FAYETTEVILLE — Dare to dream. That's the gift Arkansas' five-game winning streak gave Razorbacks fans prior to the Hogs' 73-69 loss to Alabama last Saturday.
Dream of what?
What all fans of mediocre basketball teams dream off in the cold early weeks of February, a NCAA Tournament bid.
Yes, as the consecutive victories began to pile up for the Hogs, dreams of March Madness began to dance like sugar plumbs in Razorbacks fans heads.
So, did the late-game loss to Bama ruin those dreams? I'd say yes and no.
Do the Hogs still have a chance to garner an NCAA berth?
Absolutely. Hope of an NCAA Tournament bid exists for all SEC squads until they are knocked out of the SEC Basketball Tournament, held March 11-14 in Nashville. The winner of the tournament still receives the the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and in all honesty, winning that tournament in March remains the Razorbacks' only sure shot at Cinderella finish to the season.
I suppose the Hogs (13-12, 6-4 SEC) might catch the NCAA Selection Committee's eye if they ran the table in their final six SEC games and then tacked on a win or two in the SEC Tournament. That would make the Hogs 20-13 or 21-13 and deserving of a bid. But short of that or something very close, the Hogs' chances of an automatic bid this year seems slim from this corner.
The Razorbacks gave up too much ground as they were working their way through suspensions in November and December, falling to 7-8 before conference play began and sinking to 8-11 before going on that five-game winning streak that revived interest in the program.
Certainly, the NCAA Selection committee has the latitude to consider those suspensions and how much the Hogs missed the play of Courtney Fortson in their first 14 games when passing out tournament bids, but the Razorbacks have a lot more work to do to even bring such a thought under consideration.
When it comes down to deciding who is in and who is out, the NCAA Selection Committee acts as a big burly bouncer standing at the door of an exclusive night club. He's looking to keep people out, not let them in. You better have some very compelling reasons to get past him.
I don't see the NCAA Selection Committee offering an at-large bid to a .500 or below team regardless of the circumstances. There will be too many other more deserving teams with winning records on the table.
Despite being tied for the SEC West lead with Mississippi State, Arkansas' not on the NCAA bubble at this time. And that's where the Hogs need to be for them to garner any grace for the suspensions of Fortson and the other Hogs.
Some fans have asked if winning the Western Division would be an election sure to the Big Dance?
Winning the West certainly wouldn't hurt, but it's no guarantee either. In a teleconference last Tuesday, Dan Guerrero, NCAA Selection Committee chairman and UCLA athletics director, made it clear that the committee bases its decisions on individual teams not conference affiliations.
He said that while a team's RPI remains important to the selection committee, it's conference's RPI does not. Conference RPI will no longer be included a team's information sheet, which the selection committee members work from. So again, winning the West brings no guarantee of a bid, but where the Hogs stand now the Hogs must win or at least share the Western Division title to have enough wins to get on the NCAA's bubble.
What would work in the Razorbacks' favor if they continue to win games is what Guerrero called the eyeball test.
“Even though we have a lot of quantitative material available to us … we watch games with the mindset of picking those 34 best [at-large teams]," Guerrero was quoted in an article in the Denver Post. “In some respects, there’s nothing better than the eyeball test.”
So at the moment, the Razorbacks' chances of making the Big Dance don't look great, but there is hope. And, the Hogs can keep that hope alive as long as they keep winning.