Friday, March 13, 2009

Arkansas' Loss This Year Comes as No Surprise

Well, at least it was merciful.

My alma mater, the University of Arkansas, got to play the University of Florida in the opening round of the Southeastern Conference tournament last night. And the outcome, considering the way the conference schedule has gone for the Razorbacks this season, was predictable. Florida prevailed, 73-58.

The Razorbacks started the season 12-1, with victories over the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas.

But then the SEC season began, and Arkansas went 2-14. The Razorbacks lost several close games and could easily have finished the season with a conference record of 6-10, possibly 7-9, maybe even at 8-8. Nothing spectacular, but a solid showing in the always competitive SEC.

So the Hogs came into last night's game with a 14-15 record. Florida, on the other hand, was 22-9.

It's still possible that Arkansas will make it to the NIT. When I was growing up, the NIT was where the runners-up played because the NCAA field was only 16 teams. But four times that number of schools get to participate today, and the NIT has become kind of a consolation tournament for teams that weren't good enough to make it to the national tournament.

The Hogs did lose 15 conference games, including last night's loss. But the NIT doesn't care about that as much as it wants to invite schools that can guarantee a lot of fans will attend, especially in these recessionary times, and Razorback fans are nothing if not dedicated. They will buy tickets to see the Hogs play, particularly if the Hogs are paired with an appealing opponent (offhand, I would suggest a game with former Southwest Conference rival Texas A&M, which went down to defeat in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament).

It would have been nice to see the Hogs qualify for the NCAA Tournament, especially this year. It was 15 years ago that Nolan Richardson and the Razorbacks won the national title. I wasn't even living in the state by then — in fact, by the time the Hogs won the 1994 tournament, I had been away from Arkansas for almost six years.

Yet, even from a distance, it was an exciting time to be an Arkansas alum.

It must have been even more exciting to live in Arkansas at that time. I got to see several games where I was living, but folks in Arkansas must have gotten to see almost every game in that championship run. That's a memory to cherish — and probably one that was more meaningful to more Arkansans than the election of the first president from Arkansas had been almost two years earlier.

Nothing personal as far as Bill Clinton is concerned, but that's just the way it is in Arkansas. Damn near everyone loves the Razorbacks, regardless of personal politics.

I don't know which school will win the national title this year. But, whether it's one of those schools that seems to be playing for the national title every year, like North Carolina or Duke or Kentucky or UCLA, or a school that has never won it before, I hope that school, its student body and all of its fans understand how special the experience is.

When your team is at the peak of the mountain, it's nearly impossible to imagine not being able to scale those heights again. But it really is hard to repeat.

In April 1994, I believed the Razorbacks would be back — and, as it turned out, they did return to the national title game the following year. But they lost the championship game — and they haven't made it back to the Final Four since.

Enjoy the ride while you can. It's never guaranteed that you'll be back.

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