Jim Brown/USA Today Sports

Hogs prepare to call on the Friars in NIT

John Rooke
March 18, 2019 - 3:06 pm

The National Invitational Tournament has been roasted, toasted and generally lambasted since being relegated to second-class status more than 50 years ago.  The one-time, true national collegiate basketball championship is more often referred to these days as the “Not Interested Tournament.”

It certainly might be just that for one Arkansas player in particular.

But try telling that to the majority of the 32 teams who are still playing basketball this season after missing out on an invitation to the NCAA’s.  Not everyone, mind you, may be ready to roll if they’re disappointed in not getting that dance invite.

“The teams that are excited about playing in this tournament for the most part are the teams that can advance,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley told the media Sunday night.  “If our excitement level is going off the practice we just had, we’ll be good.”

At 18-15 overall, the Friars generally weren’t in the discussion for the NCAA Tournament in the weeks leading up to the end of the regular season, finishing at 7-11 in Big East play.  But Providence did manage to close with four wins in their final seven games – including a win over fellow NIT-invitee Butler in the Big East Tournament – giving the Friars a respectable NET ranking (70) and Strength of Schedule (50) among NIT-eligible teams.

With just one player not returning next season because of eligibility – 5th year forward Isaiah Jackson – the NIT has evolved into an opportunity for several young-but-talented teams to show themselves.  Not just what they have now, but also what they could have in the future, like next year, with a little more experience along the way.

Cooley will gladly take an extra game or two (or more) to see what freshmen David Duke and A.J. Reeves can do, while leading scorer and rebounder Alpha Diallo and sophomore center Nate Watson get the chance to prove themselves against an Arkansas Razorback team that has, or had, a strong inside-outside game.

The Razorbacks (17-15, 8-10 SEC) featured 6-11 sophomore Daniel Gafford on the inside, who led Arkansas in scoring and rebounding.  Gafford (16.9 points, 8.7 rebounds) earned 1st team all-SEC honors, but because he is projected as a potential 1st round NBA Draft selection this year, Gafford has decided to not play in the NIT and he won’t face the Friars.

6-5 freshman guard Isaiah Joe (14 points per game, 42% from three) lights it up from outside for the Hogs, with an Arkansas-record 108 made three-pointers on the season – just five shy of the freshman SEC record.  6-5 sophomore Mason Jones can also hit from deep (36%, 13.6 points per game) and will need to do that, with Gafford’s impending absence in the middle.

The Razorbacks largely had an up-and-down year with a six-game winning streak and a six-game losing streak, but they did win three straight before a first-round loss to Florida in the SEC Tournament.  Arkansas and Providence also have two common opponents – Texas and South Carolina – with the Friars winning both and the Hogs losing both of those games earlier in the year.

The Razorbacks are making just their 4th appearance in the NIT, having reached post-season play for the 5th time in the past six years.  Providence will play in its’ 7th straight post-season tournament after reaching a school-record five consecutive NCAA’s. 

But the Friars have a long, deep history in the NIT – making a third-round run in 2013, having won championships in 1961 and 1963, and PC will be making its’ 20th overall appearance in the event with 32 all-time wins…4th-most among all schools.

It’s just something they don’t really want to make a habit out of.  But in this particular case, they’ll make an exception.  At least, they appear to be interested.