Arkansas vs. ASU could be in ESPN’s cards

By: Wally Hall
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Arkansas junior Marshawn Powell (33) celebrates with fans after defeating Georgia Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks won 62-60.
Photo by Anthony Reyes
Arkansas junior Marshawn Powell (33) celebrates with fans after defeating Georgia Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks won 62-60.

— There is really no disputing who is the most powerful entity in the world of perspiring arts.

It is ESPN.

The network that once showed tractor pulls to fill air time now dictates game times for college football and basketball, and it probably has more influence on bowl games than it cares to admit.

ESPN was the brilliant idea of Bill Rasmussen, his son Scott and Ed Eagan, who launched its programming Sept. 7, 1979, when the idea of televising sports 24-7 seemed risky at best.

All these years later, millions and millions of subscribers pay around $5 a month for the privilege to watch sporting events that grow longer every year because of advertising.

It would be next to impossible to pinpoint the exact time that ESPN became more powerful in college athletics than the NCAA, but it has, and when the two join forces, they are King Kong.

If in their infinite wisdom they decide to invite the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Arkansas State Red Wolves to their National Invitational Tournament, expect the teams to be bracketed to play each other in the second round.

ESPN and the NCAA probably wouldn’t be so obvious as to have the teams play in the first round.

Yet, the NIT has shown a desire to have second-round games against teams that create regional flavor, such as Middle Tennessee vs. Tennessee or Seton Hall vs. UMass.

The NCAA is the only organization that has ever been powerful enough to pit the Razorbacks and Red Wolves in men’s competition.

Arkansas State visited the unfriendly confines of Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville on March 13, 1987, and it took overtime to separate the two as the Razorbacks slipped out with a 67-64 victory.

Barnhill was already dubbed “Barnhell” because it was one of the toughest gyms in the country for a visitor to get a victory.

For those who missed it, Barnhill was a renovated arena where the seating went almost straight up, so the crowd noise flooded the court.

The night Arkansas State visited was the most electric atmosphere yours truly has ever experienced.

The Hog calls reverberated off the rafters, and somehow a group of ASU fans had secured enough tickets to be heard as well.

With so little interest in the NIT and so much in the NCAA Tournament, ESPN needs games that will attract attention. So if things fall in place, it would not be surprising to see a rematch 26 years later.

Right now, neither team is a lock for the postseason and, make no mistake, both are focused on March Madness, which is anything but insignificant.

The Razorbacks’ RPI of 80 makes them a factor for the NIT, but they are 8-6 in SEC play and 17-10 overall with four games remaining, and none of the games could be called an automatic victory.

Tonight they face LSU, which is coming off an overtime victory against Alabama, an NCAA Tournament bubble team. The Razorbacks then host Kentucky, which is scrapping for its Big Dance life, before going to Missouri, where payback is a prominent motivation for the Tigers, and finally host Texas A&M before heading to the SEC Tournament.

John Brady knows he has more work to do. One thing about the ASU coach, he always has a plan. Don’t be surprised if he finds a way to the winner’s circle of the Sun Belt Tournament and raises the team’s RPI from 138.

The Red Wolves are 12-6 in conference play and 18-9 overall, but they close out the season on the road at North Texas - where Brady’s biggest challenge might be to keep them from looking ahead - and at archrival UALR on Saturday before going to Hot Springs for the conference tournament.

If ESPN can justify it, look for both to get invites to the NIT and be set up for a second-round game in Walton Arena.

Sports, Pages 22 on 02/27/2013