple of weeks. They have a prime opportunity to do so. Bobby Portis has had a season rivaled as a Hog this century only by Ronnie Brewer's junior season and Portis will be the best player on the floor against most teams in the bracket. Since it's not yet known whether or not Portis will return next year, this could be Arkansas' best shot with him on the team and hopefully they'll take advantage of that.
[Note: The following paragraph contains a major spoiler to a 4-year old episode of Game of Thrones. If you're that far behind and afraid of spoilers, please stop reading basketball stuff and get going watching Game of Thrones so we don't have to include SPOILER ALERT anymore.]
It would certainly be a disappointment for Arkansas to lose in their first game. They shouldn't, but this is Madness we're talking about. Everybody's vulnerable. Ned Stark can get his head chopped off in the first season.
Losing to someone in the first round like Wofford or Valparaiso would certainly be a tough pill to swallow. I would argue Stan Heath was doomed for losing to Bucknell even though it was an 8/9 game, a game in which teams theoretically evenly matched up. But because it was "Bucknell" and not a school respected by fans, he was crushed and couldn't recover. Mike Anderson certainly has more goodwill built up with fans and his administration so I don't think that would be as big of an issue, but how's about we just go ahead beat Wofford or Valpo if the Hogs get matched up with them and avoid any of that unpleasantness?
Despite all the great things that happened this season, Arkansas still probably hasn't had as high profile a win as they did at Kentucky last year. The best win this year was at SMU back in November and even though Larry Brown has built the Mustangs into a top 25 program, they don't have the cache that beating one of the truly elite brands in the game brings a program.
Making a run in March is different. March makes reputations. Regardless of who Arkansas ends up playing in the Tournament, how far they go is how far they go. If they make the Elite Eight by beating a bunch of teams with double-digit seeds because they pulled off upsets in the previous round, all that people remember is that Arkansas was an Elite Eight team. Tennessee last year was one of the Dayton play-in participants, but are always mentioned as a Sweet 16 team because they beat UMass and Mercer.
Arkansas has already done plenty to show improvement. The program has clearly gotten better each year under Mike Anderson. Those of us following the program closely have seen it. A run in March will get that recognized on more of a mainstream national level. Remember just last year, ESPN didn't even include Anderson among their list of the 50 best coaches in America nor did they include him on their list of 25 who didn't make the cut. Winning in March will change that perception in a hurry.
If the Razorbacks can knock off their first opponent they'll likely have to pull a mild upset (at least in terms of seeding) to earn that trip to the Sweet 16. The team has shown they're capable of playing with anybody when they're rolling on all cylinders, so they're certainly capable. If they do they'll get plenty of praise and attention. And we can throw out more 90s references, like how this would be Arkansas' first Sweet 16 since Tupac was alive.